1922 movie review: A haunting horror film; Stephen King’s hot-streak rages on after It, Gerald’s Game
For years, one of the most famous legends surrounding Stephen King was about the time he sat on his writing desk in the early ‘80s, proceeded to embark on an indefinite cocaine binge, and when he regained consciousness, found a complete manuscript laying in front of him. Even years later, he barely remembers writing it, he said. The book was Cujo, which, like most of King’s works, was soon adapted into a film.
That was the Golden Age of Stephen King adaptations when landmark films such as The Shining and Carrie were produced. And while there has never really been a lean period for King adaptations in the decades that followed, 2017 will, in hindsight, always be seen as being the bringer of a new Golden Age.
Such is the appeal of his stories that in one year alone, his work has inspired the highest-grossing horror picture of all time (It), a critical and commercial disaster (The Dark Tower), and two films that weren’t released in theatres at all – the fantastic Gerald’s Game, and the movie we’re going to be discussing here, 1922, both of which were released on Netflix.
“In 1922,” growls Thomas Jane in a voiceover that looms, like a tragic Greek chorus, throughout the film, “a man’s pride was a man’s land.”
Wilfred James, the tobacco-chewing, perpetually sweating character Jane plays, lives on his sprawling property with his wife and teenage son. He is a proud man, as he says in that voiceover, because of his land, and his son, Henry, who will inherit it when the time comes. He works the fields in the days, and sits on his porch in the evenings, sipping cold beers and surveying his vast kingdom.
And then, all of a sudden, his wife snatches it all away. She proposes that the family sell their land and move to the city, an idea that Wilfred reacts to as a demon would to the sight of Holy Water. He tells her as much, but receives only an ultimatum in response: If Wilfred does not comply; she would file for divorce immediately and take their son to the city with her.
So Wilfred is left with a choice, which is a key theme in the film: To give in, and be emasculated by a woman, or to listen to that voice in his head, a voice that reminds him that he is the man of the house.
“Every man has a choice,” he booms. And in 1922, Wilfred James makes the wrong one: Together with his son, whom he coerces into joining him in his foolhardy plan, he attempts to murder his wife in cold blood — and makes a mess of it. After slicing the wrong arteries, too feebly to leave a mark, Wilfred resorts to hacking away at her general direction, mauling her face beyond recognition. She dies a horrible death, and is laid to rest among hungry mice in a forgotten well.
1922 is a terrific example of just how powerful horror movies can be. Not only does writer-director Zak Hilditch employ a gorgeous, psychological slow-burn approach to the storytelling, he punctuates it with sudden bursts of visceral horror. It’s a film that strides just as confidently through scenes of duplicitous dialogue as it does in moments of shocking gore.
Unlike It, which at 1,300 pages is a monumental work of horror fiction, 1922 is based on a 117-page short story, written in the manner of a confession by a man utterly consumed by the guilt of his actions.
By murdering his wife, and attempting to cover it up in front of suspicious lawyers and lawmen, Wilfred sets into a motion a chain of tragic events that take away not just his pride, but also his sanity. And Thomas Jane is quite terrific in the central role. He adds tiny, almost unnoticeable nuances to his performance – frowns of confusion, sharp looks of warning – nuances that help create a character that is both conniving and pathetic at the same time.
His crimes haunt him, often literally, and he turns into a paranoid wreck of a man, plagued with the sound of scurrying mice, and the smell of rotting flesh, and the sight of his decomposed wife.
Together with the lush visuals of DP Ben Richardson, and the equally grand score by Mike Patton, Hilditch has made a stately horror picture about broken families, jealousy, and the sins of the father — all staple Stephen King themes.
And that’s what makes King’s stories so universally terrifying. They could be transported to any time, to any place, and still resonate, always uncomfortably close to the truth. The ideas he toyed with in 1922 could easily be brought to modern day India — in all its toxic patriarchy and systemic inequality. Notions of honour, of manhood, and of a woman’s place in this world — they’re all just as relevant to us today as turn-of-the-century America.
Sometimes, it takes a horror movie to remind us.
Watch the 1922 trailer: