Chapelwaite is based on Jerusalem’s Lot, a 1978 short story by Stephen King, America’s veteran monarch of horror pulp. Like most best-sellers King is a patchy writer but this hasn’t prevented his books from being turned into an endless stream of Hollywood movies, some of them as good as Carrie (1976) or The Shining (1980). Although King found his first inspiration in the works of H.P.Lovecraft he has never matched the earlier writer’s ability as a master of the so-called weird tale. Where Lovecraft created an entire mythos of the supernatural, King gives us a comic book vision of pop culture vampires, ghouls, ghosts and gremlins.
Ironically, when it comes to screen adaptations superficiality can be an advantage. I’ve never seen a successful film translation of Lovecraft but King’s stories allow a skilled filmmaker plenty of leeway.
This seems to be true of Chapelwaite – a virtual anthology of gothic clichés set in the 1850s, which turned out to be far more engaging than I’d anticipated. A good deal of the credit must lie with the music, cinematography and set design which have created an atmosphere of foreboding. There’s a dim, pale, grimy feel to the hamlet of Preachers Corners in a backwater of Maine. The spooky old mansion in which most of the action takes place is as gloomy as a coal mine. The surrounding woods are suitably claustrophobic.
Another unusual virtue of the series is narrative restraint, which may be a function of the format. When filmmakers need to cram everything into an hour-and-a-half many corners are cut. Given the luxury of ten 50-minute episodes the problem is reversed. Now the onus is on building the story, fleshing out the characters and establishing a sense of place.
Chapelwaite creators, Jason and Peter Filardi, prove to be highly proficient in these areas, at least until the end of the fourth episode, which was as far as I was able to go. In this installment the tantalising sense of mystery that had been so well sustained, gets broken by a few startling revelations. Now that the supernatural element has moved into top gear there’s every chance the subtle atmospherics will give way to a procession of B-grade horror movie tropes. I hope I’m wrong.
One couldn’t ask for a more gripping opening to a series as we watch the young Charles Boone being attacked by his own father, who is intent on murdering his family in a psychotic rage. Having escaped this fate, Charles reappears 33 years later as the captain of a whaling vessel, committing his dead wife to the waves in the presence of their three children. Adrien Brody turns on the worried, haunted gaze he will wear for the rest of the series. His demeanour and painfully constrained voice give the impression of a man struggling to maintain control.
At this melancholy juncture there is only one option for Charles: to return to his place of birth and take possession of a mansion and a lumber mill left to him by his cousin Stephen. Needless to say, when Charles arrives at Preachers Corners with his daughters, Honor and Loa, (Jennifer Ens and Sirena Gulamgaus), and small son, Tane (Ian Ho), he meets with a hostile reception.
This is partly because his kids are half-Polynesian, and Maine in the 1850s seems to be a hotbed of white supremacy. (Is there an American drama nowadays that doesn’t play the race card?). The bigger, more daunting problem is that his relatives have left a very bad impression on everyone. For reasons never made entirely clear, the name “Boone” is poison in these parts. The most frequent advice Charles encounters is that he should go back whence he came. A strange illness afflicting the town is blamed squarely on the Boones, who are accused of being plague-mongers.
On the domestic front Charles is having bizarre hallucinations, imagining that his body is infested with worms. No, not ringworm, but large, juicy earthworms. He has, however, found an ally – and potential love interest – in local girl, Rebecca Morgan (Emily Hampshire) who has agreed to act as governess to the children while she secretly gathers information for her literary career.
By the fourth episode subplots are multiplying faster than the worms. The local minister has a guilty secret; the workers of the town have murderous designs on Charles; two unsavoury characters are brutally murdered; Honor has a crush on the young black man who works for her dad. We keep meeting a nameless girl in a nightie who is keen on apples and recreational self-harm. Is cousin Stephen really dead? Or undead?
Chapelwaite has a moderate amount of gore and the obligatory creepy stuff with doors and stairs, but the most unsettling aspect is the turmoil within Charles’s mind. It wouldn’t be a properly gothic tale if the Boones were not labouring under a curse, or Charles not wavering on the brink of madness. As in all the best horror movies, what we don’t see is more suggestive than anything that makes its way onto the screen.
As Charles struggles to hold on to his sanity the filmmakers strive gamely to keep this supernatural stew from bubbling over onto the stove. One suspects that by the second half of the series those brave efforts will be overrun. When unspeakable evil, or Stephen King, is turned loose on the world, we can expect that, sooner or later, any trace of dramatic credibility will be consigned to the tomb.
Created by Jason Filardi & Peter Filardi
Written by Jason Filardi & Peter Filardi after the story, ‘Jerusalem’s Lot’ by Stephen King
Starring Adrien Brody, Jennifer Ens, Sirena Gulamgaus, Ian Ho, Emily Hampshire, Gabrielle Rose, Michael Hough, Gord Rand, Jennie Raymond, Eric Peterson, Briony Merritt, Trina Corkum, Hugh Thompson, Devante Senior, Genevieve DeGraves
USA, rated MA, 10 episodes of 48-58 mins
Streaming on Stan
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 September, 2021