The chilling tale of Dr. Joyce Reardon (Nancy Travis), an obsessed psychology professor who commissions a team of psychics and a gifted 15-year-old autistic girl, Annie Wheaton, to literally wake up a supposedly dormant haunted mansion – Rose Red. Their efforts unleash myriad spirits and uncover horrifying secrets of the generations who have lived and died there.
Rose Red 7.75
eyelights: the basic premise. Rose Red. Matt Keeslar. the build-up.
eyesores: the clunky dialogues. the b-grade performances.
“If we’re quiet, if we listen, we can hear houses breathe. Sometimes, in the depth of the night, you can even hear them groan. It’s as if they were having bad dreams.”
Stephen King’s ‘Rose Red’ is an interesting piece of work. Originally intended as a remake of ‘The Haunting‘, the project took many years to develop after King and Steven Spielberg, who was supposed to direct it, couldn’t agree on the material. King bought the rights back and shopped it around, eventually landing it as a television mini-series.
Not only is it loosely inspired by Shirley Jackson’s novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (on which ‘The Haunting’ is based), but ‘Rose Red’ was built on the urban myths surrounding Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA. The filmmakers also decided to use exterior shots of a real location, Thornewood Castle, in Lakewood, WA.
Although it’s rooted in reality, it didn’t get too far from its original roots: ‘Rose Red’ is about a parapsychologist who brings together a small group of sensitives to explore and record data on a notorious haunted house. Naturally, not everything goes according to plan, and the house begins to manifest all manners of dangerous behaviours.
The mini-series, which was broadcast in 2002, is similar to 1997’s ‘The Shining‘ in that it consisted of three two-hour parts (when one accounts for the commercial breaks – on DVD, each episode is approximately 90 minutes long). It also shares some primary plot points, such as the large haunted house and the psychic protagonists.
Where it differs is that it was conceived for television – it wasn’t just King’s attempt to right a wrong he felt had been done to him. So, instead of adapting his previous oeuvre to a limited framework, King wrote precisely with that framework in mind. It worked: ‘Rose Red’ was a ratings success, bringing in millions of viewers every night.
The first part consists mostly of the set-up: introducing the characters, the backstory of Rose Red, Dr. Reardon’s motives and the powers of each participants (especially Annie Wheaton, who has incredible telekinetic powers but is autistic). This is essentially a full episode that prepares us for the second and third ones of the series.
King makes all of the character dynamics extremely clear, but he’s heavy-handed in the exposition from time to time. In those moments, the dialogues become clunky, even risible; he’s so intent on giving us certain pieces of information that he forgets naturalism. Thankfully, it wasn’t as much of problem with this mini-series as in other works.
Of course, it doesn’t help that some of the actors were either not very good or poorly-directed. The perfect example of this is in the opening sequence at the Wheaton household, when the family is arguing off-screen and Annie is overhearing it: it sounded like a radio play that was being phoned in by all its participants. It was that bad.
The first episode also suffers from predictability. If one has read any of King’s books or seen any of his TV movies, then this will hold few surprises: we know well in advance who the villain of the piece will be, who the liability is, …etc. It’s all too familiar. King often paints-by-numbers, which is unfortunate as it spoils really great ideas.
But, by the time we get to Rose Red, we don’t care much about any of this, of course: we just want to get in there and explore the house. After all, is there anything cooler than a house that can morph at will, and that has changed in form and size over time? Of course we want to see what secrets -and which scares- it holds.
The second episode does exactly that, taking us on a tour of the house’s many mysteries, with Dr. Reardon and Steven Rimbauer (descendant of the original owners and, coincidentally, Dr. Reardon’s beau) as our guides. There are a number of très cool rooms in there, including a creepy greenhouse, a mirror room, an upside-down room, …etc.
But this huge mansion, which starts off the mini-series as a dead cell, comes alive in the presence of all these sensitives – and is especially fueled by Annie, whose powers totally dwarf everyone else’s. And that’s when things start to go wrong. Very wrong. And when a house like Rose Red comes alive, people die or lose their minds. Or both.
The third episode is naturally the most suspenseful of the lot: it’s when everything goes nuts. Many of the group are trapped in the house and have to figure out both how to get out and how to survive while they’re in there. It’s relatively intense but it’s more due to the atmosphere than to cheap scares or any such things. It leaves a palpable impression.
Although the cast didn’t exactly blow me away, there were a few bright spots:
- Matt Keeslar is by far the shining star of the lot as Steven Rimbauer. His is only a secondary character, but at least his on-screen time is fairly natural and he makes Steven easy to connect to. The character comes off as slightly bland and naïve, however, so he’s not especially interesting, but Matt makes the most of him.
- Nancy Travis isn’t always sharp here, and has a tendency for the theatrical, but she makes up for it in intensity. At least she is able to sell us the impression that Reardon’s smart and initially in control (no thanks to King’s set-up of the character: he tries too hard and it falls flat. It’s all thanks to her, despite the blemishes).
- One that a few friends of mine enjoyed was Julian Sands as Nick Hardaway. I thought he was alright, but he seemed too pleasant to be genuine and I found it off-putting. But he seems intelligent enough, which was a plus in that bunch. Honestly, I think that the only reason he stood out with my friends is because he’s the cutest.
Beyond those three, however, the performances were mostly forgettable, and sometimes amateurish.
All in all, I quite enjoy ‘Rose Red’. If not for the opening salvo and the weakness of the cast, it would have been an exceptional haunted house story – and certainly a superior one to its forebear. It’s an epic TV production, the likes of which there are too few of (it also reportedly had a massive budget few TV production could hope for).
Personally, I think that it’s worth the four and a half hour run-time. It’s well-paced, it goes by breezily and at no point does one feel that the screen time is not well-spent (unlike 1997’s ‘The Shining’, for example). One might actually be able to sit through it all in one go, if one is not averse to long stretches of sedentariness.
Actually, I just might do that one day the next time I revisit ‘Rose Red’.
Post scriptum: Interestingly, the producers decided to hire another writer to write a prequel to ‘Rose Red’. Titled ‘The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer: My Life at Rose Red’, this 2001 book by Ridley Pearson tells the origins of Rose Red and was released in conjunction with the ‘Rose Red’ mini-series. A TV movie of the book was also produced.
Dates of viewings: October 7, 10 + 17, 2014