When we first saw the advertisement for The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, we were pretty excited. A collaboration between John Mellencamp and Stephen King has all kinds of potential for coolness. Stephen King is a great storyteller, and for a rock musical in a southern gothic atmosphere, I can’t think of anyone who I’d rather have making the musical contribution than John Mellencamp (to clarify, he wrote the music, but didn’t sing it). The description of the show included the information that this collaboration had been thirteen years in the making. We were very intrigued, and made the tickets to the show our anniversary present to each other.
I am a huge believer in the power of live performance. I love storytelling and I love opera, and once you’ve seen those live, film provides only a pale imitation. I don’t think that is necessarily true of horror, though. Maybe it has something to do with the realism that a horror movie has to have to give you that emotional punch. So I wondered how that would present itself in a musical on stage.
The honest answer is that I’m really not sure whether this lives up to its billing as a collaborative horror musical. The music was tremendous, as I expected it would be, and the acting and singing were fantastic. Both the choreographer and whoever was in charge of lighting deserve awards. But… the plot? Character development? I think Stephen King was taking a nap.
The story is along these lines. In a small town in the South, a rift has developed between two brothers. One brother is an auto mechanic who plays in a local band, whose girlfriend, Anna, has just dumped him for the other brother, a writer who has just sold his first book. Their father, Joe, meets them at the family’s lakeside cabin to tell them the story of his own brothers as a warning. Decades earlier, his older brothers also turned against each other and both died tragically because of their differences over a girl named Jenna. Joe’s brothers and Jenna now haunt the cabin, providing commentary and acting out the backstory. There is a creature called The Shape hovering around the edges of events (and often stealing the stage– the actor took his part and ran with it), encouraging all the characters to act on their worst impulses.
The plot is pretty thin, in other words. On stage, sets are often pretty minimal, and that’s the case here. So realism isn’t really an option. You’ve either got to have action or character development to catch your audience. Spectacle, music, and talent (and this show has all three), can carry you pretty far, but to get really invested there has to be movement and change of some kind. And especially with horror, you have to be invested. But we never get to know the characters enough to find them sympathetic, or even care much about their troubles. None of them are particularly likable and their parts just don’t gel together. As a result, the final events, which actually were objectively really horrifying, didn’t pack the emotional punch of, say, the final events of Rigoletto, or Carmen. I feel like the actors made the most of what they were given to work with, particularly the Shape. Mellencamp’s music, played by members of his band, was great, and especially the women had great voices and stage presence (Anna in “That’s Who I Am”, Jenna in “Home Again”, and the boys’ mother, Monique, in “You Don’t Know Me”). Unfortunately, not even lighting that made it look like the actors were dripping in blood was enough to disguise the thinness of plot and character development.
I am likely to buy the musical’s soundtrack (especially as it has Sheryl Crow, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Elvis Costello singing on it), and I’m not sorry I went, because I will be able to easily picture the acting that went along with the music, but I can’t say that I think either of us think this is a must-see live performance (although apparently many Stephen King fans disagree). It’s quite possible that as a film, set in the South with realistic detail, that many of the shortcomings of the live performance could be overcome… although, most likely at the expense of the Shape’s impact on the characters and scene. You can’t beat Mellencamp’s music live, though, and that, I think, was worth the price of the ticket.