With his tireless work ethic and book sales in the kajillions, novelist Stephen King eventually reached the upper echelon of American letters and popular culture. It’s been ages since anyone even dreamed of calling him a hack, and his latest novel — a serious endeavour that re-imagines the John F. Kennedy assassination — makes it easier to pretend he’s got more in common with Don DeLillo than James Patterson.
King now surfs the elite and mainstream ends of the culture spectrum, delivering book reviews from on high (in the New York Times) as well as pop advice from a slightly lesser perch in a semi-regular column for Entertainment Weekly, in which he holds forth on the latest movies, TV shows, music and technology he likes. The theory seems to be that whatever rings his bell will presumably ring yours.
But there is still, after all these years, one reliable way to devalue the King brand: Put his name in a movie title.
“Stephen King’s Bag of Bones,” a deplorably dull two-night miniseries on A&E Sunday and Monday, is an exercise in scary movie bait-and-switch, and it serves as an unfortunate reminder that the man who is credited for inspiring horror film classics like “The Shining” has also attached his name to many more duds.
The highly stylized “Bag of Bones” ad campaign makes it look a lot more creepy than it is, something more akin to “The Walking Dead.” When, in fact, the miniseries tells a weak and predictable story of small-town crime, coverup and vengeful hauntings by the unsilent dead. It leans on cliche after cliche — attics filled with old 78 rpm jazz records mysteriously playing on a dusty Victrola; neighbors scornfully peering through lace curtains — and there is absolutely no justification for the movie’s interminable length. It feels as if it were edited with safety scissors, and while there is some attention paid to gory effects, there’s an overall laziness that occludes the story’s thin attempt at suspense. There are other sorts of laziness here, too, including a main character (Pierce Brosnan) who speaks with an Irish accent, while his brother (Matt Frewer) inexplicably doesn’t.
Based on King’s 1998 novel of the same name, “Bag of Bones” is set firmly in the author’s menacing Maine of murky lakes, spooky woods and overdue manuscripts, in which a best-selling novelist — a Stephen King analogue named Mike Noonan (Brosnan) — is tormented by grief, poltergeists and writer’s block.
The movie begins as Mike and his wife, Jo (Annabeth Gish), a painter, head out on a tour to promote his latest thriller. While Mike signs copies for fans, Jo steps outside the bookstore and gets flattened by an express bus. At her funeral, Mike’s agent (Jason Priestly, haunting the airwaves) advises his client to get back to the task at hand: Bang out another novel.
Mike begins getting vague messages from Jo’s ghost, compelling him to drive to their shuttered Maine summer house at Dark Score Lake, where she did her painting and apparently lots of redecorating. It’s also here that Mike learns, thanks to “Bag of Bones’s” blunt notion of foreshadowing, that Jo had nearly solved a town mystery involving the drowning of several little girls over the decades.
Brosnan, working an L.L. Bean sense of relaxed-fit-jeans-and-flannel crag, gamely gives “Bag of Bones” his best effort, recoiling in horror whenever presented with yet another hallucinatory visage of a decomposed victim. Ancient TV guest-star William Schallert plays the town’s richest creep; Deborah Grover plays his sadistically over-the-top henchwoman and caretaker. Anika Noni Rose plays a jazz and blues singer who disappeared decades ago while performing at the Dark Score Lake town fair.
Barely intrigued viewers — including anyone who has ever seen half an episode of “Ghost Whisperer” — will make quick work of “Bag of Bones” on the first night. This leaves the question of who will come back for a second night of this drivel, especially given the terrifying number of commercial breaks. Perhaps there’s a King novella to be written about the nightmare of watching “Bag of Bones,” in which a ghost who can’t reach the clicker must watch all those ads for Christmas sales. Her torment is eternal.
(two parts, two hours each) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on A&E. Concludes Monday at 9 p.m.