Writer/director Zak Hilditch’s adaptation (currently streaming on Netflix) of the Stephen King novella 1922 astounds on a host of levels. For starters, there’s stunning cinematography on display: shots of the cloud-shrouded Nebraskan plains, a labyrinthine cornfield, a looming, secluded farmhouse. While amazing to behold, the film also features plenty of horrific imagery, from vermin-swarmed church pews during a funeral service to clawed and gnawed corpses (thankfully, the rat-savaging of a cow teat–one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve ever read in a King narrative–is only briefly dramatized here).
1922 is expertly cast, with Molly Parker playing the ill-fated Arlette, and Dylan Schmid and Kaitlyn Bernard portraying the fresh-faced teens tragically turned into the “Sweetheart Bandits.” It’s Thomas Jane, though, who dominates as main character Wilfred Leland James. Countering his more heroic outings in previous King-based films (Dreamcatcher, The Mist), Jane embodies a man who exudes intensity even in his pensive moments, and radiates menace without ever having to raise his voice. Physical tics and a pronounced rural drawl do not reduce to a caricature of a country rube, but instead enrich this unprofiting character. Jane’s performance as a doomed (if not damned) wife-murderer is nothing short of award-worthy.
The film is expertly structured, starting with its use of a framing device. Viewer interest is instantly piqued as a maimed and haggard-looking Wilfred enters a rented room in the opening scene: this is someone whose fortunes no doubt have declined considerably. At strategic times throughout, the film returns to this scene of Wilfred penning his confession, and demonstrates that while the character survived the disastrous events of 1922, his psyche is not necessarily intact, and his immortal soul might be in peril. A h(a)unted man, Wilfred is progressively plagued by Lovecraftian rats in the walls that give new meaning to chewing up the scenery.
Although deliberate in its pacing, 1922 never grows tedious or tension-free. To its credit, the film takes the time to allow the unsettling aftershocks of Wilfred’s brutal crime to slowly unfold. There’s no facile reliance on jump scares or sudden, shrill sound effects. No campy mugging, either, by decomposing ghouls: the scene where a ravaged and rotten Arlette seemingly returns from the grave (in her case, a rat-infested well in the backyard where her body was hidden) and proceeds to whisper inaudibly in Wilfred’s ear proves that quiet horror can make for the loudest screams.
1922 also offers a seamless merging of genres, working both as a tale of supernatural comeuppance and as a naturalistic crime story in the vein of Frank Norris (one of King’s favorite novelists). Such duality is signaled in the naming of Wilfred’s son Henry, who insists on being called Hank following his mother’s murder (which he assisted his father in committing). “Henry James” recalls the preeminent writer of nuanced ghost stories, while “Hank James” (the handle of a soon-to-be fugitive) forms a near echo of notorious outlaw Frank James.
Hilditch’s script follows King’s source text faithfully; if there is one ostensible misstep, it comes in the film’s final moment. A whole layer of psychological complexity gets stripped away (in the novella, the bite marks covering Wilfred’s body when his corpse is found in the hotel room are notably self-inflicted), as the film instead opts for a more Creepshow-y image of impending revenant vengeance. This ultimate divergence, though, does not spoil all the fine work that has come before. In the end, 1922 stands as one of the best King adaptations ever made, and an indisputable American Gothic masterpiece.