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Producers have been finding it hard to go wrong with Stephen King for the longest time; as an author he's just inexhaustible, creating interesting characters we identify with, that bolster even the flimsiest of his horror plots. Even The Shining is rather low on original ideas, but the way the story is told is everything. Of 'pulp' novelists, King is about as good as they get. Almost nothing produced from a Stephen King story has been a flop, much to the astronomic bankability of his good name. Children of the Corn was made into a pitiful movie, but even it has spawned five or six video sequels.
Rose Red is a good ghost movie, again with few new ideas but a bunch of fun characters who keep our attention even as we realize how thin they actually are. An attempt to make the ultimate haunted house film, it's an updated retread of The Haunting of Hill House, or Robert Wise's The Haunting. It goes without saying that it's miles ahead of the remake of that classic spook show.
But they hardly know what they're up against. Rose Red is as 'alive' as ever, capable of shifting its architecture and floor plan, and seemingly populated by an unending stream of ghosts - of Steve Rimbauer's ancestors, and a diabolical maid named Sukeena (Tsidii Leloka). When Professor Miller sends nosy reporter Kevin Bollinger (Jimmi Simpson) ahead to get debunking photos of Joyce's 'fraudulent' scheme, the young man meets a horrible fate. And the house hasn't even started to show what it's capable of.
Rose Red works as a miniseries the same way King's books do - through detail and character development. A full hour passes before we get near the imposing manse on a hill in Seattle, yet everybody we meet is an interesting new companion in the adventure. The more familiar faces are refreshingly cast against type. Julian Sands, known mostly for vampire pictures and similar demonic villains, is charming and congenial. Kevin Tighe, familiar as loathesome thugs or crooks in John Sayles pictures (Matewan, Eight Men Out) is an inoffensive good guy, perhaps the most sensitive of the bunch. Nancy Travis gets a chance to be more than a sweet-natured love interest. Ordinary considerations of sexiness, using the kind of dumb "Scream" casting of all-beauties and hunks, are jettisoned in favor of types who credibly fill out King's roster of characters - Judith Ivey, David Dukes, etc. Young Kimberley J. Brown has the key role as the Carrie - like Annie, who smiles sweetly while exacting revenge against perceived threats. Having Annie become possessed by the house is a logical and well-handled turn of events, even if Emery Waterman's open desire to save the group by killing her never gathers much dramatic steam. She's kind of a convenient Rain Man type whose actions can be completely governed by the whim of the screenwriter - a trick Stephen King doesn't miss once.
As a production, Rose Red is a killer. There are numerous CGI effects, all sublimated to the story instead of driving it. Most of the ghosts and scares are story and character-driven, of course, so the fact that the wraithlike apparitions aren't something wholly original is beside the point. The hailstorms of rocks and boulders are pretty terrifying, as are the moving statuary, and the occasional 'boo' from a fright-face leaping from the scream. Emery's nagging visions of zombies and blood-drenched refrigerators establish a nice tone of fun ("Go away go away You're not REAL!") that sets us up for more dreaded phantoms later.
The physical house is also a dilly, a really elaborate set that convinces without trying to get some designer an Oscar, as with the remake of The Haunting. Like the famous Winchester House, all kinds of strange features - doll houses, an upside-down room, are nicely worked in, and introduced creatively. The investigators literally trail a rope behind them so as not to get lost, should Rose Red prove capable, as reported, of changing its floor plan to entrap visitors. At one point, they retrace their rope to find it dead-ending straight into a wall that's magically materialized in their path. It's a fresh and creepy moment.
The long running time allows for a full exposition of the Rose Red backstory, with its neglected wife, unfaithful husband, deformed child and sinister maid from Africa. We also get a full rundown on the Annie Wheaton character, even if the others remain a little less thoroughly charted. Emery's horrid Mom (Laura Kenney) is a familiar 'awful mother' Stephen King character. She's so thoroughly unpleasant, she seems a bit overplayed sometimes. Stephen King himself, thankfully recovered from his terrible hit 'n run pedestrian accident, does a rather blunt cameo as a Pizza delivery man, which comes off as rather dull. He's just too well-known and his presence breaks up the fun.
Almost five hours long, Rose Red plays well on DVD, spread across two discs. The fade out/ups for commercials have to be gotten used to, but at least the commercials aren't there - this must have been interminable on network television. Perfectly realized establishing shots of the Rose Red mansion are a little too perfect and are the least convincing part of the story, as the swooping CGI crane shots make it look like a toy house after a while.
King's orchestration of characters glosses over the less logical aspects of his story, reservations that apply to all haunted house movies. If Joyce Reardon is really after evidence of paranormal activity, she gets it in the first ten minutes they're in Rose Red. But nobody is bothering to take photographs or shoot video. Instead she has some vague 'instruments' that are recording data of some sort, just the kind of data that Professor Miller would say is faked anyway. Several of the psychics seem capable of demonstrating their powers in ways that would enable Joyce to prove her points without an excursion to Rose Red, but why quibble?
A tried and true Haunted House rule, that has always peeved Savant, is the axiom that when in a Haunted House, everyone is told to stay together and in communication with one another. Then they all wander off alone into the dark. True, Judith Ivey's character directly addresses this cliché by answering that she always has God with her, and is therefore never alone. Finally, King seems to have channeled bits of Shirley Jackson. A panicked ghost-hunter darts in front of a speeding car, causing an accident. Instead of bulging doors, there are carpets with 'things' creeping underneath, and glassy polished floors that turn into water pits. The unfilmed topiary animals of The Shining finally get some representation, via a statue that comes to life, very nicely, it should be noted.
Director Craig Baxley keeps things lively and arranges the action well. 1 There's a nice balance between dramatic scenes and atmospheric, tone-setting material. At the end, we're relieved that Rose Red doesn't want us to suffer through too much ghostly mayhem. If anything it's a bit pat - the victims are weighted toward innocent bystanders and easy audience hate-magnets. But Stephen King, this time un-adapted by other writers, keeps it all in line.
Lion's Gate's DVD of Stephen King's Rose Red miniseries is a well-appointed, full-frame presentation. Like most television work these days, it doesn't have that old made-for-TV look; there are lots of wider compositions that are very handsome on a large monitor. The 5.1 English track is augmented by a Spanish version as well.
The extras are pretty much by the numbers, with two documentaries created originally as television publicity pieces. Some halfway interesting storyboards and design artwork are included as well. The show was reviewed on Beta discs (that played fine, for once) so the packaging is an unknown factor on this show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stephen King's Rose Red rates:
1. As well he should. He's come a long way from The Dukes of
Hazzard. Savant had the weird privilege of meeting ex-stunt driver Baxley briefly, just before
he broke both of his legs performing the crazy cop-car jump for Close Encounters of the Third
Kind. That was a scary night - you shake hands with a guy, and then watch him being pulled
groaning out of a wreck an hour later. I heard something about getting a plum directing spot being
a reward for his recklessness that night in 1977 - and I'm glad he got into a healthier line of