SEATTLE — A house, author Stephen King muses, is a place of shelter. "It's the body we put over our bodies. As our bodies grow old, so do our houses. As our bodies sicken, so do our houses." Then he wonders (and the trouble always seems to start when King begins wondering): What happens if mad people live inside a house? Does their madness creep into the walls, the corridors, the very boards? "Isn't that in large part what we mean when we say a place isn't quiet?" he writes. "We say 'haunted.' But we mean the house has gone insane." Cut to a low, looming shot of a house that just this morning looked friendly enough and now, tangled in vines and a cold, rolling mist, stuck under a low moon with a bunch of scared people inside, looks like it has completely gone out of its mind.
In "Rose Red," the ABC miniseries starting tonight, Stephen King, the master of horror who has made a career out of everything from ghost-infested hotels to man-eating plants to the devil himself, takes on the defining metaphor of the genre, the granddaddy of all spook generators, the haunted house. Airing over six hours tonight, Monday and Thursday, "Rose Red" explores themes of fear and obsession, of what happens when a dwelling (and the mandatory associated turrets, gables, endless halls and dank back stairways) is inhabited, and finally corrupted, by the passion, betrayal and disappointment of those, living and not, who walk their corridors.
In true King form, "Rose Red" also delivers, along with ethereal glows in dark windows and closet doors that won't stay closed, plenty of honest-to-goodness, tentacle-fingered spooks, fanged rats and lunging, bloody hands--all with a dark, drippy "Twin Peaks" ambience that Seattle, the setting for "Rose Red," seems born to deliver. For those who demand technology with their poltergeists, Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Stuart Robertson (who helped create heaven in 1998's "What Dreams May Come") helps director Craig R. Baxley imagine with stunning precision what would happen if, say, a woman who died in 1950 decided she wanted to scare the bejesus out of somebody half a century later by looming out of a mirror, or if somebody running away from a garden statue made the mistake of turning back to look?
But 21st century, computer-generated ghosts were not the point. Not for King, and not for co-executive producer Mark Carliner, who earlier teamed with King, Baxley, producer Thomas H. Brodek and production designer Craig Stearns for the 1999 King miniseries "Storm of the Century." "'Rose Red' is a fairy tale for grown-ups," Carliner said. Not the Disney version of fairy tales, he hastens to add. The other kind. The kind in which the woman in the forest just might put Hansel and Gretel in her pot, or the shape greeting Little Red Riding Hood from under the covers isn't Grandma. Think the brothers Grimm, who penned the story of Snow White and her sister, Rose Red, that King, subconsciously, Carliner believes, used as a name for his house from hell.
"Stephen King uses all the metaphors, all of the symbols in this story: the evil spirit, the wicked witch, the doppelganger. What makes Stephen King the world's best-selling author is he has truly found a path into the collective unconscious," Carliner says. "All of the essential ingredients of Grimm are the basic material. If you think about it, Alice fell through a hole and ended up in Wonderland. Our [characters], once they find they're trapped in Rose Red, they're in kind of a weird and wicked wonderland."
King, who returned to "Rose Red" as his first fiction project after the June 1999 car accident that nearly killed him, must have seen it as something of a swan song. Speaking over the holidays, as his grandkids gathered around him at the King homestead in Maine, he said he intends "Rose Red" to be one of his last horror projects, at least, of the kind he's willing to publish. "When you get done, you get done," he said simply.
So a haunted house, a house with a mind of its own, that was mandatory. For King, it was always mainly the house. He imagined a house "that was bigger on the inside than on the outside. A house you could get lost in." Hollywood, of course, has never wanted for haunted house movies, from early classics such as James Whale's "The Old Dark House" (1932) to the ill-advised 1999 remake of "The House on Haunted Hill."
What brought King to the table initially was Steven Spielberg, who a few years ago approached King about working with him on a haunted house project.
"He called me up and said, 'I want to make the scariest ghost story ever made,'" King recalls. "Then he told me his ghost story--he's got one, and from the way he tells it, you get the idea that he's told it at a lot of parties over the years--and I told him mine, which is not anywhere near as good as his."