LOS ANGELES, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Meet young Annie Wheaton (Kimberly J. Brown), an autistic savant (is there any other kind onscreen?) whose special talents include reading minds and making giant boulders rain down on unpleasant neighbors.
Powerfully psychic Annie is the key that will unlock Rose Red, a supposedly dormant haunted mansion built in 1907 by Seattle oil magnate John Rimbauer. Over the years, Rose Red has caused the deaths or disappearances of various Rimbauer kith and kin.
In real life, you'd therefore steer clear of the old Rimbauer place. But as everyone knows, in haunted house stories gothic turrets, angry ghosts and masses of dead vines all add up to just one thing: the perfect weekend getaway!
Steven King's new ABC miniseries "Rose Red" was originally planned as a Steven Spielberg movie. But the script kept expanding, Winchester House-like, beyond the parameters of a two-hour feature film.
"Movies always make me feel like I'm stealing all the towels in the hotel room and then sitting on the suitcase to get everything in," explains King. "When you do a miniseries, you've really got a much bigger space. It's the difference between a suitcase and a steamer trunk. You've got the room for a whole narrative wardrobe."
So Spielberg, who instead produced the laughably kitschy remake of "The Haunting" three years ago, amicably released the rights back to King.
"Rose Red" is now six hours spread over three nights, beginning Jan. 27 at 9 p.m. It's great fun, and not as nearly as laughable as the dreadful "The Haunting." Still, "Rose Red" is pretty silly, complete with constant references to "The Haunting's" tagline: "Some houses are born bad."
Did Shirley Jackson really say that? I don't remember. But I do remember that "The Haunting," based on her truly disturbing book, "The Haunting of Hill House," wasn't particularly creepy.
Neither is "Rose Red," despite plenty of walking corpses and chopped-off fingers and sex-starved ghosts.
Here's something Shirley Jackson did say, though, if you're in the market for real chills.
"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality," begins her deeply eerie "The Haunting of Hill House."
"Even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within ... and whatever walked there walked alone."
Now that's a lot scarier than "Some houses are born bad." And you'd think they might have steered clear of that phrase in any case, since at the time it led to a thousand reviews of "The Haunting" that pointed out, "... and so are some movies."
Anyway, the plot of "Rose Red" revolves around high-strung parapsychology researcher Joyce Reardon (Nancy Travis, who seems to be channeling Faye Dunaway as "Mommie Dearest".) Joyce believes so much that Annie is the key she repeats her theory constantly to anyone who will listen.
Lest she forget this for a moment (or should anyone miss the point, perhaps having ducked into the kitchen for a snack during one of her many speeches), she writes it out in block capitals as the camera zooms in on her diary: ANNIE WHEATON IS THE KEY WHICH WILL UNLOCK ROSE RED.
Boy, will she ever. Professor Reardon takes Annie and five other psychics on an overnight haunted house research expedition. There's elderly but suddenly priapic Vic (Kevin Tighe) -- "Is he sneaking Viagra in the bathroom?" someone wonders -- who begins chasing lovely Pam (Emily Deschanel), who is soon found floating in a pond.
There's mousy, religious Cathy (Judith Ivey), who dislikes Ouija boards ("they're nasty"), and handsome Nick (Julian Sands), and fat, awkward Emery (Matt Ross), whose mother keeps checking after his bowel movements.
But weird Emery, who seems like a thumbnail sketch of the hardcore Steven King fan, is not just psychic but perceptive.
"Underneath that phony tour guide schtick," he remarks of Professor Reardon, "she's as crazy as the Red Queen."
Miniseries these days are usually limited to two nights. But Steven King is an exception.
"The last six-hour miniseries was Steven King's one for us, 'Storm of the Century,' two or three seasons ago," pointed out new ABC president Susan Lyne, when I asked about this. "Steven likes to work in television because it allows him to unfold the story over a period of time. He doesn't have to do the quick three acts you need for a feature film."
"We're in the big event business," said ABC chairman Lloyd Braun. "It's hard to keep the viewers' attention for that long, and you've got to have the right concept. But clearly we felt 'Rose Red' was one of those."
ABC, like parent company Disney, is also in the synergy business, and you won't find a stronger (and odder) example of that than "Rose Red."
Six hours is a long time, and as the story unfolded (and unfolded, and unfolded) I found myself wondering if the psychic energy in the old Rimbauer mansion was because of a repressed lesbian relationship between John Rimbauer's frustrated wife Ellen and her African maid Sukeena.
The miniseries only hints at that so I also wondered (as I often do) if I just have an unusually dirty mind.
No, indeed. Or at least, not necessarily. In a burst of marketing synergy, or cross purposing, or whatever the media buzzword is these days, you can now buy "The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer" from Disney's Hyperion Books. The diary is supposedly edited by Prof. Joyce Reardon.
Around page 220, the relationship between John Rimbauer and Ellen and Sukeena devolves into soft-core lesbian porn, with hints of "Mandingo" and lurid scenes involving barnyard animals.
But in a "Blair Witch"-y tease designed to appeal to younger, web-savvy viewers, the text stops short of actual graphic description.
Instead, writes "Prof. Reardon" in a faux editor's note, readers interested in the "specific references (1 April 1917) too graphic and disturbing to be printed here" can go to www.beaumontuniversity.net and read them.
When I went to that Web site, though, no links to the "graphic and disturbing," synergestic, Disney-created porn were to be found. Puzzling. Except ...Oh, I get it! ...The diary date for this entry is April 1. April Fool's!
Darn. Well, as Lloyd Braun commented when I asked about the missing links, "We're a wholesome company."