Why Did it Have To Be Rats?
Rats have featured prominently in many Stephen King novels and stories. After the prom, Carrie White imagined rats crawling all over Chris Hargensen’s face. There were rats in the basement of the boarding house in ‘Salem’s Lot and in the walls of Chapelwaite in “Jerusalem’s Lot.” Rats in the sub-basement of the mill in “Graveyard Shift” and in the basement of the castle in Delain. Rats in Desperation, Nevada, in the ventilation system of Shawshank Prison and in the walls of Dooling Correctional Facility for Women. Drowned rats in the toilet bowls at Derry High School. Nigel the robot was programmed to get rid of the vermin in the Fedic Dogan, although he actually fed them to Mordred Deschain.
More rats than you can shake a stick at. They have rarely been used so effectively as in his novella “1922,” where they represent guilt, gnawing away at Wilfred James’ conscience. Now, thanks to the new movie directed and written by Zak Hilditch, we get to see them in all their glory. And they are glorious, and creepy as hell. Every one you see on the screen (save for the one that gets stomped into a bloody mess) is real. No CGR (computer generated rats).
Following close on the heels of Gerald’s Game, 1922 is Netflix’s second original King adaptation in as many months and the final entry in an impressive year of King TV series and films. It’s a vastly different kind of a film to Gerald’s Game, almost not a horror movie at all, despite the prevalence of the aforementioned vermin and some ghostly apparitions. It’s a story about guilt; well-earned guilt at that.
Thomas Jane (Dreamcatcher, The Mist) plays Wilf, the stiff-jawed, gruff farmer at the center of the story. His wife Arlette (Molly Parker) inherited 100 acres of property outside Hemingford Home in rural Nebraska (“the middle,” they call it, as in “the middle of nowhere”) that Wilf covets. Nebraska is an “equitable property” state. Anything either spouse owned before they were married belongs to them and not to the couple. The land is hers to do with as she pleases. She wants Wilf to sell all of their property, including his own 80-odd adjacent acres, so they can move to Omaha, where she wants to open a dress shop. If he doesn’t agree, she plans to divorce him and sell her parcel to the Farrington Livestock Company, who will use the property as a pig farm, which will ruin Wilf’s freehold farm.
According to Wilf, cities are for fools, and he convinces his son Henry of this, too. To Wilf, a man’s pride is his land and his son, and if he doesn’t have the land to pass on to his son what point is there in living? As Arlette becomes more insistent on selling, Wilf begins a campaign to bring Henry firmly into his camp. It’s fairly easy: Henry is malleable, and he’s sweet on Shannon, the archetypal girl next door. If Wilf and Arlette divorce, Arlette will take Henry to the city with her, and he’ll never see Shannon again. Arlette can be shrewish, prone to saying unkind things even to her son, and it’s clear that the couple no longer loves each other, if they ever did—it was a shotgun wedding, apparently.
Wilf acknowledges the presence of another man within, the “conniving man,” a whispering voice who lures a man into doing heinous things—although in fact it’s Wilf himself who is conniving. Thomas Jane plays Wilf with grim solemnity, clenching his jaw so hard that his teeth seem on the verge of shattering, expelling his few choice words in heavily accented growls.
If you’ve read Mindhunter, the book that gave rise to the current Netflix series about the origins of behavioral analysis in the FBI, you’ll learn that one of the clues a spouse has devious plans with respect to his or her mate is a sudden change in behavior. In a case study in that book, a woman who has hired hitmen to kill her husband suddenly starts treating him kindly, making his breakfast and packing his lunch. In 1922, having decided that the only solution to his problem is to murder Arlette, Wilf too undergoes a shift in behavior toward her. He claims he has changed his mind and will agree to her plan. She couldn’t be happier. They celebrate.
Hitchcock would probably have admired the murder scene. It is filmed with many angles and cuts, and very little visible violence, a la Psycho. But it’s a messy affair, and Arlette does not die easily or quickly. “Murder is sin,” Wilf says in his 1930 confession letter, which forms the framing device of both the novella and the movie, “Murder is damnation. But murder is also work.” The worst sin he commits is in enlisting the assistance of Henry in his dirty deed. He would have been damned in any case, but by dragging his son into the murder, he is doomed beyond redemption.
I’m not one who generally notices a movie’s score, but I did when watching 1922. It was created by Mike Patton of the group Faith No More, and it is extremely effective in setting and modulating the mood. Much use is made of individual strings, plucking and squealing. They’re almost sound effects rather than music, and I believe the film wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without them.
The story plays out more or less the same way it does in the novella, although the “Sweetheart Bandits” story is somewhat abbreviated. The cinematography is terrific, evincing a pre-depression era when farmers could still borrow money to improve their property, even guys like Wilf who didn’t have two quarters to rub together, let alone the $75 he needs to satisfy his neighbor when a problem occurs between them. The cast is solid and impressive, with Jane leading the charge. It’s a perfect role for someone who doesn’t always exhibit tremendous range. There’s a lot going on inside Wilf that rarely comes out visibly.
There are real rats in the story—the one that bites Wilf on the hand when he’s searching for money he thinks his wife might have hidden in the house, for example—but many of the others are no doubt figments of Wilf’s guilty conscience. They follow him everywhere, heralding his downward spiral. It’s a cross between “The Monkey’s Paw” and “The Tell-tale Heart,” where a man’s wishes turn into a curse and his crime haunts him to his end of days.
This isn’t a fast-paced movie. It allows the sense of dread and doom to emerge slowly and organically. It probably won’t appeal to everyone (especially anyone who has issues with rats doing bad things to people living or dead), but in the pantheon of adaptations of King’s work, it is one of a select group that hews closely to the source material and delivers a vision on the screen of what King intended in his novella.