At one of Zak Hilditch’s talkbacks during Fantastic Fest, an audience member pointed out that the three successful Stephen King adaptations on the big screen this week (It, Gerald’s Game, and now 1922) all managed to keep the Master of Horror’s weirdness intact. In the past, the filmmakers of so many lesser King adaptations approached his work from a stance of normalization and sanitization: How do you tone something down, rather than honor the vision of the writer?
Not to beat a dead horse, but look at It and compare that film to this summer’s The Dark Tower. In one instance, you have a production where the studio allowed the filmmakers to show graphic violence towards children — an essential element of the novel when conveying the terror of the story’s antagonist. Even if there wasn’t the screen time to dive into the cosmic origins of the creature, Andy Muschietti kept its spirit intact by creating a film that is, at the end of the day, strange as hell, especially for a Hollywood blockbuster.
In The Dark Tower, though, no one had the balls to tackle the violence, surrealism, or extended multiverse of King’s most beloved series. Instead, the film suffered from the creators simplifying everything. And lo and behold, audiences didn’t buy it. When comparing the box office returns of both films, it turns out the movie-going public — and, to a larger extent, millions of Stephen King fans — didn’t want simplification. They didn’t want their King adaptation to be streamlined and dumbed down. They wanted the grisly violence, the twisted lore. They wanted the weird.
Not surprisingly, the other two films that make up the holy triumvirate of the King Renaissance were granted the same freedom as It, which can be chalked up to their partnership with Netflix. Every day, the studio’s original programming becomes a stronger force to be reckoned with, and it’s not because everything they churn out is solid gold, either. In fact, some of it sucks. But the blame can usually be placed on the creative team, and that’s a good thing, people. You want a studio to put faith in its storytellers, and you want those same storytellers to feel permitted to be brave, while also feeling permitted to fail. Nothing defangs a horror movie like a studio lording over you, expecting to turn something shocking into something more ubiquitous and (shudder) family-friendly. Maybe that results in some blunders. But it also results in films like 1922.
To be clear, the source material from which 1922 is based upon is King at his nastiest. There’s a reason it’s part of a collection called Full Dark No Stars. Like the book’s other three stories — two of which have already been made into lesser King adaptations — there is no light at the end of the tunnel for many of its characters. The texts are more drawn to the idea of reckoning; of depicting the worst in humanity and making them pay for their sins. Or, even more frightening, allowing them to get away scot-free.
In 1922‘s case, the despicable protagonist is Wilfred James (Thomas Jane), a Nebraskan farmer in the early 20th century. When his wife Arlette (Molly Parker) wants to sell her neighboring land to a meatpacking company from Chicago, he knows it will make his own land unfarmable. But Arlette remains steadfast, wanting to break free from rural life and move them and their son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), to the city. Divorce is discussed, no compromise can be made, and Wilfred eventually decides to slit his wife’s throat with the help of his son, and then throw the body in a well.
All of this happens early on, and the rest of the film finds the father and son tormented by their actions. If we boil the movie down to its elevator pitch, it’s essentially a piss-and-vinegar riff on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart”, only with the beating heart switched out with the rats that keep burrowing into Arlette’s corpse.
Spending so much time with a homicidal farmer who’s more concerned with his pride than his moral integrity likely isn’t for everyone, and writer/director Hilditch knows this. Even so, he never pulls any punches for his depiction of the James family, and it’s a wise move on his part. Wilfred and Henry are flawed for obvious reasons, but even Arlette proves to be cold and sharp-tongued. In fact, it’s her crude comments about Henry’s girlfriend, their neighbor Shannon Cotterie (Kaitlyn Bernard), that finally convinces the boy to go through with their crime. As such, Hilditch is never concerned with keeping any of them likable — just realistic. And by keeping the snail’s pace of the novella intact, he’s able to realistically trace why murderers commit their horrible sins. It’s not an endorsement, just a nihilistic and accurate presentation. The more we buy into the act itself, the more we’ll buy into the inevitable spiritual fallout.
It helps that Hilditch cast Jane in the central role. Along with Carla Gugino’s turn in Gerald’s Game, Netflix has two of the strongest performances in any King adaptation to date. But where Gugino’s performance combined the emotionally raw with the physically grueling, Jane’s role is more about quiet calculation. He says every line without moving his jaw, sucking on his teeth to convey the image of a vulpine-eyed killer who views everyone as a threat to his land.
Even with Jane’s strong performance, 1922 still could have been a sober, fairly unremarkable story about rural crime, and that brings us back to that crucial element of weirdness. Also like Gerald’s Game, Hilditch relies on King’s bizarre imagery to make an otherwise normal setting unique. 1922 isn’t supernatural, per se (any paranormal elements come from Wilfred’s unreliable narration), but the camera slowly creeps around the cornfield as if Randall Flagg is lurking behind each stalk. Remember, Hemingford Home, Nebraska, is the setting of many King stories that do happen to be supernatural. Flagg and other dark beings have walked these rows many times before. The Chicago meatpacking plant even has the name “Farrington” tacked to it, one of Flagg’s many aliases.
I bring all this up not to perpetuate some King shadow conspiracy that 1922 is a spiritual cousin of The Stand. What I’m getting at is Hilditch — like Gerald’s Game director Mike Flanagan — knows that, even with the pathos behind it, this is still a horror story. Keep the morally reprehensible characters. Keep the violence. Keep the corpse hallucinations, even if they become a bit much in the final shots. Keep the rats and all the grisly things they can do to both Wilfred and his livestock. Keep the weirdness.