One of my favorite pieces of horror fiction is “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story published in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s the journal entries of a woman whose physician husband has rented a house for the summer, and confined the woman to an upstairs room. The isolation is supposed to help the woman recover from “nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” (in fact, the woman may be suffering from post-partum depression, as there are references to a baby the woman is unable to take care of). She’s forbidden to read or have visitors, as her patronizing husband deems those things too stimulating; she has nothing to do but sit in her room for hours on end. The room is covered in a particularly unattractive yellow wallpaper, and with nothing else to do, the woman obsesses over the wallpaper, becoming more and more mentally unstable.
What makes the short story so effective is its ambiguity - is it a ghost story, or a tale of ordinary madness? However, this ambiguity, coupled with the fact that it takes place entirely in the narrator’s mind, makes the story not the best choice for a film adaptation. Perhaps someone like David Lynch, who can make horror out of the most mundane surroundings, could turn it into a powerful short film.
Unfortunately, the makers of The Yellow Wallpaper decided to use the story’s title and a few small bits of the story, and then make their own story. Which could be forgiven, if the proceedings were compelling. But aside from scattered moments of effectiveness and Juliet Landau’s performance, there’s little to recommend the film.
The film opens with a married couple, Charlotte and John (Juliet Landau and Aric Cushing) and Charlotte’s sister Jennie (Dale Dickey), seeking a new home after theirs burned down, along with Charlotte’s and John’s child Sarah. Apparently the news that a home was available for rent came to the couple while the ashes of their home were literally still warm, is available for an extremely low price, is fairly isolated, and so on. In short, everything about this house screams “BAD SHIT WILL HAPPEN HERE” but the trio miss all the obvious signs and move in anyway.
The sequence that follows is actually rather effective, focused less on supernatural shenanigans and more on the family’s attempts to cope with the loss of literally everything: their daughter, their house, their possessions. Indeed, they have nothing but the clothes on their backs and have to make do with old clothes they find in the attic. John and Charlotte are driven away from each other by their grief (and by guilt as well), and Jennie finds herself with no purpose in life now that there’s no child to help care for. But then things start going bump in the night and the emotional drama gives way to drawn-out scenes of things skulking around the house, creepy townspeople, the bad history of the house, and more, til it all ends in a wholly unsatisfying way.
There are saving graces: The always under-rated Juliet Landau turns in a nice performance, giving Charlotte’s character nuance and depth, particularly in her scenes shortly after moving into the house. Unfortunately she’s not on screen nearly enough to save the film. Likewise, the aforementioned scenes of the family struggling to put its life back together. I was particularly taken with a scene in which Charlotte and Jennie have to host a flock of gossipy, superficial local women who’ve come to visit, and are visibly uncomfortable with the situation as they’re still in shock from the fire and death of the child.
Sadly, far too much time goes to John’s character. He’s already an unpleasant character, brusque and dismissive of the women, and Aric Cushing’s performance is probably the film’s greatest failing, a one-note affair that makes his scenes a chore to watch. Add to this numerous scenes so dark as to be incomprehensible, subplots that go nowhere, heavy-handed music, and some truly bizarre scenery (what’s with the weird desert surroundings?). There’s little tie-in to the short story – save for some scenes in a yellow wallpapered room where Charlotte spends an inordinate amount of time (we’re told this, not shown it), and a reference to Charlotte writing the title story, but there’s no resonance between that and the rest of the film’s events – it feels tacked on.
It’s a shame, because in the right hands the story could make an excellent short film, one in which Landau’s performance wouldn’t have gone to waste. I give the film-makers props for at least trying to bring a story that today’s horror fans ma not have heard of to the screen, but they didn’t go about it in the right way.
The DVD has no extras.