Rose Red (2002 USA)

Stephen King screen adaptations have become quite a conundrum. He has lambasted most of them for altering characters and flow. King purists stick to the argument that the phenomena and events he describes simply cannot be captured visually. Rose Red represented ABC’s televisual attempt at the horror master’s work. Scripted and executive produced by King, it’s more ironic than terrifying; the only example I’ve seen where the TV/ movie shortcomings orignate from Stephen King’s story rather than the production values or casting. This three part mini-series revolves around a haunted house, named Rose Red, in Seattle.

Built in the early twentieth century by a wealthy oil-baron as a wedding gift to his wife, death and mystery were associated with the home since its birth. Women disappeared and men were found dead due to apparent suicides. The wife, Ellen Rimbauer, continued building until she vanished within the maze of halls and staircases. Over time the Rimbauer house fell into disrepair, but continued to grow on its own. Enter Dr. Joyce Reardon (Nancy Travis), a pretty college professor eager to prove the existence of paranormal phenomena. She is transfixed on the place. “It’s a dead cell. We need to wake it up.” Since no one has been there for years, the good professor signs up a rag-tag group of psychics and clairvoyants, each with their own special gift, to spend Memorial Day weekend there. The one she is most interested in is a young autistic girl who can supposedly summon boulders that fall from the sky.

Her older sister wants to get her into a special school, but alas no money. And so it goes, under similar circumstances, for the rest of the team; leading them to take the money and risk their lives. Right from the introductions we know where the story is headed, but most surprising is how familiar it is. The group has the exact same people as in King’s The Langoliers. You have the suave European. The troubled little psychic girl with an illness (autism). The kindly old man with a secret. And of course the completely unlikable dweeb who starts sweating and going nuts the moment they reach the front gate. Other in-jokes or cheap rehashes include the pompous supervisor who (ala The Shining’s Stuart Ullman) and the out-of-her-head big woman. The latter is thinly veiled, but King on the whole just comes up short. It’s obvious who’s going to die, who’s going to live & what each of them has to face.

Nancy Travis walks us through the history one step at a time. We watch as a builder guns down the construction foreman. A sheet of glass decapitates another builder. One more chokes on a piece of apple. An old woman on a tour disappears and the cops only find her handbag. A business man is found stung to death in the solarium. Got the idea yet? They become so repetitive that we’re left shaking our heads and saying I know the house is bad already. In fact most of Part I is dedicated solely to revealing the house’s past. Why hint when there’s 270 minutes to fill? This is the mini-series’ biggest problem. King shows us everything. He’s not subtle. Scenes are broken up awkwardly, forcing the viewer to keep track of up to four things (some fantasy and some reality) going on simultaneously.

Then when matters quiet down the group completely ignores what’s happened. The first paranormal event takes place just after they enter. Time passes. They forget. In Part III the author seemed to have made a game of having the characters make the worst possible horror movie decisions. “Going off by himself, that was dumb,” the dweeb comments at one point. Uh huh! As always King throws in one of his trademark weapons. He’s used an oversized croquet mallet for The Shining, an axe for Misery (yes, in the film it was changed), a hammer in Needful Things, a scalpel in Pet Sematary. The list goes on. But what do we get this time around? What does the master of horror pull out for Rose Red?

A hammer. Pardon my yawn. As usual, King makes a Hitchcock-style appearance, this time as a delivery man. Most of his past cameos have been limited to peripheral characters. But here he is so obvious that it pulls you out of the make-believe. Real actors and actresses for two hours, then a deathly pale guy wearing glasses and holding a pizza bag. “Oh, look! That’s the writer.” Unfortunately, King is a really ugly, nerdy–looking man too, which doesn’t help. Rose Red does have its good points. The casting is solid all around. Nancy Travis comes off as likeable but driven. Her boyfriend, Steve (Matt Keeslar), is fine too. Fans of the Warlock movie series will even enjoy the presence of Julian Sands as Nick Hardaway, the gentleman psychic. They all do their best with the script. Usually that entails just falling into one emotion and sticking with it; let the special effects and set designs do the motivating.

It’s here that Rose Red shines. The shear grandeur of the house and the halls carry the emotions of the story. One room, the gigantic library with a mirrored floor, is incredible to look at. Even the 1999 big-budget remake of The Haunting didn’t have anything close to this. The CGI effects are overall high-grade too, save for a few cheap overhead shots. The home, covered with vines and surrounded by untended trees, is beautiful, in that gothic house sort of way. Spark shooting lights and ghastly talking corpses are abound everywhere. Turn of the century Seattle is shown: carts, buggies, the whole shebang. Glass turns to liquid. Creatures walk out of walls. But with all the razzle dazzle, what happened to the plot? It went M.I.A.

My personal opinion is that King’s energy ran out after he completed the history portion. Maybe he didn’t know where it should go after that. The modern day situation isn’t compelling. Once everyone is assembled within the mansion’s walls it’s the same fare previously seen in The Shining, but with the ensemble dynamic of The Langoliers. The problem here is the occupants are aware of what the place is capable of, while the Torrence family were innocents. On top of his re-cycling, King steals from the House on Haunted Hill. It then builds to a climax that feels as if King just said “anything will do”. The lights go out. The floor shakes. People get attacked by boogie men. The doors magically open in the chaos with very little time to escape. Who will make it? The real question is: Do we care?

I cannot fault the direction or presentation. It’s pulp, an experiment in mood, but dreaming to be more. The mini-series becomes a collage of all the stuff that should make a great horror film for TV, but collapses. The house Rose Red has a lot to it. Stairways that go nowhere. Doors that open to brick walls. Rooms that change when you’re not paying attention. But such is the plot: Interesting to look at, but built with no reason of purpose. At one moment you’re sure it’s a haunted house flick, then it’s a ghost movie, then zombies, and then something else. There simply isn’t an intelligible way through the mess. Looking back, it’s easy to recall images; flashes of things taking place. But why did they happen? That’s up to your imagination. Quite possibly, the only thing about Rose Red that is. One thing to possibly muse over is the fate of actor David Dukes, who plays Professor Miller: he died during the shoot. But I doubt this crap fest would have been the farewell he would have desired.



  1. Excellent review! You are right on the money when you said, “This is the mini-series’ biggest problem. King shows us everything. He’s not subtle.” This series is practically an audiobook with all the exposition and story-telling (not showing), but still a soothing watch for horror fans nevertheless. 😈

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like your line about the audiobook. Yeah, its a relaxing way to pass the evening. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: