Every house has a story to tell. This one will kill you.
"Shirley Jackson was right—some houses are born bad," says the lead character in author Stephen King's homage to Jackson's classic tale The Haunting of Hill House (filmed as The Haunting in 1963 by director Robert Wise, and remade 36 years later by action specialist Jan de Bont). Rose Red is one such "bad house."
In this miniseries King penned for ABC-TV, the horror master blends Jackson's fiction with a true-life oddity (the so-called Winchester Mystery House), stirs in liberal dollops of his own Carrie and The Shining, seasons with dashes of Poltergeist and Ghostbusters, and serves up a steaming plate of ghoulish goulash laced with gory goodness. King's stated goal: "to create the ultimate haunted-house story." Does the Maniac from Maine succeed?
Facts of the Case
Dr. Joyce Reardon (Nancy Travis, previously the title sociopath in So I Married an Axe Murderer) resides at the bottom of the faculty barrel in the psychology department at a university in the Pacific Northwest. Joyce is a lecturer on parapsychology working under a department head (David Dukes, Gods And Monsters) who thinks Joyce's research is smoke and mirrors, and would terminate her if she didn't have tenure. Joyce believes her express ticket to academic stardom is a century-old mansion in downtown Seattle known as Rose Red, which, according to local legend, has devoured 23 people since World War One. Six years have passed since Rose Red's last supernatural manifestation, but Joyce has convinced the present owner—her boyfriend Steven Rimbauer (Matt Keeslar, Leslie Neilsen's nephew in Mr. Magoo)—that she can "awaken" Rose Red and document its haunted status. Strapped for cash and ready to let developers plow the old homestead under, Steven agrees to allow Joyce and a hand-picked team of psychics spend Memorial Day weekend in Rose Red before the wrecking ball reduces the decaying monstrosity to haunted rubble.
Joyce puts together her crew of ESP-enabled shadow-chasers like Jim Phelps assembling Rollin, Cinnamon, Barney, and Willie for Mission: Impossible (Jim Phelps—that's the guy who helmed the IMF before pretty-boy Ethan Hunt came along). These rejects from Psi Factor include:
• Emery Waterman (Matt Ross, looking creepily like the illegitimate twin brother of a certain Seattle-based megabillionaire), a milquetoast "postcognate" (he has visions of events that have already occurred) who needs cash to fuel his domineering mother's compulsive shopping addiction;
• Vic Kandinsky (Kevin Tighe, in between residual checks from Emergency!), a genial old duffer who's a "precognate" (he has visions of events that haven't yet…but then, you know already, don't you?);
• Pam Asbury (Emily Deschanel, daughter of four-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), a "touch-know" who picks up emotional vibrations from objects—though apparently her power doesn't work on film scripts;
• Cathy Kramer (Judith Ivey, Keanu Reeves's Bible-toting mother in The Devil's Advocate), an "automatic writer" (think of a human Ouija board, only with pen and paper);
• Nick Hardaway (Julian Sands, the mad amputator in Boxing Helena, taking a half-step up in class here), a Jack-of-all-psychic-trades who's seen way too many British spy thrillers;
• And the "key" (as Joyce scribbles in her journal) to the mission, a 15-year-old autistic girl named Annie Wheaton (Kimberly J. Brown, Tumbleweeds) with astonishing telekinetic abilities. In her spare time, Annie enjoys raining boulders on neighbors' houses (Les Nessman lives across the street, apparently having retired to Seattle from WKRP in Cincinnati) and playing such big band standards as "A Summer Place" and "In the Mood" on her phonograph at eardrum-rupturing volume.
The Rose Red expedition also includes two non-paranormal invitees. Annie's older sister Rachel, who likes to be called—not coincidentally—"Sister" (Melanie Lynskey, the girl who didn't grow up to be a famous mystery writer after the events depicted in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures) comes along to watch out for her odd sibling. Steven Rimbauer comes along to protect his family's interests and to play Eskimo-noses with Dr. Joyce.
Joyce and her team haven't even stepped across the threshold of the titanic house (which has been adding rooms, hallways and entire wings to itself since the lady of the manse, Ellen Rimbauer, vanished into its bowels in 1950) before it becomes clear that things are not quite right at the old Rimbauer place. Before the final embers on the Memorial Day barbecues around Puget Sound have grown cold, several new ghosts will have been added to the unhappy haunts inhabiting Rose Red.
As befits its subject matter, Rose Red had a storied production history. Originally proposed to Stephen King by Steven Spielberg as a feature film idea, King had no sooner begun work on the project than he suffered the vehicular accident that almost cost him his life. During King's recovery, Spielberg's production company moved on to another haunted-house project, which eventually took shape as the 1999 remake of The Haunting. King, however, was so taken with the notion of reworking Shirley Jackson's story that he pitched his alternative concept, loosely based on firearms heiress Sarah Remington and her legendary "mystery house" in San Jose, California, to his friends at ABC Television as a miniseries. Then, during the filming of Rose Red, one of its primary actors, David Dukes, died of cardiac arrest while playing tennis. But weird stuff happens: this is, after all, a Stephen King movie we're talking about.
In the production documentary that accompanies the film on DVD, King comments that he likes working in the miniseries format rather than feature films because, as he puts it, "I can write a whole novel." That philosophy doubtless is part of the problem with Rose Red: it's a two-hour movie padded to more than four hours of running time. (On television, the show ran in two-hour increments over three nights, with commercials filling up the remainder of the six hours.) To be fair, King and director Craig R. Baxley (who helmed a previous King-scripted miniseries, Storm of the Century) move the four hours along pretty effectively, as attested by the fact that I sat down intending to watch Rose Red in two sittings and ended up viewing the whole film in one shot. (Okay, I'll admit it—my thumb was getting twitchy on the fast-forward button by the time the third installment rolled around. But I gutted it out.) But we have to wade through two hours' worth of needless exposition (not all of which adds up, by the way) and repetitious spookhouse sequences to get where King wants to take us. Editing Rose Red to feature length could have easily been accomplished with no one missing any of the detritus on the cutting room floor. But you take your bucks where you can get them, and if ABC was willing to shell out for three nights' worth, then by cracky King and Baxley were going to fill three nights.
Even at its present length, Rose Red provides satisfactory entertainment. The story keeps up the pace—though it takes a while to get cooking—and the large number of characters in the ensemble means ample places to bounce around even when the narrative isn't really going anywhere (most of the first installment and the opening chapters of the third episode especially). Baxley and his production team created some remarkably strong effects on a television budget: the puppetry is cheesier than a Chicago-style pizza and the ghost makeup isn't much better, but the CGI work is close to feature-quality, and the composite exterior shots (an actual mansion in Tacoma, Washington was merged with miniatures and computer graphics to create the illusion of a Hearst Castle-sized domicile smack in the middle of downtown Seattle) work well for the most part. The photography by David Connell (also behind the camera for Baxley on Storm of the Century) is suitably atmospheric and makes full use of the clever production design by Craig Stearns, whose previous King collaborations include Children Of The Corn and the TV rehash of The Shining.
It's too bad, though, that King's usually boundless imagination couldn't come up with a less derivative take on the haunted-house saga. In addition to borrowing whole swatches from Shirley Jackson's novel, King pastes in concepts from his own books, especially The Shining and Carrie and numerous films and TV shows (more than a decade ago, for example, a series called Unsub employed the device of a psychic who could experience postcognitive images by handling objects at a crime scene). Several scenes (Joyce Reardon and her team setting up their ghost-detecting gear; Annie Wheaton being beckoned into a blinding light by the specter of one of the Rimbauer children) reminded me so much of Poltergeist that I kept waiting for Zelda Rubinstein to pop up, seize Nancy Travis by the hand, and whisper, "Let's go get your daughter." I guess King's been ripped off by enough lesser novelists and screenwriters than he's not above ripping off a little in return.
The cast tackles this stuff with game determination and mostly straight faces, and with a couple of exceptions they turn in worthy performances despite the fact that most of their characters are sketched out with a #2 pencil. Kimberly J. Brown has some of that young Christina Ricci energy happening (I know, Christina Ricci is still young, but I'm talking Wednesday Addams here)—I'd like to see her in something where she has more speaking lines, but she already knows how to use her face and physical presence. Matt Ross inches just beyond over-the-top occasionally as the most colorful of the psychics, but manages not to slide completely down the other side. Melanie Lynskey projects just the right balance of naïvete and resourcefulness as the tagalong big sister. Julian Sands, Emily Deschanel, Kevin Tighe, and Judith Ivey are all fine in their underwritten roles—Sands especially gives us an intriguing enough mystique that we wish his character, rather than Ross's, had been better developed.
Nancy Travis, on the other hand, is a fish out of water as the primary lead; she's acceptable in the early scenes when her character is firmly in command, but once things start to unravel she appears lost at sea. (It doesn't help that her character makes a hard-right on the personality freeway midway through the picture.) Travis has done good work in other vehicles, so I'm guessing horror just isn't her bag of Doritos. Matt Keeslar as the Rimbauer heir is flat and weak (he's also eleven years younger than the actress playing his lover and no one ever mentions this, which may be a Hollywood first). And while I'm reluctant to speak ill of the departed—hey, I don't want my house haunted—David Dukes's cliché professor is farcical and cartoonish. It's what the script gave him, but he was unabashedly gnawing scenery here.
The bottom line, though, is that Rose Red, while not a complete theft of four hours by any means, isn't very scary. I'd even go so far as to say it isn't scary at all—a serious indictment for an original screenplay by the Titan of Terror. I understood going in that, given the limitations of broadcast standards and practices, this wasn't likely to be an all-out gorefest, but that's fine by me. "Gore" and "frightening" aren't necessarily synonymous (except perhaps in Presidential politics), as anyone who's seen Psycho (the Hitchcock original, of course) knows. But that word "original" cuts right to the chase: there's nothing in Rose Red we haven't seen before, ad nauseum. For a project with the ambition of delivering the "ultimate" in spookhouse stories, Rose Red feels content to rehash all of the old haunted-house conventions without offering anything revolutionary or innovative. The only halfway-unanticipated twists involve the shuffling of the characters: at least one person I presumed would survive until the end didn't, and another character I was fairly certain would make a timely exit was still standing for the end credits. But overall, this ghost story's too comfortable, too familiar to be scary—after all, we only truly fear the unknown. Rose Red is a house we knew all too well before the opening credits.
Lions Gate Home Entertainment brings you Rose Red as a two-disc DVD set. Disc One includes the first two installments of the miniseries; Disc Two contains the third episode and the supplemental features. Each of the episodes is subdivided into twelve chapters—not all that many, really, when you figure the entire production clocks in at four-and-a-quarter hours. The full-frame transfer (hey, this was a TV show, people) is excellent: rich in color, crisp in clarity, and grain and artifact free. Blacks are deep and consistent—no small feat given that this is a very dark film. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is even better than the picture, providing a discrete, immersive soundfield and packing enough bass to wake the dead (I'll be here all week—have you tried the buffet?). The surrounds are extremely active throughout the production, with subtle background noises going on almost all the time. Dialogue is sharp, and the ethereal score fills the speakers with ambience. I'm quite (pleasantly) surprised to find this detailed and dynamic a soundtrack on a picture originally intended for network TV.
Credit the filmmakers for generating several praiseworthy extras for this DVD. Foremost of these is an audio commentary featuring director Craig Baxley, production designer and second unit director Craig Stearns, and visual effects supervisor Stuart Robertson. Executive producer Mark Carliner joins the group at the beginning of episode three. These guys manage to yak it up for the entire four-hours-plus, with only a few extended pauses here and there. This is a technically-weighted commentary, but the participants all express genuine affection for the project and are obviously proud of their offspring. It's an interesting listen. I was particularly drawn in by the discussion of the effects the sudden death of co-star David Dukes had on the production—Dukes had completed only about two-thirds of his scenes when he died, so King had to rewrite the last third of the script to adjust for the missing actor (most of his lines were reassigned to another character, whose role was expanded) and a body double was used to complete a couple of sequences that remained in the finished film.
Disc Two is home to a pair of behind-the-scenes documentaries. The real documentary (my meaning will become clear momentarily), Bad House: The Making of Rose Red, runs 50 minutes and showcases King and most of the production team and (surviving) cast. As with the commentary, much of the focus of this feature is on the technical side, though King is quite forthcoming about the origins of the script. A segment is devoted to the cast and crew's remembrances of the late Mr. Dukes. The second "documentary," Unlocking Rose Red: The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer, is in reality a promotional piece that ran on ABC in conjunction with the miniseries. The conceit in this piece is that the events and people in the film exist in the practical world; different actors are used to portray some of the film's characters (i.e. Joyce Reardon and Steven Rimbauer) as though these are the actual people on whose exploits the movie is based. It's an idea that doesn't really track if you've already seen the movie, but it's decently put together and well-done for the gimmick that it is.
Also on Disc Two, three storyboard comparison sequences can be viewed either individually or as a continuous presentation. Each offers a dual-frame view of the storyboard art and the scene from the completed film. There's a small gallery (maybe a dozen slides) of production art as well.
Disc One hosts a theatrical-style trailer for Rose Red. Disc Two reprises this same trailer as an ad for this DVD, and tacks on TV spots for King's Rose Red companion book The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer and the TV series The Dead Zone, plus trailers for Storm of the Century, Monster's Ball, and American Psycho 2.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Two little things that annoyed me.
First, in the early scenes at the university, several of Joyce's students address her as "Ms. Reardon." Why not "Dr. Reardon" (she's established as a Ph.D.) or "Professor Reardon"? This isn't high school.
Second, if all Joyce is trying to obtain is verifiable evidence of psychic phenomena, why doesn't she focus on Annie Wheaton instead of Rose Red? Annie levitates people. She makes objects move with the power of her mind. She drops rocks the size of Volkswagens out of the sky, for crying out loud. What more tangible proof could you ask for?
And while I'm picking nits: why does Lions Gate list John Heard in the credits on the keep case back cover artwork when he isn't in this film?
A nice production of a screenplay that doesn't represent Stephen King's best work. If you're a King completist or like your scare-fare on the mild side, buy this DVD somewhere cheap. For the rest of the world, rent it sometime when you have several hours to while away. It won't put you to sleep, but it won't keep you awake at night either, if you know what I mean.
The Court finds Stephen King guilty of running out of new ideas and sentences him to a blind date with the actress who plays Emery Waterman's mother. Rose Red is found guilty of being a bad house and a bloated miniseries, and is hereby sentenced to hosting a séance starring John Edward and Miss Cleo. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Craig R. Baxley, Production Designer Craig Stearns, Visual Effects Supervisor Stuart Robertson, and Executive Producer Mark Carliner
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