James Jay Edwards reviews The Yellow Wallpaper, a new film adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, directed by Kevin Pontuti. (Hysteria Pictures)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is considered one of the foremost works of American feminist literature. It’s no surprise that it’s been adapted dozens of times into stage plays, short films, television episodes, and feature films. The newest adaptation comes courtesy of filmmaker Kevin Pontuti and his creative partner/muse Alexandra Loreth.
The Yellow Wallpaper is about a young writer named Jane (Loreth) who suffers from postpartum depression. As a therapy of sorts, her husband, John (Joe Mullins), takes her out to a country home for some rest and recuperation. John is also a doctor, and he prescribes isolation and medication for Jane. Jane is allowed to wander the garden and surrounding grounds by day but is confined to a nursery with a peculiar yellow patterned wallpaper by night. She becomes consumed with the wallpaper, thinking that she sees a woman trapped inside the pattern. As she sinks deeper into madness, Jane begins to believe that the woman has escaped her wallpaper prison.
(The Yellow Wallpaper, theatrical release poster, Hysteria Pictures)
At Loreth’s suggestion, Pontuti read through the original short story and decided that he just had to make a movie out of it. He and Loreth co-wrote the screenplay, leaning hard into the eerie aspects of both the location and the situation. On Pontuti’s watch, The Yellow Wallpaper becomes one of those ghost stories where the audience is never quite sure if the ghosts are real or not.
As a movie, The Yellow Wallpaper is beautiful. The crawling-and-sprawling cinematography of Sonja Tsypin manages to make even the eye-poppingly bright color palette seem creepy. Robert J. Coburn’s sparse, The Shining-lite score lets the skillful sound design of Ed Jakober take the lead, mixing music seamlessly with the ambient sounds of running water or the rhythm of things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. And Alexandra Loreth turns in a borderline brilliant performance as the film’s heroine.
(The Yellow Wallpaper, Hysteria Pictures)
Where The Yellow Wallpaper stumbles somewhat is in its treatment of the feminist source material. The forced isolation and patriarchal oppression by the husband/doctor are still there, but the viewer never gets the feeling that Jane is being treated unjustly by her husband and the staff (both of whom, incidentally, are women). On the contrary, Jane’s mental illness is shown to be very much real, and as misguided as some of his treatments are, John is portrayed as truly wanting to help, so, even though he is neglectful, he’s never malicious. As he is her doctor as well as her husband, the movie comes off as more of an indictment on nineteenth century medicine than it does as a statement on the patriarchy. Add in the fact that the movie takes away much of the ambiguity of the short story’s ending, and the feminist angle is all but stripped away.
So, The Yellow Wallpaper functions better as a psychological horror movie than it does as a feminist text. It’s more dread-inspiring than it is scary, but Jane’s arc is a strong one, with the audience feeling like it’s on a conveyor belt that culminates with an unforgettable third act. This version of The Yellow Wallpaper is more likely to be shown in a midnight movie theater than a women’s studies classroom, but that’s fine. Horror lovers have a creepy new movie, and fans of Charlotte Perkins Gilman still have the short story and the numerous other interpretations that have been inspired by it.
Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.