The last line, “In the end we all get caught,” of Netflix’s new horror film “1922,” sums up the film’s takeaway in one sentence. The movie, based on the Stephen King novel, and the line, spoken by the protagonist Wilfred James (Thomas Jane, “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage”), embody a central theme: You can’t get away with murder. Despite Wilfred James’s evasion of the law, he is ultimately unable to avoid his guilt and delusions, putting himself in a sort of mental prison. Wilfred eventually comes to represent the paranoia that manifests from the guilt after a crime — in his case, the gruesome murder of his wife while she’s in a blurred drunken state.
The film opens up without hesitation to begin the exposition of Wilfred’s obsessive plot to murder of his wife to save his money and land. He even convinces his 15-year-old son, Henry (Dylan Schmid, “Once Upon a Time”) to co-conspire with him. The plotting is coupled with the film’s initially slow, ominous pace, as the maniacal father-son duo walk through towering green cornfields where the husks mask their faces in an oddly ethereal fashion. Director and screenwriter Zak Hilditch (“These Final Hours”) uses very few artificial lighting techniques and employs the use of available lighting, which, in 1922, truly only came in the form of daylight, burning lamps and candles. When Wilfred and Henry hover over warmly-lit lamps on their dark porch in the middle of Iowa, the eeriness and tension is heightened because the viewer can only see within the parameters of what is lit in the dim lights. This leaves the viewer left to wonder what extends into the darkness. Overall, the direction is not the film’s issue, and it was even, at times, artful, where Hilditch plays with blurring and focus of natural elements on the ranch to tightly control the masking of characters from the camera.
Like the title of the film, the year is 1922 outside Des Moines, Iowa, where women were recently granted universal suffrage. But in this rural setting, ranchers’ wives were expected to keep a tidy home for their husbands, with no room for greater personal aspirations, a societal hierarchy which Wilfred James supports. When his wife, Arlette (Molly Parker, “Deadwood”), a gifted seamstress before she was murdered, begins talking dreams of selling their land and moving to the city to open up a dress shop, Wilfred begins to get nervous. For Wilfred, and like other men at this period, this threatens his role as the family’s decision-maker, his land and his masculinity. Wilfred, with the assistance of his only son, Henry, brutally murders Arlette and throws her into the abyss of a dark well without thinking of the consequences. Not shortly after, rats begin to eat at her body and emerge from her orifices. Wilfred develops a festering paranoia of the rats bursting out of crevices, constantly reminding him of the great deed he did.
The murder occurs within the first 30 minutes of the film, allowing for no true narrative build up. With the rising action of the film completed at the beginning, it leaves over an hour remaining of watching Wilfred increasingly rot from his turmoil and paranoia. This narrative pace and structure can be successful, but the slow-burning, building mystery for which Hilditch presumably strived was sort of like extinguishing the candle altogether. The direction is dull at moments, but the true problem is rather more the story itself. The premise is not new, which isn’t to say that every film has to include a revolutionary plot or theme. But for such a common genre of small-town horror, it necessitates something unique or blank that differentiates it from the rest, which this film lacks. There are plenty of acclaimed rural horror movies, and adding this to the collection doesn’t make a compelling push for it audiences to watch. It is barely terrifying or mysterious, and the only jarring element was how foul it was to witness rat infestations and see their revolting tails scurry across the screen about every ten minutes.
Lastly, Hilditch could’ve used this film as an opportunity to explore the larger picture of female liberation and breaking out of gender roles during this period, which would have added an extra narrative layer to augment its staleness. But sadly, “1922” dives into a large pile of attempts but fails at true, nail-biting, hair-on-the-arm-standing horror.