Monday, April 6, 2015
Castle Rock Companion - Rose Red
Rose Red began its life as an attempted collaboration between Stephen King and Steven Spielberg to do a remake of The Haunting, a film which is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House. It would seem that King always wanted that separation, as while this story borrows certain elements from Jackson's novel, he also used it to go off in his own direction. He was also clearly inspired by the Winchester Mystery House, and brought in elements from that real life house as well. As such, this is largely King's first attempt at adapting someone else's work for the screen. The King/Spielberg collaboration fizzled because Spielberg reportedly wanted more action than what King gave him. Someone else eventually remade The Haunting, and King took that script and turned it into this mini-series. Work began before his tragic accident where he was hit by a van while running in 1999, but was finished while he was in recovery.
I bring this up because, at least for me personally, I find a distinctive lull in King's work for a few years after the accident. The man was in serious pain and considered giving up on writing all together near this time, and I certainly don't blame him. In time I think his experience aided his writing and gave him something to add to his stories, but for a while there I think his work suffered.
The mini-series starts off strong, introducing us first to young Annie Wheaton, a girl with powers very similar to King's Carrie White and The Haunting of Hill House's Eleanor Vance. From there the story jumps ahead ten years and we meet our cast of characters. There is Dr. Joyce Reardon, a professor determined to provide scientific proof of the paranormal, as well as a group of people with paranormal abilities that she assembles to inspect the haunted house Rose Red. They all have a wide range of powers from being able to touch an object and see its history to being able to see ghosts, but Joyce believes the clincher is to bring young Annie to Rose Red in order to fully unlock all the power of the house and get her evidence. She's also been sleeping with Steve Rimbauer in order to gain access to the house to conduct her experiments. There's a nice amount of movement and tension as we meet all these players and we learn that the head of the university Joyce works for strongly disapproves of her interests and sets a young ambitious reporter from the school's newspaper after her to catch her red handed using university equipment.
At the same time we are exposed to the history of Rose Red itself and the Rimbauer family who built it. While initially John Rimbauer built the house as a gift to his new wife Ellen, she eventually takes it to a whole new level, taking the advice of a fraud psychic who tells her the house must continually be constructed and never finished. If she does this, Ellen will live forever. She takes the advice and continues to do so, ignoring the fact that men have a history of dying in the house and that women (and even her young daughter) have a history of disappearing in its vast, seemingly changing corridors. Ellen herself even disappears among its halls eventually. The house was open for tours for a time, but the disappearance of an actress closed the house for good and Steve is quite eager to tear the whole thing down, but has agreed to allow Joyce to do this study first.
Unfortunately, once the full cast has assembled at the house, things slow down to a crawl. The young reporter arrived at the house before everyone else with the intention to snoop on them, but he's quickly killed by the house. He employs terrible scary movie logic, walking right into a swarm of bees for no good reason and shaking doors pointlessly when we've already seen that he has keys to the house. As the others arrive they find evidence of his death and wander the rooms a bit but not much else. Since we've already been told the history of the house, there's virtually nothing new to tell us, and the plot drags on.
I believe a large part of what King was trying to do around this time is to keep us guessing along with the characters as to what is real and what is not. But when characters wander off for a time and then are apparently taken as fact as dead thereafter, it becomes truly confusing. And they continue to make boneheaded choices, like Emery, the character who sees spirits, choosing to believe that one of his companions is already a ghost and therefore ignoring his cries for help. Emery is also just all around annoying. Matt Ross wears this permanent lip curled sneer on his face that is just ridiculous, and speaks in a terrible nasal whiny nerd voice. Like his name counterpart in The Stand, Harold Emery Lauder, this is King bringing nerd stereotypes to the extreme. At least Harold was pitiable, this Emery is just terrible, being needlessly cruel to young Annie and helping to doom Victor.
The house does what it does, killing off male characters and getting female characters lost, but for me at least, none of it is shown in a particularly compelling way. We learn that Ellen killed her husband John with the help of her friend and servant Sukeena, but it was pretty obvious from the start that his jump out the window was not a suicide, so it's no big revelation. Ellen's daughter April's disappearance is tainted for me, because she sings "I'm a Little Teapot" in the halls and it left me baffled wondering if this was some kind of inside joke between King and director Craig R. Baxley, or just them trying to make a call back to Storm of the Century.
It's not all bad though, as the effects used in the film are spectacular. The shriveled moving corpses that haunt the house are genuinely horrifying, and a scene with a statue of Ellen coming to life (and tearing off her face to get a look at what is behind her) is also fantastic. There's a few CGI elements that don't work, like the aforementioned bees and the ghosts, but they're more than made up for with the other creepy effects and great set design. It's just a shame that the story largely fizzles around it.
The house happily welcomes Annie, who becomes fascinated with a dollhouse recreation she finds within it. Joyce convinces her to keep them all trapped inside the place so she can study the effects, while everyone else eventually works to convince Annie to let them leave. If Joyce were more interesting and compelling I might be more caught up in this, but the fact is the moment she smeared her blood all over the face of her employer to scare him she revealed herself as a complete nut, and beyond her one talk with Annie she mostly sits back in the main hall of the house and giggles gleefully while her companions die. She receives a comeuppance for her actions but I find myself nonplussed about it all. There was a really good set up here, but the actual events in the house simply don't live up to it. I find myself wishing that King had decided to keep things closer to The House on Haunted Hill, or even his own The Shining, so that maybe all those spirits calling on Annie and wanting her to stay would have actually become something.
There's such a divide between the quality of the writing in part one versus that of parts two and three that I'm not at all surprised to learn it was a project divided by King's hit-and-run accident. The first part is so measured, so steadily woven together as we introduce Annie with a scene reworked from Carrie's origin, which King himself partially lifted from backstory of The Haunting of Hill House. Then we're on to Joyce, learning about the ropes her career is on, all the hopes she's hinging on the study of the massive edifice of Rose Red, teaching us an intricately detailed backstory of the house. It's almost too much detail, and definitely speaks to the padding of this material from a single screenplay to a miniseries of not just two, but three parts. And yet, I like it, as it is great haunted house lore, centered on the character study of Ellen Rimbauer, for whom everything seemed to go wrong as her tragedy spread into this cancer of a house. It'll be interesting to see the prequel movie which followed, because I honestly don't know how much story is left to tell.
Though she goes off in later parts (which I mostly blame on the writing), I quite like Nancy Travis as Joyce Reardon, and think she does a nice job mixing the charm of the character and her stabs of intensity. Yeah, the scene with the blood was a bit of a giveaway as to how far she was going to go, but I never felt like that was meant to be a surprise, as she's the Captain Ahab entering her own white whale, and such studies are allowed to tip their hand early. Shame it fumbled the followup. Then we get our group of psychics, who are mostly well cast and well played. The standouts for me are the luscious Julian Sands as Nick, who often falls into the defacto lead of the group due to his ability to laugh off anything terrifying, and the dabbling spread of his power giving him a sense of where everyone's individual strengths lie. And then there's Kimberly Brown as Annie. Annie is a tough character, given the nature of her powers and how they've either led to or are tied with a difficulty functionally connecting with people and destructively lashing out when aggravated. While I appreciate the effort to explore a character with what's labelled as "autism", King's actual handling is wildly inconsistent and feels as unresearched as his often (and rightly so) mocked and criticized portrayals of mentally disabled characters, and there's times where it comes off just as eye-rollingly stupid here. Brown, though, gives it her best, and I like her bashful smiles and piercing glares.
And then there's Emery. I'll get to Emery. Oh, Emery.
So introduction, yes, great stuff. In fact, this first part reminds me a lot of "Before the Plan", the extended, excised prologue to The Shining which set up heaps of backstory for the ghosts which would later come into play. I understand why that was trimmed, but what we get here works better because we're learning it through the characters, as they process and question the info in ways which equally tell up about them. And at the heart of it is the true series protagonist, Steven Rimbauer. I'll get to him in a moment, as well.
Once we get to the second half, that's where it spirals out of control. Even during the early tour of the house, things begin to feel scattershot and random as we'll jump between disconnected scenes or characters are acting contradictory to how they just were in scenes prior, with powers and dynamics flopping around inconsistently. This feels harried and rushed, like King wasn't fully paying attention as he just burned through the rest of the script in fits and starts. There's no flow to any of it, many builds lack payoffs, scares are random instead of, as I usually expect from King, rooted in the actual characters. For example, Pam is an entirely pointless character who does nothing plot-wise before being axed off early in a way that leaves behind no actual impact. She's mentioned and sighted a few more times, but hardly in any meaningful way. Yes, there's using her ghost to lure Vic to his demise, but that could just as easily have been the old actress spectre we also see about. And speaking of Vic, while his death had a nice dramatic punch, not to mention the gruesome linger of his unreachable corpse, there's no point in the narrative where he ever gets to actually use his powers or service the story before also being axed early. And Sister keeps swinging between explaining how Annie works and telling Annie to stop doing the very things Sister just explained. And Cathy again doesn't get to do much involving her powers of spirit writing (which do play into the big climax, though I can't for the life of me explain how or why), and instead settles into being the pious Christian woman often escaping from horrors through the constant whispering of prayers.
As for the ghosts of the house, there's little rhyme or reason to any of their actions or tactics, or why certain ghosts appear to certain people, or behaviors or motives, most of which almost entirely negates the point of having so thoroughly established their backstories to begin with. And it doesn't help that the effects are a mixed bag. Yes, the sets are fantastic, the miniature of the full house is great, and there's some nice animatronic ghoul puppets (agree that the statue scene is a major highlight), but there's so many bad digital overlays and morphs and traveling mattes and whatever that is rippling under the rug, that never did I actually get scared during any of this, especially with the characters inconsistently blundering into their own demises like the type of cheap horror victims a massive production like this should be above. And what the hell was with that fake rat springing out at Nick!
Now for Steve and Emery, which were my favorite parts of the second and third episodes. Not because they were great, but amidst all the scattershot randomness, they at least had some interesting arcs.
Yes, Emery is annoying. He's really, really fucking annoying, and is one of those frequent occurrences of a part over-written by King colliding with an actor over-playing it, especially whenever his mother is involved. And yet, I don't entirely unsympathize with the character, because he is in a tough spot, forced wildly outside his comfort zone, and faced by visions his powers can't easily drive away. While he again overplays his antagonism toward Annie, whom he rightfully blames for being the psychic channel through which they're all being attacked and held, especially in a moment costing him half his fingers, it's a believable antagonism and plays a necessary part in the debate over what they should do now. It gets points for never quite going where I expect it to, with his attempts to kill her grinding to a halt when she animates an axe-wielding suit of armor to go after him, and it then becomes a story of him finally having to take action to escape his mother. His mother is handled horribly in this story, running around the woods shouting for an hour (along with the professor who never again should have reappeared), then tied to the floor shouting for an hour. Good lord did she shout a lot. But when she's trying to drag him into the house with her, that's a good moment and a nice end to his arc as he finally pulls away, and among those seen in the epilogue, I'm most happy to see he's grown and moved on from constantly spewing the misery he's suffered.
And as for Steve, it's not a complicated arc, but I like how he goes from the loser yuppie sleeping with the boss and eager to unload the family homestead to becoming the surprise protagonist, forging a connection with Annie and having to face the legacy of his ancestors who are also using him as a channel through which they continue to cling to the past and feed on the present. The romance between him and Sister isn't needed and falls flat, but he's a good anchor to keep the team focused and moving, especially when Nick is swept away by whatever the hell that thing in the carpet was.
Overall, it's a mess of a miniseries, and a huge step back from King's previous collaboration with Baxley, Storm of the Century. It starts off well, but then loses focus and completely falls apart. It never scared me, very little moved me, and by the time we reached the end, I'd already spent a good hour waiting for it to be over. It's just not good. It was interesting to see King's take on The Haunting of Hill House, and I do wish I could read that original screenplay he wrote, but the resulting miniseries is so scattered and drawn out that I'll gladly take the actual remake of The Haunting, as silly of a mess as it also is, over what we get here.
On a final note, I have read "The Glass Floor", King's 1967 short story (his first professional sale!), which served as inspiration for one of the room in the house. It's not a very good story, stumbling through some awkward character beats involving a dude investigating the death of his sister. But when he actually steps into the room, it's a great bit of visual prose as he experiences a maddening case of vertigo, as the mirrored floor also lies below a mirrored ceiling. Here, they do very little with the mirroring effect, which is further lessened by the lack of mirrors above and the CGI ripple to the glass which erases the effect of a perfect polish. Would love to see another crack at that sequence some day.