Months from now, or maybe years, we’ll probably look at Zak Hilditch’s “1922” as the most essential Stephen King adaptation produced in 2017. Competition is stiff: Andy Muschietti’s “It” and Mike Flanagan’s “Gerald’s Game,” respectively released in theaters and on Netflix in September, both successfully translate King’s work from page to screen, no small feat being as consensus qualifies their source materials as “unfilmable.” (Grant that Nikolaj Arcel’s attempt at turning “The Dark Tower” into cinema failed spectacularly, but grant also that perhaps he had a tougher assignment.)
Muschietti’s aesthetic sense and broadcasted scares make “It” feel like a spooky carnival ride. Flanagan’s humanity enhances the horror of “Gerald’s Game.” They’re an altogether superb pair of King interpretations that maintain faith to his vision in spite of minor divergences they make from their texts. But “1922,” in contrast to its screen cousins, hews closest to the King story it’s based on, one of the quartet of novellas published in the collection “Full Dark, No Stars” back in 2010; it’s the purest version of its original author’s purpose, and affirmation that the very best King stories don’t endure because of raw commercial appeal but because of his impressive talent for fostering suspense, sustaining mood, and drilling down to his characters’ interior particulars. The guy knows what scares us, and what scares us most is usually, well, us.
“1922” follows this idea all the way to its darkest logical conclusion, spinning a tale of a man who engineers his family’s destruction, as well as his own, by way of self-interest. Demonic cannibal clowns lurking in sewers are high up there on the all-time list of stuff that’s scary; hallucinations of your dead pervert husband, plus a deformed phantasm, have a special spot in that collection, too. But there’s a category of horror that exists to remind audiences that there’s nothing quite as terrifying as a human being bent on fulfilling a goal no matter the cost; the moral of this story is less “man is the cruelest animal,” more “man wants what he wants, will get what he wants, and will also get what he deserves.” The silver lining in “1922” the protagonist achieves what he sets out to do in the end, but that silver lining is stained with blood and guilt.
If you’ve read the novella, you already know the premise. Wilfred James (Thomas Jane), a proud and plainspoken farmer in the American midwest, owns eighty acres of family land. His wife, Arlette (Molly Parker), similarly owns a hundred acres adjoined to Wilfred’s, a gift willed to her by her dad. Wilfred loves farm life; Arlette loathes it. She tries to persuade Wilfred to pack up, sell their land, and move to Omaha, and Wilfred naturally bristles at the thought, so much so that he decides that with the help of their son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), to bump her off. They do. It isn’t pretty. Wilfred hides her corpse in a well, and everything starts to unravel for the remaining James family members from there. (It’s the rats. Leave a dead body on your property, well, that’s basically an invitation for hungry rodents to move in.)
There’s a deliciously macabre quality to “1922” that, maybe unsurprisingly, recalls the kind of “damnation via greed” trope that’s so common in “Tales From the Crypt” canon; if not for his stubborn refusal of Arlette’s needs, none of the bad things that happen in the film would actually happen. In a short-form narrative, that arc likely necessitates Wilfred being an all-around awful human being; with only twenty to thirty minutes of space to tell a story, positioning him as pure scum makes economic sense. With an hour and forty minutes of creative space, though, Hilditch has the freedom to work closely with Jane and fully realize Wilfred as a character, for better and for worse (with a greater emphasis on “worse”). Wilfred isn’t a workaday ne’er-do-well. He isn’t a dumb stereotype, either. It’s true that Jane, apparently an aural shapeshifter, takes to Wilfred’s regional drawl with such stunning ease that you won’t recognize him with your ears even as your eyes validate his identity. It’s also true that his accent is oft-associated with ingrained stupidity. But as foolish and extreme as Wilfred may be, he isn’t stupid. His speech belies the grim logic of his thought process.
“1992” is Wilfred’s story, which makes it Jane’s movie. Hilditch might be the director, but Jane is the hinge the film swivels on. He’s in nearly every single shot, and even when he isn’t, he has a presence that looms over all images tangential to him; Wilfred is a simple man, but authoritative in his own down-home way. His farm is his kingdom. He’ll hold onto his kingdom as long as he’s able, and by whatever means he must. Maybe his long-term planning sucks (okay, definitely his long-term planning sucks), but Jane’s magnetism marries with a self-awareness that’s visible in every action Wilfred takes. This union between charisma and perception lends him immediate indelibility, whether couched in Jane’s filmography or King’s long assembly of doomed heroes. Bill Skarsgårdmade himself memorable just by equaling Tim Curry’s work as Pennywise in the 1990 miniseries adaptation of “It.” Jane makes himself memorable in “1922” by making himself indispensable. Without him, this is a very different, less urgent movie.
With him, it’s a must-watch, both on its own merits and as the umpteenth King film released this year. “1922” is a ghastly slow burner, not the kind where nothing happens until the last ten minutes, but rather the kind that layers minor incident upon minor incident until they tally up to something major. Is Wilfred’s misfortune the product of vengeance from beyond the grave, or is merely fate? You can mull that one over after Hilditch cuts to black from his final shot, which echoes “Trick ‘r Treat” as much as the rest of the movie echoes the style of EC Comics. But the pulp references only round out “1922” as a nastily grounded piece of work. This is serious horror worth savoring. [B+]