“1922” is the Netflix equivalent of a scary story a second grader would improvise for their friends during a Friday night sleepover. The child wouldn’t be concerned with crafting suspense or character development, they’d just pour their effort into reaching that big “gotcha” moment at the end of the tale, hopefully terrifying their peers right out of their puffy sleeping bags.
The irony of scary stories, though, is none of them are actually scary. Telling a scary story is just an exercise in improvisation, enabling whomever’s voice is leading the crowd to stretch their creative muscles. It’s those scary stories that try too hard to be scary that fail, just like director and writer Zak Hilditch’s “1922.” The film is based off of a Stephen King story, a particularly gruesome one even for the author. Still, King is a wizard at making us want to keep turning the page, while Hilditch only makes us want to turn off the TV.
The movie takes place in its title year, following farmer Wilfred James, his wife Arlette and their son Henry. Arlette resents Wilfred for not wanting to sell their valuable farmland, with her husband holding a creepy, cult-like obsession with his 180 acres of crops. Wilfred manipulates Henry to help murder Arlette so they no longer have any barriers to keep the land. The rest of the movie focuses on the father and son coping with their tumorous guilt. They know that they will receive judgment for their sin, it’s only a matter if it’s in this life or the next.
This acknowledgement and ignorance of guilt is the most fascinating part of the film, with Thomas Jane injecting reckless selfishness into Wilfred, and Dylan Schmid lighting Henry up with a beaming glow of youthful innocence. Sadly, that guilt is dumped in favor of zombies, yes zombies, when Molly Parker does her best rotting corpse routine as she haunts Wilfred over her murder. The zombie appearance feels lazy and needlessly out of place, like it accidentally stumbled from some other gruesome tale into this film’s universe. Even worse, the zombie is used as a significant and unnecessary plot device, pulling us further out of the picture.
I haven’t read the book, but at least from what is present in the film version of “1922,” the story seems to share issues with many Stephen King novels: They are stories with grand characters and great suspense, but are written far too quickly and never quite nail the ending. “1922” certainly has the potential to be a great work, both of literature and film. But its attempts to wrap things up in a scary and lively way sadly fall flat, its true story potential buried somewhere deep below.