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.”
(For the record, King’s only real-life ghost story dates to a Democratic Party fund-raiser years ago at a house in Bangor, Maine. King went to the upstairs bedroom early to fetch his coat. “I’m bent over the coats, and I’m rummaging through them, and I’m aware there’s a man sitting against the wall. An old man, tan, bald head, pinstripe suit, red tie--I’m seeing everything. He’s watching me, I mean, I got the idea very clearly that he thinks I’m rifling through the coats looking for something to steal. I said, ‘Isn’t it funny you can never find your own coat?’ I look up, and there’s nobody there.” Like most ghost stories outside Hollywood, that’s about the end of it. King finds the coat, leaves the room alive.)
After the you-show-me-your-ghost-story-and-I’ll-show-you-mine exchange, the two men settled on the 1957 Shirley Jackson novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” in which a researcher gathers a group of psychics at an old house in an attempt to prove the existence of the supernatural, as a point of departure. Both saw Robert Wise’s 1963 film of the book, “The Haunting,” as a benchmark of cinematic house horror.
But as the writing got under way, there was a parting of the ways: Spielberg saw ghost stories one way, King saw them another. Spielberg ended up at DreamWorks shepherding the 1999 remake of “The Haunting,” starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones and produced and directed by Jan De Bont (“Speed” and “Twister”). King did “Rose Red.” Both projects, like Jackson’s novel, start with the idea of a house that’s gone bad. They feature an ensemble of characters (in “Rose Red,” they’re psychics, in “The Haunting” remake, insomniacs) who gather at the bad house and have the effect of stirring up the house’s worst traits.
Spielberg had gone along with King’s idea to use the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose as a source of inspiration: a house built room by room over decades by the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, who was told by a psychic she’d die if the house was ever finished. The main difference that emerged, as King tells it, was not over the house, but over how the characters would confront the ghosts inside it. “It went back and forth between us, and it became a kind of struggle for the soul of this movie,” King says. “In what he wanted, there was a feeling, almost a kind of sense of derring-do. An ‘Indiana Jones’ kind of thing that I didn’t really want in there. Steven wanted these people to be heroic. I just wanted them to be terrified.”
If the star was the house, the house had to be the first part cast. After considering some of the grandest and spookiest houses in America, the production team settled on Thornewood Castle, a rambling, 27,000-square-foot Tudor Gothic mansion on the shores of American Lake, south of Tacoma. The house had medieval stained glass windows, gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of Central Park, and 12 chimneys. It also had an important quality in King’s mind. On a sunny morning, with the birds chirping in the garden, the house has a warm, even cheerful feeling. But you wouldn’t necessarily want to be there on a moonless night.
The stories of Thornewood Castle and Rose Red bear a remarkable similarity. In King’s screenplay, Rose Red is built in 1906 by fictional Seattle oil magnate John Rimbauer as a home for his young new wife, Ellen. Thornewood was built in 1909 by financial tycoon Chester Thorne for his young wife, Anna. There is even a shared legacy of tragedy: Thorne’s young son died in Egypt, and there was a suicide in a gun closet off a downstairs bathroom. The “Rose Red” crew contracted with the present owners of Thornewood, now a bed-and-breakfast, to pay for and oversee a massive $500,000 remodeling project to restore the house as closely as possible to the original blueprints. Then, exteriors and some scenes--taking place in the massive billiard room and two bedrooms--were filmed at the Tacoma mansion.
But even at 27,000 square feet, Thornewood wasn’t big enough, not for King’s vision of a house that Ellen Rimbauer expanded continuously until she disappeared in it in 1950--after which the house kept growing, seemingly on its own, to sprawl over 133,000 square feet. Thornewood’s interiors are huge, but not massively, mind-numbingly huge. For that, the crew leased a series of large abandoned hangars at the former Sandpoint Naval Station on the shores of Lake Washington in Seattle. Inside the largest of them, Stearns fashioned a cavernous great hall with fireplace, to King’s specification, “big enough to cook a moose in,” carved columns, sweeping staircase, dining hall and a doorway opening out to the spooky solarium that is a trademark of all three “Haunting"-inspired productions.
So intertwined and intricately detailed are the sets that to walk through them is to imagine oneself in the middle of King’s architectural nightmare. In Jackson’s novel, Hill House’s very construction is part of what makes the house so easy to get lost in--angles aren’t true; lines aren’t straight; the combination of so many small fluctuations produces a huge distortion in the house itself.
In King’s screenplay, the house perpetually adds to itself. It gives birth to new dark chambers. Hallways that used to go one place end up going someplace else. It is no surprise that over the years, many visitors have simply disappeared. A key part of King’s vision was putting Rose Red right in the middle of downtown Seattle--near what would today be 6th Avenue and Spring Street. No lonely house on a hill, here, nor an isolated hotel like the one in “The Shining,” cut off from civilization--and potential rescue--by a long snowy road.
“He wanted people trapped in a house right in the middle of the city,” Stearns says. “The idea that you look out the windows and see the freeways, but you’re still trapped in the house and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
In trademark King style, some of the characters in the house end up loonier than the ghosts. That was part of the appeal for director Baxley, who felt he’d been pigeonholed as an action director with films such as “Action Jackson” (1988) and “Under Pressure” (1997). “I wanted to stay away from the blood, the gore, the usual elements that you would find in this genre,” Baxley said. “What’s unseen, what’s left to the imagination, is certainly more horrific and more terrifying. We tried to make it a cinematic, stylish movie, and yet be concerned with the characters. I didn’t want to let the characters get bigger than life. I wanted to keep them basically grounded in reality. Make them real people.”
The cast is led by actress Nancy Travis (whose credits include “Three Men and a Baby” and the short-lived TV series “Almost Perfect”) as Dr. Joyce Reardon, a paranormal psychologist who leads a team of psychics to Rose Red in hopes of restoring her foundering professional reputation with proof of supernatural phenomena.
To lure them there, Reardon offers them $5,000 and her assurance that the house has essentially been a “dead cell” since at least 1995, when its last victim disappeared. Rather quickly, the visitors, played by Matt Keeslar (who plays the last surviving Rimbauer), Kimberly Brown, Judith Ivey, Melanie Lynskey, Matt Ross, Julian Sands, Kevin Tighe and Emily Deschanel, discover that Reardon’s assurances are less than reliable.
As the history of the obsession of Ellen Rimbauer (played by Julia Campbell) over the construction of Rose Red unfolds, so do the stories of other obsessions: of psychology department chief professor Miller (played by the late David Dukes, who died on a tennis court the night before he was to film his death scene but whose part was salvaged with the use of a death mask created earlier), bent on discrediting Reardon; and ultimately, Reardon herself, who is supposed to be the responsible adult in the party but who, by the end of the third night, chillingly, isn’t. Far scarier than the ghoulish souls who periodically loom up in empty doorways is the realization that the only person denying that there are ghosts around is off her rocker.
As the 1999 remake of “The Haunting” did, King and company’s “Rose Red” abandons the eerie black-and-white imagery, stark camera angles and frightening hear-but-don’t-show specters of the Robert Wise classic--specters that may, after all, have been within the supercharged psychic brains of Hill House’s inhabitants. These ghosts walk, talk and menace, thanks to elaborate, state-of-the-art, computer-operated puppets created by Steve Johnson’s XFX of Sun Valley at an estimated cost of $150,000 apiece. Overall, the budget came in at roughly $35 million, perhaps half of what the DreamWorks feature film cost, partly because of inherent savings in special effects for video, but mostly, Carliner says, because of the lack of stars.
“But I insisted that we get enough money to make the picture that Steve sees in his head. And it worked. When Steve came out here and walked on the set, he was like a kid. His eyes! He went out and bought a camera so he could take pictures of it,” Carliner says. “You know, that’s the reason Steve does it. It’s not for the money. He does it because it’s fun.”
Fun--eclipsed by months of bone-searing pain--is what King remembers of the latter development of “Rose Red,” after a Dodge minivan plowed into him as he walked along a road near his lake house in western Maine.
“On Friday, we had the big conversation, and he said, ‘Call ABC and tell ‘em we’ll do it,’” Carliner recalls. “And they said call Craig Baxley and we were all going to get together and talk about it on Monday. And then on Saturday he was hit. And then for six months it was, ‘Is he going to live?’”
King started converting “Rose Red” from movie script to miniseries as soon as he emerged from the haze and finished his nonfiction memoir, “On Writing.” “I was using the work as dope, basically, because it worked better than anything they were giving me to kill the pain,” he said. “It was very difficult to push the pen 45 minutes a day, but it was vital to get back to work, because you have to break the ice somehow. You have to say, ‘This is what I do.’ I’m either going to continue to work, or I’m not. You say, ‘If I can do this, maybe I can walk. If I can walk, maybe I can resume some kind of human intercourse.’ Work seemed like a logical place to start.”
So he worked. He got the script back from Warner Bros. (bought there on Spielberg’s behalf) and decided to retool it into a miniseries. For a novelist, that was the best part, he says: turning two hours into six. “My problem with scripts has never been not being able to find enough material. My problem is getting ‘em down to a shootable length.”
But King these days is no longer a man with four or five new horror novels knocking around in the back of his head--at least, not that he plans to offer up for public consumption. “Rose Red” may be the end of an era, he says.
Like an accountant, King, 54, tallies the next projects he has coming out: a book of short stories, due in March. Then in the fall, the long-delayed novel “From a Buick Eight,” postponed because it involves a car accident and didn’t seem appropriate before. The last three novels in the “Dark Tower” series, to be completed in the coming year. A limited series about a haunted hospital for ABC. “Then that’s it. I’m done,” he says.
“Done writing books.” Or, at least, publishing books. (King can’t answer to what urges he’ll give in to in private.) “You get to a point where you get to the edges of a room, and you can go back and go where you’ve been, and basically recycle stuff,” he says. “I’ve seen it in my own work. People when they read ‘Buick Eight’ are going to think ‘Christine.’ It’s about a car that’s not normal, OK? You say, ‘I’ve said the things that I have to say, that are new and fresh and interesting to people.’ Then you have a choice. You can either continue to go on, or say I left when I was still on top of my game. I left when I was still holding the ball, instead of it holding me.
“I don’t want to finish up like Harold Robbins,” King says of the best-selling pulp novelist who, despite diminishing commercial success, wrote into his 80s, even after suffering aphasia from a stroke. Robbins died in 1997. “That’s my nightmare.” And you thought it was a bogeyman in a closet.
“Rose Red” airs tonight, Monday and Thursday at 9 on ABC. The network has rated the first part TV-14 and the second two parts TV-14V (may be unsuitable for young children).