Supernatural horrors are old hat for Stephen King. The wildly successful writer can summon forth killer clowns, offensive revenants, vengeful specters and all manner of monsters with a simple scratch of the pen, and we’ll pay him again and again to do it. In an essay King wrote entitled “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” he summed it up fairly succinctly: “I think we’re all mentally ill; those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better.”
King might be onto something. Yet, rather ironically, when it comes to the film adaptations of his books, it’s usually the non-horror tales that are deemed most successful. Outside of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining—an adaptation King himself detests—try to name one Stephen King-based horror film that is heralded. That’s not to say those horror films aren’t good; indeed, several of them are a heck of a lot of fun. But when it comes to the majority of people dubbing a movie “great,” it’s King adaptations like The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, and Misery that get the most accolades. And rightfully so, as they are all excellent movies. Sure, there are horror elements in some of them—especially Misery. But the horror in these films (and the written works they’re based on) is more reality-based. They need no ghosts come from the grave to give the audience chills.
Yet there’s one reality-based King adaptation that tends to get left on the sidelines: 1995’s Dolores Claiborne. Adapted by screenwriter Tony Gilroy from King’s 1992 novel, and directed by Taylor Hackford, Dolores Claiborne is a dark, tense character study, featuring a plethora of fantastic performances. It’s a film that received mostly positive reviews upon its release but somehow has fallen by the wayside. It isn’t brought up when people mention their favorite King adaptations, and that’s disappointing.
The film spans duel time periods, from the present day (present for 1995, at least) to 20 years earlier, and while there are no supernatural shenanigans going on, there’s still plenty of horror. It’s a down-to-earth, almost homey sort of horror; horror bred in the lives of simple, hard-working people who have reached points in their lives where they perfectly accept how beaten-down they are. In the present day, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a journalist who unwisely had an affair with her editor (Eric Bogosian) is drowning whatever demons from her past in a bottle; she drinks too much, and pops pills, and moves at a languid melancholy pace that perfectly matches the gray weather that permeates the film. Selena has all but forgotten (or blocked out) her past when she receives a mysterious fax informing her that her mother, the titular character (Kathy Bates) is suspected in the murder of Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt), Dolores’ long-time employer. At the start of the film, we see what certainly could look like incriminating circumstances: Dolores is tearing apart a kitchen, seemingly searching for a weapon, as Vera lays bloody and moaning at the foot of the stairs. A mailman enters just as Dolores is raising a rolling pin above Vera’s head.
Selena travels back home to aid in her mother’s defense, even though it’s clear there’s no love lost between the two women. Returning home to the coastal Maine town (we’re in Stephen King country, so of course it’s going to be Maine) conjures up old ghosts for Selena. Director Hackford’s use of mixing the past and the present is handled deftly; not content to rely on mere flashbacks, Hackford has the younger versions of the characters from the past (younger Selena is played by Ellen Muth) inhabiting the same space with those in the present. It gives the proceedings a truly haunted quality. It’s through these past recollections that we begin to learn why Selena harbors ill will towards her mother: she, and seemingly half the town, suspect Dolores murdered her own husband—Selena’s father.
Growing up, Selena was, in every sense of the world, a Daddy’s girl. Her father, Joe, played by expert character actor David Strathairn, clearly showered all his love and affection on the girl, while Dolores was forced to be the rule-maker. But there’s a sinister side to Joe that Selena has blocked out, because through flashbacks of Dolores’s own we learn what an abusive monster he was. Joe was an alcoholic, one of those real-life horrors King likes to summon up from his own troubled past. Selena still thinks of her father as a good, loving man; Dolores knows the truth—and knows more than she’s letting on. And while Selena and most of the town have their suspicions about Dolores’s guilt regarding both Joe’s death and Vera’s, there’s one person who is 100% convinced of it: Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer). Mackey was the detective in charge of investigating Joe’s mysterious death, and he’s dead-set on finally putting her away once and for all.
Through the continuing flashbacks, the late Vera Donovan becomes a fully formed character, as we see she was, in even the nicest of ways of putting it, a bitch, and a self-proclaimed one to boot. In one of the most memorable lines of dialogue, Vera explains to Dolores, “Sometimes, you have to be a high-riding bitch to survive. Sometimes, being a bitch is all a woman has to hang onto.” The relationship between Vera and Dolores is volatile, but there’s something else beneath all the venom: a bond shared. A secret.
Across the board, the acting in Dolores Claiborne is phenomenal. Bates was no stranger to Stephen King: five years before Dolores Claiborne, she won a Best Actress Oscar for the role of Annie Wilkes, the deranged former-nurse and number one fan of author Paul Sheldon (James Caan), who terrorizes Sheldon while keeping him captive and forcing him to write a new book just for her. Annie Wilkes was a big, meaty part to work with; the character was mentally unhinged, and Bates found a lot of room to shine when she was able to go off the handle and become a terrifying monster. In Dolores Claiborne, her character is the polar opposite of Annie Wilkes. Dolores is a reserved though strong-willed woman who has never had an easy day in her life. “You can learn a lot about someone looking at their hands,” she tells Selena, and when we see Dolores’ hands they are heavily lined roadmaps of hard work and servitude. The Dolores of the flashbacks is slightly more timid, beaten down both literally and figuratively. But the Dolores of the present is beyond worrying about what people think of her anymore; she’s not going to let anyone bully her ever again. Bates excels in the part, perfectly able to convey weakness one moment and hard-headed strength the next. It’s nowhere near as showy a performance as her Annie Wilkes was, but Bates is able to say so much without saying anything in this role.
Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Selena, is equally assured. Leigh will always be one of those underrated actresses who just doesn’t get nearly enough work to match her talents. She can play almost any part, but she truly excels as damaged people. Here, Selena seems almost one drink and one pill away from an overdose, and while we know the truth—that Joe was an abusive drunk—Selena has blocked it out, to the point that her cruelty toward her mother could seem harsh and unfair. But Leigh makes it work, because we can tell how confused and fragile her character is. Judy Parfitt, as Vera Donovan, gets to have the most fun in the film, playing the poison-tongued character with gleeful menace. It’s this inherent nastiness that makes the character all the more endearing when she reveals her true colors to Dolores.
David Strathairn and Christopher Plummer are the villains of the piece, and while both characters could’ve been played very broadly, as sneering bad guys, Strathairn and Plummer find the perfect balance with each role. As Joe, Strathairn makes it easy to see why, when he’s sober, he’d be considered a loving family man. He has rare moments of kindness that almost fool us into thinking he’s not such a bad guy—and then he does something like smashing a piece of firewood across the back of Dolores’ legs. Plummer, as the detective trying to put Dolores away once and for all, is the less well-drawn of the two male characters, but Plummer has a wonderful malicious twinkle in his eye; he’s not really a bad guy — he’s just so convinced he’s right, and that can turn anyone into a villain.
Throughout the film, Danny Elfman’s haunting score invokes the chilliest of feelings, giving everything on the screen a truly eerie quality, and when coupled with some truly stunning set pieces—a solar eclipse that turns the sky blood red, for instance; or a truly disturbing scene where Selena, distraught, looks into a mirror and sees only the back of her own head, recalling René Magritte’s painting Not to be Reproduced—creates a pitch-perfect atmosphere.
The themes of Dolores Claiborne don’t deal with unspeakable evil and things that go bump in the night; they deal with just how damn oppressive life can get for some people. That may not exactly sound like a good time at the movies, but Stephen King has a way of creating characters you instantly connect with; it’s mostly in the way he ingrains in his characters certain quirks or traits, and with the way he uses language. Witness one particular bit of great dialogue Bates gets to deliver to Plummer: “You’re sorry, are you? Bet the last time you were sorry was when you needed to use the pay toilet and the string on your pet dime broke.” Let’s face it: people don’t really talk like that. But they do in Stephen King’s world, and we’re all the better for it.
Still, for everything Dolores Claiborne has going for it, it’s mostly forgotten. People can still recall Bates in Misery smashing James Caan’s legs, but they might be hard pressed to bring up a memory of Bates in this film. Is it because Misery is the more memorable of the two films? Perhaps—it does have the type of body horror that tends to stick with people forever. Maybe it’s just easier for some people to enjoy a film like Misery, where the main female character is clearly a homicidal lunatic, than it is to enjoy Dolores Claiborne, where the main female character is really an ordinary woman struggling just to get to the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that one. That just might not be as easy for some people to swallow. As Vera explains, “It’s a depressingly masculine world we live in, Dolores.”