After a deadly plague kills most of the world's population, the remaining survivors split into two groups - one led by a benevolent elder and the other by a maleficent being - to face each other in a final battle between good and evil.
Dr. Joyce Reardon, a psychology professor, leads a team of psychics into the decrepit mansion known as Rose Red. Her efforts unleash the spirit of former owner Ellen Rimbauer and uncover the horrifying secrets of those who lived and died there. Written by
Rose Red is basically an uncredited remake of The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House. The novel was first made into a film by Robert Wise in 1963. Jan de Bont did a much-loathed remake, which I prefer to the Wise film, in 1999. Novelist Stephen King, who wrote the script for Rose Red, has long said that Jackson's book is one of his favorites, and he's a fan of the Wise film. The Jackson book has greatly influenced his work. I don't recall ever hearing King's opinion of the de Bont remake, but I could imagine that he might not have cared for it very much.
Thus, it was only natural that when Steven Spielberg contacted King about doing a haunted house film shortly after the release of the de Bont remake, King thought it would be a great opportunity to give the world an updated filmic version of The Haunting of Hill House, but done "right". Probably because of the negative public reaction to the de Bont film, and the temporal proximity (and possibly because of rights/licensing issues), it was decided to do something "original" instead of marketing another remake. But make no mistake, there are far too many similarities in the story, the structure and the visuals for this to not be a Haunting remake. Enough was changed that no one could be sued for copyright infringement, of course, and in making the changes and lengthening the film to a mini-series, King and director Craig R. Baxley have topped both previous versions of The Haunting. Rose Red is very nearly a 10. Only a couple slight missteps bring the score down to a 9.
Rather than Hill House, the name of the home is Rose Red. And rather than being in the countryside in New England, King has moved it to a hilltop in Seattle, Washington. This was a great idea, in that it gives the home an eerier feeling because of its incongruity with its surroundings, and it emphasizes the fact that the home is in its own world, with an ability to keep visitors captive, regardless of how close civilization may seem.
Dr. John Montague/Dr. John Markway/Dr. David Morrow has been changed to Dr. Joyce Reardon (Nancy Travis). The gender is different, but the aim is the same--to research the big, supposedly haunted house on the hill using the aid of some psychically inclined folks. Eleanor Vance/Eleanor Lance has been changed to Annie Wheaton (Kimberly J. Brown), now a teen, but just as "key" to bringing the house alive. Luke Sanderson has been changed to Steve Rimbauer (Matt Keeslar). He's similarly the heir looking to make some quick cash. King also gives his "hill house" a similar history, with a more typical turn-of-the-century source of fortune for John Rimbauer, who takes the place of Hugh Crain, and King lets Rimbauer's bride, Ellen, live much longer than Crain's. This all serves the story remarkably well--it gives a lot more depth to the home, and gives a good 50 years or so before the home was finally abandoned, after countless tragedies. Increasing Rose Red's active history also enabled strengthening the parallels to Sarah Winchester's "Mystery House", which had been alluded to in previous instantiations of The Haunting.
Similarly, increasing the running time of the film enabled King to go into great depth with characterization, exposition and backstory. Early material establishing Joyce as something of a quack at her university works extremely well and sets up a great subplot with a warring department head, Professor Carl Miller (David Dukes), and a student flunky, Kevin Bollinger (Jimmi Simpson). Annie works 100% better as a character than Eleanor, and King gives us a psychological intensity in her familial situation that easily trumps Eleanor. The increased running time also enables a large cast of characters for Rose Red to play with--that was always one of the problems with the other films. There just weren't enough people around to work with or make the experimental situation believable. The larger cast enables a typical King Ten Little Indians-styled gradual character knock-off, which for me helps the story work better as horror. It's notable that the deaths and the appearance of otherworldly antagonists in Rose Red are more graphic and brutal than the other versions of The Haunting, despite the fact that Rose Red was made to initially air on ABC television in the U.S. King and Baxley do a great job of pacing the build-up to violent chaos over the film's 4-hour running time.
Although de Bont's film is well known and deservedly respected at least for its eye-popping, opulent sets, Baxley also trumps that aspect conceptually. Rose Red isn't nearly as grandiose, baroque or decorative as de Bont's Hill House, but it's even more bizarre and surreal, and Baxley better keeps it in the realm of spookiness.
Also far better than any other version of The Haunting, King and Baxley expertly develop complex subtexts and motivations for characters. These are too numerous to mention here, but the most interesting and important one may be Joyce's gradual transformation from lovable kook to manipulative, obsessive maniac. There are increasing suggestions in later scenes that Joyce may be possessed by some spirit, but smartly, Baxley and King keep this ambiguous--it's just as believable that her own monstrous side is finally emerging.
Unfortunately for all of its brilliance there are a couple minor flaws with Rose Red. There is a muddled section during the crew's first night in the home, when some members go wandering around and unintentionally shed their mortal coils. There are also a couple later sections with characters wandering around the house in a panic that are just a bit too stretched out--it can begin to feel more like padding to meet running time requirements than plot necessity. However, these flaws are minor, especially given the breadth of the film. Rose Red is a must-see for any haunted house film fan.
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