1922 Review (Film, 2017)

  1922  movie poster, featuring Wilf standing in the cornfield with a bloodied hand.

1922 movie poster, featuring Wilf standing in the cornfield with a bloodied hand.

It is not a popular opinion, but it is one that I've held for as long as I've seriously studied and written about horror. I believe that Stephen King is at his best in the short story format. The longer he writes a narrative, the more convoluted it becomes. His short stories, as strange as some of them are, focus on singular ideas and tell them well. The novels and even the novellas tend to derail themselves with more and more ideas until the ending bears little resemblance to the beginning.

1922 is one of the more interesting cases that teeters on the edge of changing my mind. Originally published as part of Full Dark, No Stars (an anthology of novellas), I found the novella to be an interesting mix of references to horror literature as a whole. There's a clear borrowed throughline from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat"--a mischief of rats replace the cat, but they prove just as immortal. He also riffs on small town murder and shockingly organized crime. The latter tends to stick to his short stories ("The Death of Jack Hamilton" is one of his best), but the former has received many cinematic adaptations--MiserySecret WindowDelores Claiborne, and more. 

1922, the film and novel, announce themselves clearly. Wilfred James, going by Wilf, admits to murdering his wife, Arlette, with the help of his son, Henry, at the start of the story. There's a massive rift in their marriage over whether or not to sell Arlette's inherited farmland--stricken with blight and unprofitable--as a way to move to the city. Arlette wants to leave, Wilf wants to stay, and Wilf uses Henry to manipulate and eventually murder Arlette.

Were this a King short story, that would be the plot on its own. It's not. It's a novella, if not a particularly long one, and starts to layer in the narrative elements and references from there. The surviving James fight against lawyers, city hall, their neighbors, and what may be the reincarnated spirit of Arlette in a never-ending series of rats crawling out of a dry well. The film adaptation avoids some of the more mundane asides, but still has to cover a lot of territory that creates an inconsistent tone for the film.

 Wilf looks down into the dry well where he hid the evidence of his crimes. Surely nothing could literally come back to haunt him from down there?

Wilf looks down into the dry well where he hid the evidence of his crimes. Surely nothing could literally come back to haunt him from down there?

1922, in any form, is a hybrid narrative. The film, especially, has a hard shift between a hard period family drama and a synth-heavy past will always haunt you horror. The synth plays a big part in the disconnect.

The score, while very good for a horror film, is inconsistent. The music appears in the direct horror scenes and nowhere else. The style of scoring lends itself to paranormal violence, but there's no logical reason why the day to day scenes are so silent. Silence in a horror film can be jarring, but it needs to be used in a way that justifies silence. Essentially, if a horror film is loud, silence is going to signify something important or a grand scare; if a film is silent, the loud sound will emerge with the scares. This film turns silent for the melodrama and the melodrama is far weaker than a farmhouse spin on "The Black Cat."

It doesn't help that the 1922 is not 1922 without Henry's subplot in the third act. One of the more interesting elements of the novel is how Wilf chases away everyone he cares about to a big city lifestyle. It doesn't matter if they stay in Nebraska or head cross-country. The world is changing around him and Wilf can't even keep his own family to the standard of simple farm living he aspires to. 

 Henry learns everything he needs to know from Wilf, whether Wilf likes it or not. Father and son stare out from the porch on a work break.

Henry learns everything he needs to know from Wilf, whether Wilf likes it or not. Father and son stare out from the porch on a work break.

Without going into too many spoilers, Henry starts to desire the rich city lifestyle his mother threatened his father with. He wants it on his own terms. He wants it with his young girlfriend, away from his father, and with the only skills he learned from his father that he was ever really good at: lies, manipulation, and crime. 

1922 is built on a sense of inescapable progress and justice. Somehow, time alone will find a way to advance us all and right the wrongs in our lives. It's a spin on the sins of the father theme that focuses its revenge on torturing the father who starts the line of sin. It's a simple theme used to devastating effect in the novel and very pronounced moments of clear exposition in the film.

There's just a very literal quality to 1922. Happy scenes are brighter than sad scenes, and fights are louder than family dinners. Narration has exaggerated sensations (sound effects and closeups), while the real time flashbacks are less focused and more naturalistic. Any reference to the murder or violence is delivered through gritted teeth and narrowed eyes, while the more mundane scenes have an almost old Hollywood theatricality to their approach.

1922 is not a bad film, by any standards. There are worse horror films and far worse Stephen King adaptations. It's just inconsistent. There's a clarity to the theme that comes through better than on paper, but the novella has a far more consistent style even in its excessively branching narrative. 

1922 is currently streaming on Netflix.

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