In theory, it’s a thrilling time to be a Stephen King fan.
The legendary horror author has four film adaptations hitting this year. The first was the flashy but fizzled Dark Tower. Then hit the sinister box office smash IT. Coming to Netflix next week will be the controversial thriller Gerald’s Game, and following on the streaming service in October will be 1922, a Thomas Jane-fronted adaptation of a lesser-known King novella. Having seen the film at its world premiere at Fantastic Fest, I’m thinking it should have stayed obscure.
Grumbling a gruff Southern drawl, Jane stars Wilfred James, a farmer and family man whose self worth is deeply embedded in both these roles. At first glance, his rural life seems simple but idyllic. But tensions bubble before the opening credits even end. When Wilfred’s wife Arlette (Molly Parker) declares she wants a divorce and to sell off their farmland, he’s less than amendable to the idea. Before you can say ‘irreconcilable differences,’ Wilfred not only decides his wife must be murdered, but also that their 14-year-old son Henry (Dylan Schmid) must be a party to it.
You might guess the murder is something slowly pushed toward, spinning suspense and dread along the way. Nope. Writer/director Zak Hilditch stages this crucial killing at the top of act two. But despite a grisly close-up of Arlette’s sloppily slit throat, there’s not much horror to be found here. Hilditch races so hastily through the story’s setup that the James family doesn’t feel like flesh and blood but rather rushed whispers of tired stereotypes: the nagging wife, doting son, and stern father. When Arlette’s life is being ripped away from her, I was lost in wondering why she had been so determined to leave. Why was their son so easily swayed to murder his mother? How did this once happy family fester? Sure, there’s exposition crumbs dropped about aspirations of a big city dress shop and the setup of Henry’s infatuation with the farm girl next door. But without taking the time to develop these characters, nothing that follows has much impact.
With the crime committed in the first twenty minutes, the rest of the 101 minutes become a tiresome meditation on Wilfred’s grief, made manifest by a visions of his mutilated wife’s corpse and a swarm of rats he believes does her bidding. If you’re scared of rats, then I suppose 1922would be frightening to you. But while they are creepy critters in this movie, it all feels tame compared to King’s more typical fare of killer clowns, axe-wielding innkeepers and blood-drenched prom queens. Besides that, Wilfred is such a thoroughly despicable individual, that it feels mildly torturous to be stuck with him through this journey, where he steadily makes one alienating decision after another until he loses everything but regrets and those damned rats. Nor can his downfall be relished, because it’s a slowly trudged toward foregone conclusion thanks to a hackneyed framing device.
To his credit, Jane gives a great performance. Speaking always in a restrained snarl through locked teeth, he gives Wilfred a mix of Southern geniality and masculine menace that’s almost compelling in spite of the insipid script. In her brief screen time as the spiky wife, Parker is exciting. But too soon she becomes just another dead girl, more prop than person. Playing the corrupted Henry, Schmid is promising. His big mournful eyes swallow audience empathy like a thirsty duckling. But before long the story’s lost him, and we’re left with a sick, sad, wicked man bumbling around his farm house alone and miserable.
Bled dry of suspense and true horror, 1922 is a dismal affair. Perhaps Hilditch was aiming for slow-burn horror, but all he mustered was a patience-trying bore.
1 1/2 burritos out of 5.