Secret Window

Four Past Midnight

(2004), Stephen King

(includes the short story on which Secret Window is based)

A movie about story telling can be a tough call for a reviewer, who has to decide whether the flaws in the film are slips or deliberate comments by the screenwriter on the nature of telling a story. Secret Window, a film about a writer and his deranged stalker, has assets like Johnny Depp, John Turturro and an original story by Stephen King, but it also uses horror movie conventions that risk annoying rather than engaging its audience.

That’s a pity, because while many viewers will figure out early on what the "secret window" actually is, this is not a paint-by-numbers horror film with a conventional American ending. Johnny Depp plays Mort Rainey, a writer taking refuge in a lonely lakeside cabin from the agony of an acrimonious divorce. Rainey is a neurotic, unkempt slob with a volatile temper and a mop of unbrushed hair that he conceals under a black stocking cap when he ventures outside the cabin.

He’s awakened from one of his long naps by an angry visitor pounding on his door and bearing a typewritten manuscript. John Shooter, played by John Turturro as the embodiment of unreasoning southern malevolence, has driven all the way from Mississippi to confront Rainey, whom he accuses of plagiarizing one of his stories. Rainey has three days to offer Shooter proof that his story was written before Shooter’s version. Otherwise, Rainey will have to republish the story under Shooter’s name with Shooter’s original ending or suffer consequences that are far more frightening and personal than the embarrassment of a lawsuit.

Thus, the usual situation in a stalker story is set up. There’s the troubled, vulnerable victim in a remote location, (people in these movies almost never do the sensible thing and check into a hotel room in town.) There’s a maniacal antagonist who’s somehow able to commit outrageous acts of violence undetected by the authorities. There’s a beloved and therefore doomed pet. There is a beautiful woman to be put into danger, Rainey’s straying estranged wife (Maria Bello). And unfortunately, there’s also the cheap trick of a soundtrack cueing the audience about when they are supposed to be frightened. Twice the viewer is made to jump not by what’s unfolding on camera, but by the sudden loud burst of music that accompanies it.

And yet, having established these cliches, the film proceeds to turn most of them upside down, or at least tilt them slightly so that they begin to make sense. The more that’s revealed about Rainey, the circumstances of his divorce and his own history as a writer, the less this movie resembles the standard Hollywood thriller. The true twists in this film lie in the manner in which the audience’s expectations about the standard thriller plot are confounded.

Not all viewers are going to like those kind of surprises. Fans of standard Hollywood fare may not like a climax that is unusually unrelenting and, compared to most films, logical. They may in particular object to an ending that chills rather than reassures. Let’s just say that this movie–especially the final shot–will appeal to writers and to horror fans who prefer an ending that truly sinks its teeth into the story and concludes it with a crisp, satisfying crunch.

And, as a character in the film observes more than once, in any story it’s really the finish that’s important.

Pamela Troy