An atmospheric period thriller with kinky lining, ABC’s “The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer” is the prequel to last year’s “Stephen King’s Rose Red.” But don’t hold that against it — project is an elegantly staged and crisp haunted house primer that could have easily popped up as an A&E production or, minus a few gimmicks, even on PBS. Though still one of the exec producers, King doesn’t get a possessory credit this time around — of note to viewers looking to get past any hype and into a sweeps event that doesn’t smack of stunts.
Based on a “Rose Red” companion book by King’s buddy Ridley Pearson, “Ellen’s” narrative follows the genesis of the famous Seattle mansion in which several people evaporated and mystery of all kinds took root. Adapted by Pearson and directed with delicate pacing by Craig Baxley, pic is often as much a study in nuanced mannerisms as it is broad fright.
Title character (Lisa Brenner) is an early 20th century socialite who’s courted by John Rimbauer (Steven Brand), a rich industrialist who builds the residence to impress his sweetie. He’s an attractive charmer whose romantic bent transforms into an insatiable sexual appetite, and John’s true colors are revealed on their honeymoon, when a trip to Africa leads, among other things, to a threesome with a native dancer.
Ready to ignore her new husband’s strange and hurtful ways, Ellen does get one good thing out of her voyage: a friendship with Sukeena (Tsidii LeLoka, reprising her “Rose Red” role), an enigmatic handmaid who develops into Ellen’s confidant while possessing odd qualities of her own.
Back home, the palace in which they’ve settled quickly turns spooky, due in part, so it seems, to a murder that took place during its construction. After one of John’s ex-girlfriends disappears, and then Ellen’s daughter vanishes, her desperation becomes aggravated by John’s philandering ways and violent tendencies.
Perfs are “Ellen’s” strong suit; Brenner is both fetching and eerie as a troubled wife who has the strength to refute her husband and the negotiating ability to provide him with what he needs in return for clues that may help her find the missing. Brand is also strong as John; he transforms effortlessly from cad to devil and has an emotional hold on everyone that never lets up.
LeLoka is the real find; physically, she’s ideal as the creepy woman with disturbing stories behind beautiful big eyes, and her approach to the role is quiet and unassuming, as if she’s not telling everything she knows until the climax.
Filmed on location, the setting is lush and charismatic, with a chilly feel running through every scene; era is finely realized by Craig Stearns’ thorough production design. Baxley is a King regular, having helmed “Rose Red,” “Storm of the Century” and upcoming episodes of ABC series “Kingdom Hospital.”