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Unnerving ‘1922’ continues Stephen King’s victory lap in film

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Preston Barta

What a year it has been for Stephen King adaptations. Ignoring the lackluster Dark Tower (which we half expected would fall anyway after production troubles), last month’s It and Gerald’s Game brought the renowned author back into the limelight. While he never left, his adaptations before this year didn’t much leave a mark on cinema like the '80s and '90s.

Fortunately, 2017 has given his work a pulse again, and that is sustained by the haunting 1922.

Available to stream on Netflix today, 1922 dives into a profound story of guilt akin to the works of Edgar Allan Poe and King’s The Shining (though more toned down). It centers on a rancher (Thomas Jane) who plots to murder his city-dazed wife (Molly Parker) for a quiet country life and financial gain, and he does so with the help of his teenage son (Dylan Schmid).

As one could imagine, adapting King is not easily done, yet filmmaker Zak Hilditch (These Final Hours) handles it with grace, even expanding upon King’s horror and sense of dread.

“[1922] is my first adaptation ever, and the fact that it’s King added some pressure,” Hilditch said. “Thankfully, he left the story in such good shape thematically. The first time I read this story I saw it as a film — a father does the most horrible thing to keep his paradise alive. To explore that psyche and delve into these ordinary people who find themselves caught in an extraordinary situation, it was, as strange as it sounds, a real joy.”

The film’s story unquestionably bears resemblance to Poe’s "A Tell-Tale Heart" — an 1843 gothic short story about a man who kills another, but his sanity hangs in balance as guilt from the murder weighs down his conscience. Both narratives offer sinister lessons of greed and domestic disputes. Through their richly layered downward spirals, audiences can’t help but empathize with the protagonists’ journeys as they attempt to keep their world stable with every step made creating more consequences.

“The idea from King’s story, and the concept I tried to carry over to the screen, was to present people who you could understand, no matter how flawed they are or how horrible the acts they commit. That’s a testament to King’s ability as a storyteller; he has a knack for getting underneath his characters’ skin. It’s as if you’ll read on one page and think, ‘Oh, don’t do that,’ and on the next, ‘I sure hope they get away with it,’” Hilditch quipped.

To Hilditch, the most memorable films are the ones that lean more on character than plot. In 1922, the dynamic between the father and son, along with the film’s many themes (spite, fury and paranoia, to name a few), are what drive the narrative forward.

“It’s stories like this that are more compelling to me, the ones that don’t get caught up in plot mechanics or convoluted storytelling,” Hilditch said. “I like simple stories with complex characters, and 1922 was like that in spades to me.”

King’s original story painted the most pivotal scene — the murder of the mother — quite brutally. It was important to Hilditch to showcase that violent act, but also insert more humanity and reason.

“The level of detail in King’s story is horrific. But what I wanted to focus on was the pure brutality of what he had done with his own son.  The father tries to convince himself and the boy that everything was going to be fine. With a simple procedure, the mother would be gone and they could live happily for the rest of their lives, but as you'll see, they are challenged by their actions.”

2017 is not just a big year for King, but also a big year for Netflix. At the Austin-based film festival Fantastic Fest last month, the streaming service and distribution company premiered three titles of exceptional quality, including 1922 and Gerald's Game. The level of craft since Netflix’s break into original filmmaking has arguably improved, and Hilditch plays a key role in bridge of the two.

“I was aware that there were other King productions going on and we estimated how many of them were going to land in 2017 one after the other. It was inevitable that it was going to be like this with how much source material he has out there,” Hilditch said. “I learned that Netflix is the perfect place to be making movies like Gerald's Game and this [1922], films that don’t necessarily fit into a specific box has a little bit of something for everyone. No one would be able to make a movie like 1922, except for Netflix. Without them, it probably never would have been made.”

Like Gerald's Game, 1922 proves that the disintegration of the human psyche is more effective in creating terror than the sight of a killer clown or things that go bump in the night. For anyone who is trying to bury guilt of their own, the film's take on never leaving the world unscathed is the scariest thing of all.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter @PrestonBarta.

FEATURED IMAGE: Thomas Jane plays Wilfred James, a midwestern farmer haunted by a brutal choice he made. Photo courtesy of Netflix.