Laughter is contagious. So is fear. Maybe that explains why "Secret Window" doesn't make a viewer's heart pound like a consort of trepid tympani, the way it ought to. The ingredients are all there—isolation, brooding, stalking, madness, desperation, revenge, even murder—but the fear level in the characters isn't strong enough to pull an audience completely into a world of heightened and sustained suspense. Until the very end, that is.
Like Stephen King, who wrote the novella "Secret Window, Secret Garden" upon which the film is based, reclusive writer Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) lives in an isolated cabin on a New England lake. Presumably, because of a bout of writer's block following a messy break-up (a pre-title sequence shows him grabbing the keys to a local motel and barging in on his wife and her lover), Mort shuffles from here to there in his bed-head and bathrobe, mostly lying on his couch and cat-napping while the blind old dog that belonged to his wife sits faithfully nearby. Then comes a knock. Standing at the door is a southerner straight out of "Deliverance" who wears a wide-brimmed black hat and announces, like a preacher full of Old Testament brimstone, "You stole my story." And he threatens to kill the author unless he sets things right by changing the ending and giving him the credit.
Now, that will resonate at the end of the movie, but the problem is that from this encounter through most of the middle, this swaybacked thriller plods along predictably and with surprisingly little fear displayed by the main character. In "Cujo," another King adaptation, a palpable fear was generated by people trapped inside a car by a rabid dog. In "Carrie," the title character was trapped in a household run by an oppressive Fundamentalist mother. In "Maximum Overdrive," King's pathetic foray into directing, characters at a truck stop were trapped inside by machines gone wild. But here's this successful mystery writer who only needs to grab his car keys and leave his house in the boonies to escape the threat of a stalker, and the thought never occurs to him. He may get surprised each time Shooter (John Turturro) shows up, and the disheveled Depp conveys plenty of intensity (when has he not?), but he displays nothing approaching real "help me" fear. In fairness, and in retrospect, this apparent deficiency is explained by the ending. But viewers conditioned to expect a bit more non-stop suspense from the master of modern horror will find this good but not great celluloid King.
Mort goes to a private investigator he's hired in the past to deal with "wacko" fans, but the amiable Ken Karsch (Charles S. Dutton) goes about his business this time as matter-of-factly as if he were staking out that motel to snap photos of the philandering wife. The town sheriff is just as low-key. Only Mort's soon-to-be ex-wife, Amy (Maria Bello) shows concern, but even she's more wrapped up in her motel rendezvous guy, Ted (Timothy Hutton). I mean, before she enters the cabin to check on her estranged (and slightly deranged) husband, she takes a bloodied page off her shoe with the same nonchalance as if it were toilet paper. Where's the FEAR, people??
Maybe it's played a bit too cerebrally by screen-writer and director David Koepp, who divulges all sorts of intended symbols and parallels in his commentary and on three featurettes. Even lit-minded eggheads would be hard-pressed to put two and two together and conclude that the biblical title of Shooter's script ("Sowing Season") implies that somebody must have done a little reaping, and figure out who and what. And practically no one would notice that Koepp arranged it so his besieged writer would find a rock holding down the script on his front porch one minute, and scissors were placed in the exact same spot later (rock, paper, scissors—get it?).
But the basic premise is simple. The writer is besieged by a man claiming he stole the story (never mind that the publisher isn't alerted, or attorneys aren't even called), he's still bitter over his wife's cuckolding of him, and he's blocked like a beaver dam when it comes to writing. He calls his private investigator friend, who looks into things, and the not-so-happy triangle ends up in front of their lawyers talking about division of property. Shooter keeps appearing with more and more frequency, there are a few killings, and then . . . . Well, all those loose ends and things that came unraveled finally start to come together. The ending IS suspenseful, and the performances are first-rate. So is the photography and editing, with Koepp using a multitude of harsh camera angles to complement the fog-saddled New England scenery (filmed on location, actually, in a small town near Montreal). And you know, Depp is always fun to watch. He's probably the most gifted actor of his generation, and his performance here is rock-solid.
The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1 aspect ratio) color and mastered in High Definition—which is good, because the film stock Koepp used was fine enough grain to provide clear images, even in low light and haze.
Audio options are English and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with English and French subtitles (the film was, after all, made in Quebec) and the director's commentary track. There's plenty of ambient sounds (knocks on the door, rustling trees, etc.) scattered among the main and back speakers, which can be just as startling as some of the film's developments.
Just as the film was good but not great, so go the extras. The best among them are four deleted scenes playable with or without commentary and including an alternate ending. Also decent is Koepp's low-key commentary, where it's fascinating to hear him keep talking about the differences between the early days of making thrillers ala Hitchcock versus nowadays. What was simple in the Forties is complex now and takes twice as long and costs twice as much. Is the overall effect worth it? You'll be surprised at Koepp's answer. It's also pretty interesting that he recorded the commentary remarks 10 days prior to the film's theatrical release, so he had no idea whether the film bombed or was well received. There are some nice anecdotes about the crew (including trivia such as the placement of Tom Robbins' books on the shelves at Depp's request, that Depp wanted to wear braces not just at the end but throughout the film), and that the dog in the picture really was an old blind dog.
Other extras include three featurettes (one of them titled "Secrets Revealed," so don't make the mistake of watching the extras before you see the film) that are pretty par for the course, no earthshaking disclosures and, by contrast, nothing too inane. There are also four animatics (computer-generated mock-ups) that Koepp used, and trailers.
There are moments when you'll have flashbacks to Depp's performance as Capt. Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean," but by and large he convincingly plays a grungy, un-kept writer (boy, did they save money on HIS wardrobe) still reeling from an unfaithful wife. Director Koepp creates a credible mood and an intriguing screenplay version of King's novella. If only it didn't take so long for things to unfold. Viewers may find themselves lulled into the same "so what?" complacency that the characters display, until things get rolling toward the end. Even if it's by design, there's only so much Depp can do rattling around This Old House.