1922: An American Gothic Horror Story

By David J. |

 

Netflix is developing a reputation for quality niche content, and as far as Stephen King adaptations go, it is paying off. 1922 (2017) is a surprising release fresh on the heels of Gerald’s Game, not only in how well it holds its own against the latter, but in its almost archaic structure and pace. This is the most traditional ghost story viewers have seen in years, and it’s all the better for it.

Netflix is developing a reputation for quality niche content, and as far as Stephen King adaptations go, it is paying off. 1922 (2017) is a surprising release fresh on the heels of Gerald’s Game, not only in how well it holds its own against the latter, but in its almost archaic structure and pace. This is the most traditional ghost story viewers have seen in years, and it’s all the better for it.

Thomas Jane, whom we would barely recognize as the tragic protagonist of 2007’s The Mist, plays Midwestern everyman Wilfred James, a farmer who had once taken pride in working his own land. He opens the story as an old man, ragged and on the run from an unseen pursuer, as he lays down his confession to crimes he committed in the titular year. Back in 1922 his wife Arlette had just inherited a valuable piece of land. While he felt the best use of it would be to expand his own modest property, she had grown tired of the farming life and wanted to sell it in order to start over in the city. The resulting feud escalated until the “conniving man” within Wilfred hatched a murderous plot, the consequences of which would play out over the rest of that year.

1922: An American Gothic Horror Story article

It’s fair to say that the plot of 1922 is predictable. That’s not a fault against it. If you’ve read a single Edgar Allan Poe story you quickly pick up on the beats: establish motive, plan a murder, succumb to paranoia, face judgement. The shot of Wilfred eyeing his wife as he plots against her could even be an homage to The Telltale Heart. There is an almost religious reverence to the gothic horror tropes of past centuries, from harbinger ghosts to rats in the walls, and the languid camera work might even have been boring if it weren’t for the haunting, picturesque quality in each frame and the eerie sound design accompanying it.

This film is a success because it lingers on these details as much as the films and stories that originated them. It teases out each beat of the plot by letting the audience lose itself in the film’s architecture, wandering the house or sitting at dinner with the James family, letting their desires and tensions fill this now familiar space so that the next scene feels inevitable, without knowing how exactly it will play out.

1922: An American Gothic Horror Story article

The one aspect of the film that distinguishes it from its forbears is its specific period setting, which has been impeccably recreated. The Roaring ‘20s are remembered in films like The Great Gatsby (1974) for their carefree extravagance, and there is a hint of that in Arlette’s aspirations to city life, but Wilfred embodies the flipside of American nostalgia: the poor man whose stubborn independence is a hindrance rather than a blessing. His crime is committed not out of greed, nor even out of spite, but in order to keep things from changing. The story is just as much American as it is gothic, channelling a spirit of individualism that has survived for over 200 years, and showing that even that spirit can lead to one’s doom.

The last few years have been a goldmine of throwback horror films, but as old-fashioned ghost stories go, 1922 puts even James Wan’s films to shame. If you have the patience for a well-crafted, slow-burning, and ultimately very satisfying film, add 1922 to your list.

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