Tag Archives: Molly Parker

‘1922’ Reveals the Darkest Side of Stephen King

It may come as a surprise to those who only know the man’s work through reputation and shared cultural shorthand, but Stephen King is actually something of a soft-touch—at least when it comes to his lengthy novels. For all the murders, monsters, and mayhem essayed by King’s pen, his work is more often about the persistence of hope in the face of evil than it is about triumphant evil. While victory over the forces of darkness is always hard won and often impermanent, rare is the Stephen King novel or novella that ends in abject darkness and ruin.

Many of the most notoriously unsettling endings affiliated with King’s work are in fact the product of adaptations rather than the actual text. The Shining’s frozen labyrinth, Carrie’s final nightmare, the legendary punchline to The Mistthese are the inventions of their respective films. Brilliantly nasty and brutalist punctuation marks added to stories that King preferred to end on an ellipsis.

King famously does not outline or plan out his stories in advance, preferring to discover them as he writes them. As such, his own affection for his characters often leads to seemingly-doomed individuals finding ways to stave off authorial-mandated mortality. Misery was meant to end with its hero, author Paul Sheldon, not only killed by the infamous Annie Wilkes, but his entrails fed to Annie’s pet pigs while his skin was fashioned into binding for a special edition of his own novel. Yet the more King wrote, the more Paul Sheldon kept himself alive and the longer Misery grew. The book ends with Paul managing to survive his ordeal. Maimed? Yes. Traumatized? Oh good lord, yes. But he does survive.

Although, just because King usually doesn’t take his readers to places of ultimate darkness doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t. The examples of this are legendary within circles of horror fans and Uncle Stevie’s own constant readers.

There’s Pet Sematary, a novel so bleak and unsparing that King himself declined to publish it for years after its completion.

There’s Revival, a tale so stunning in its nihilism that it can only be discussed in hushed tones.

And then there’s 1922.

Originally published in the collection Full Dark, No Stars, the novella was faithfully adapted into a deeply unsettling film by director Zak Hilditch and released with little fanfare on Netflix in 2017 in the midst of a run of much higher-profile King adaptations. 

At the point when we meet protagonist Wilfred ‘Wilf’ James (Thomas Jane), he has abandoned even trying to pretend like he might escape his fate. Wilf seeks only to live long enough to finish writing out a confession to his multitude of crimes.

One crime in particular stands paramount above all others. In 1922—when he was still just a mostly honest, oft-broke farmer—Wilf got into a dispute with his wife, Arlette (Molly Parker), over a parcel of land that she owned and wished to sell (even if selling meant the blighting of Wilf’s own farmland). Wilf, in turn, convinced their teenaged son Henry (Dylan Schmid) to help him murder Arlette and dispose of the body.

While the murder is a success—that sounds very wrong to write out, but you get what I mean—it nonetheless sets off a chain of disasters that in turn result in the destruction of everything Wilf loves. Henry is driven to embark on a short-lived crime spree that culminates in not only his own death but that of his pregnant girlfriend.

Ordinarily, the nasty kick of this sort of downward spiral narrative lies within the sense of escalation. How bad are things going to get? Is there any way for our main characters to worm their way out from under the hammerblow coming down on them? Do we, the audience, even want them to escape?

As a recent example, look to Guillermo del Toro’s excellent adaptation of Nightmare Alley. That film, like its source novel, takes us through the laborious process of the self-immolation of Bradley Cooper’s character’s mind, body, and soul. Maximum tension and jet-black humor is wrung from watching a terrible person dig themselves deeper and deeper into a Hell they increasingly deserve.

This principle goes doubly for more straightforward horror. To paraphrase one of the more infamous taglines associated with the genre, we sit down to watch a horror film in order to find out who will survive, and what will be left of them. If we have those details provided to us before the first reel even gets underway (metaphorically speaking, this is a Netflix movie after all), then what tension is there to exploit?

Yet 1922 does just that. We know these men are doomed from the moment the film begins, and this knowledge casts an even more frigid pall over the proceedings than even the film’s icy cinematography. Rather than a noir-ish exercise in heightening suspense and delicious just-desserts, 1922 is a tightening noose you begin to feel around your neck. It’s the proverbial slow motion train wreck—too horrifying and too captivating for you to ever dare look away.

It would be easy for either or both story and film to be a stultifying slog through relentless misery. But just as King’s commanding authorial voice keeps the pages turning, the gorgeous, oppressive mood of the film—paired with Jane’s arresting and eccentric performance—keeps the viewer riveted to their seat for the duration.

Late in the film, a ghastly, undead vision of Arlette appears to Wilf and whispers to him, “things that only a dead woman could know,” specifically the violent, lonely death their son will soon meet. The information itself is not the torture. The torture is Wilf’s absolute powerlessness to prevent this awful future from occurring even with all his foreknowledge.

1922 capitalizes on inevitability for its own delectable form of torture. It’s not just the violence, and the heartbreak, and the horror that affects the viewer so deeply. It’s seeing the violence, and the heartbreak, and the horror take shape before your eyes, knowing that there is no way to halt any of the damned course. This is a crueler sort of horror than viewers are accustomed to, and perhaps it is that cruelty that makes 1922 a prickly film that is difficult to categorize or recommend to a casual viewer looking for a macabre bit of fun. 1922 remains unique even within the ever-expanding canon of Stephen King adaptations, a beguiling black diamond that dares confront the face of absolute hopelessness and offers no sanctuary or reprieve. Doomed is doomed, whether we deserve it or not.