The opening credits give away both the disappointing and the predictable elements of this film. To see the names ‘Johnny Depp’ and ‘John Turturro’ warms the heart of many a film lover. Then comes ‘Score by Phillip Glass’: he’s been associated with a lot of good films in his time, so far so good. Next comes the big one: ‘Based on the novel by Steven King’. At this point one must ask oneself the key question: am I about to witness another masterpiece like Carrie or The Shining, or am I about to sit through the kind of predictable, horror-by-numbers film that make up the other 78 in the King back catalogue?
The story offered to us is that of Mort Rainey (Depp), a writer living in his reclusive lakeside hideaway attempting to work on his next novel but suffering from writer’s block. He is also trying to come to terms with a messy divorce. His wife Amy (Maria Bello) is living in their idyllic suburban house with her lover Ted (Timothy Hutton) and is badgering him to sign the divorce papers. To add to his trouble a mysterious stranger, John Shooter (Turturro), turns up at his hideaway claiming that Mort stole his short story ‘Secret Window’- he presents him with his manuscript and demands to know why he stole it and why he changed the ending. Mort denies the accusation and offers to show Shooter his original, dated before Shooter’s, to settle the argument. The original proves allusive however, and Shooter turns out to be a nutcase who stalks Mort, kills his dog, and gives him a deadline to see the original. Mort becomes embroiled in a nightmare scenario and things grow out of control as Shooter increasingly dominates his life. With horrific consequences, of course.
So all the staples of a King story are there: the central character is a writer struggling with writer’s block, the isolated and claustrophobic setting, the mysterious nutter and the steady progression into horror and insanity. The infuriating thing is that the director and screenwriter David Koepp, and his esteemed cast, do nothing new with this tired cliché. As a director Koepp is still a relative novice, this being his fourth feature to date. As a screenwriter however he has an impressive CV, including some films that positively display an ability to re-work old genres. Jurassic Park (1993), for example, re-invigorated the sci-fi monster B-movies of the 1950s. Carlito’s Way (1993) came at the mobster movie genre from a new angle. Even the recent Panic Room (2002) displayed an astute understanding of suspense and horror. Yet all this is so sadly lacking in Secret Window. Even the dialogue, to which a screenwriter turned director should at least add some quality, falls out of the actors’ mouths with an audible clunk. For example, Amy accuses Mort of never being there towards the end of their marriage, to which Mort replies he was at the house all the time: Amy retorts, ‘even when you were with me you were gone’. Or when Shooter threateningly mentions Amy’s name to Mort, the whole audience could have mouthed along with Mort’s line ‘Don’t bring my wife into this’. These sing-along moments are all too frequent.
Koepp’s last film as a director was the made-for-TV Suspense (2003), and Secret Window has a made-for-TV look about it too. He follows the rulebook of suspense and horror direction along very tried and tested lines. Comedy is attempted in a couple of the set pieces between Mort, Amy and Tom, but they are more likely to make you wince than laugh. The soft focus, sunny flashbacks of Mort and Amy’s happy times are painfully clichéd. Koepp even tries a little cross-referencing within the mise-en-scene of Mort’s house. We see Tom Robbins’ novel Villa Incognito standing beside the phone (the villa of Robbins’ book is so isolated it can only be reached by helicopter, and Mort’s house is quite isolated as well!) In case we missed it first time it is shown again, several times. A Hunter S. Thompson and an Elroy Leonard novel are also unnaturally placed in other shots. Exactly why is uncertain, perhaps to try an add some quality to the film by association, although I couldn’t help thinking the Thompson novel ironically reminded us of a much better Depp film (Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas).
The film’s biggest crime is its unoriginality, but the cast do all give professional performances despite the restraints of the screenplay. Depp, I can only assume, took on the role with Jack Nicholson in mind. His character is almost a carbon copy of Jack’s in The Shining, including obsessively writing the same words over and over again as he is overcome by insanity. So for anyone who has never seen a horror film before, let alone a Stephen King story, Secret Window may well be affecting, scary, clever even. And having received a 12A certificate in Britain this section of the audience could be fairly large. For those of us whose first film wasn’t Spiderman however (incidentally also a Koepp screenplay), Secret Window is one to avoid.