There’s a fine line between a writer who uses recurring motifs and one who merely repeats himself. Stephen King stumbles over that line with his latest ABC miniseries, Rose Red.
The title refers to a creepy old mansion that’s rumored to be haunted (kinda like ”The Shining”) and can shift its shape and size at will, just like the titular abode in King’s last novel, ”Black House.” The key to unlocking the structure’s paranormal powers is held by Annie (”Tumbleweeds”’ Kimberly J. Brown), a 15-year-old girl with telekinetic abilities — a cross between ”Carrie” and ”Firestarter.” You don’t have to be psychic to see that King is sampling some of his greatest hits; it’s no shock that a man who didn’t let a near- fatal road accident slow his superhuman literary output would eventually start to rehash his own material.
At least, unlike so many King tales, this one isn’t set in Maine. The legendary spook house Rose Red is located in Seattle. It’s said to have been ghost-free for the past five years, but a local psychology professor (”So I Married an Axe Murderer”’s Nancy Travis) organizes an extrasensory all-star team for a Memorial Day weekend sleepover in an attempt to ”wake up” the domicile. Her mission is to prove the existence of supernatural phenomena to a skeptical academic rival (David Dukes, who died of a heart attack during filming in 2000).
Her team includes Emery (”American Psycho”’s Matt Ross), a post-cognate — meaning he sees dead people — with a dorky Bill Gates hairdo and a mega-chip on his shoulder; Victor (Kevin Tighe), a pre-cognate — meaning he sees the future; Nick (Julian Sands, a lot closer to his work in ”Warlock” than in ”A Room With a View”), a mind reader; Cathy (Judith Ivey), a devout Christian/human Ouija board; and the aforementioned Annie, who’s supposedly autistic, although the only evidence is that she says ”Good ‘orning” instead of ”Good morning.” With her round face, brunet hair, and red beret, the most disturbing thing about Annie is that she’s a dead ringer for a prepubescent Monica Lewinsky.
Travis’ miscasting is even more problematic. There’s nothing remotely professorial about her, aside from the pair of glasses she occasionally puts on and takes off to indicate deep thought. She seems less like an obsessed paranormal researcher than a terminally perky tour guide. And Tighe, the ex?”Emergency” paramedic who’s aged into a well-rounded character actor (he recently played a backstabbing governor on ”The West Wing”), isn’t given much to do except gape.
Herein lies a major problem with ”Rose Red”: Nothing happens for the first, oh, four hours or so. It takes the entire opening night just to get the group inside the house, and the second part ends with such an anticlimax that it’s hard to believe viewers will come back for the final installment, especially since it’s set to air against NBC’s still-potent Thursday-night lineup and CBS’ unstoppable ”CSI.”
The brilliant ”Black House” (cowritten with ”Ghost Story” scribe Peter Straub) put a fresh coat of paint on the haunted-mansion genre, but Rose Red trades in only the hoariest of horror clichés. Corpses open their eyes, rats scurry out of the shadows, and a suit of armor starts walking. Scooby-Doo should sue for plagiarism.
A few genuinely unsettling sights float by, like the ghost of a young girl with a withered arm carrying a doll and singing ”I’m a Little Teapot.” Yet director Craig R. Baxley, who also helmed ABC’s last King project, 1999’s underwhelming ”Storm of the Century,” can’t shake much terror out of a script that’s peppered with such howlers as ”It’s the house — it’s coming alive!” and ”We’re in trouble, ladies and gentlemen. Big trouble.”
As in most of his ABC miniseries (which also include 1994’s solid adaptation of ”The Stand” and 1997’s underappreciated remake of ”The Shining”), King contributes a cameo to Rose. In this case, he plays a pizza delivery guy. Sadly, the imagery couldn’t be more apt. Like a Domino’s customer, Stephen King is just phoning it in.