Secret Window

| March 17, 2004

I think it’s safe to say that Stephen King has not yet enjoyed the levels of success in film and television that he has in prose writing, whether novels or short stories. This may have to do with the fact that many of his stories work best when they tap the imagination, a feat far easier to achieve in the abstract world of text on a page than in the more literal world of moving images. I still remember reading The Shining and Salem’s Lot throughout the night because I was too afraid to stop reading and turn out the lights. None of his film or television work, whether adaptations of his novels and short stories or original, has achieved the same level of fear and dread for me, and in fact, some become almost laughable (Maximum Overdrive, anyone?) when presented so tangibly as films or shows.
And in many ways, the most effective cross over work from page to screen has come from his short stories and his earlier work. Keeping that tradition is Secret Window, based on a story from Four Past Midnight and adapted and directed by David Koepp, who has scribed projects ranging from Apartment Zero to Death Becomes Her to Carlito’s Way to Mission Impossible to Panic Room to Spider-Man. Not quite as prolific as a director, Koepp’s last outing directing film was Stir Of Echoes, which was a decent suspense/horror film that paled in comparison to its contemporary, The Sixth Sense.
Not much has changed since. There’s nothing in Secret Window that you haven’t already seen a number of times in the past few years, and it extends the growing line of films that follow a standardized set of plot devices that have become so common they are forming their own genre (or sub-genre). To put it more bluntly, I’m not sure you can call these devices “twists” if they’ve become so expected that they’re now stock elements.
What this all means is that Secret Window is competently executed and relatively engaging but nothing new or particularly special. There are few jolts and even the sense of dread is meager. The Sixth Sense, Frailty, Identity and even Stir Of Echoes have already prepared (or jaded or simply exhausted) the audience for this kind of film.
King works with elements we’ve seen before in his stories, primarily ‘writer fears’ and throwing in a bit of ‘hick fear’ for good measure. A writer living alone in self-exile as a result of a bitter breakup from his wife is haunted by strange man from Mississippi who accuses him of plagiarism. But pretty quickly the writer realizes that the man doesn’t have a case because he claims to have written the story after the date the writer first published it. The writer strikes a deal that the man will leave him alone once he shows him a copy of the original magazine with the story in it. While more cohesively and logically structured than something like Gothika, there are a few points that defy motivation (which I guess is supposed to be explained by the final twists). For instance, I think if a crazy guy was threatening me and had killed my dog unless I can prove I wrote the story, I’d be getting the proof he needs immediately. But the writer delays as the deadline ticks down.
The only area to set Secret Window apart is the performances, and certainly Maria Bello (astonishing in last year’s The Cooler), John Turturro and Johnny Depp are up to the demand.
For Depp, this is an interesting follow up to Pirates Of The Caribbean in that this also seems like a fluffy film but his presence gives it more weight. Turturro is sufficiently creepy and one-note. Bello is good but doesn’t really have enough to do here, and her role seems like it either needs to be expanded or cut back – something about the balance of time spent with her doesn’t quite feel right, like we need more or less. One or the other.
Secret Window is basically an homage to King’s previous work. You’ll see ideas and elements cropping up (pun intended) literally (The Shining’s “redrum”) or associationally (Children Of The Corn) from other King stories. Not to mention a basic situation reminiscent of The Dark Half. As a result, Secret Window works as a sort of in-joke but suffers from the comparisons you inevitably make.
Worth matinee admission. Nothing you’ll be talking about afterwards. You won’t even think twice before turning out the lights.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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