Monday, November 25, 2019

King Week: You taste like whiskey

In which we arrive at the true purpose of this Stephen King mini-marathon, a film that I have some serious issues with, yet still could not recommend enough, particularly given how few of us went to go see it when we should have.


Written and directed by Mike Flanagan (based on the novel by Stephen King—and, y'now, the screenplay, by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson)

Spoiler alert: moderate

It may sound perverse, considering that in my lead-up to Doctor Sleep I watched ten other Stephen King adaptations—and wrote about almost all of them—and yet I believe I shall forego reviewing Stanley Kubrick's 1980 milestone, The Shining.  Surely, the world has no need for more about The Shining.  It's a Horror Classic—it's, like, the horror classic.  And I do love it, but perhaps not as much as I'm apparently supposed to.  Because, yes, I have a legion of objections to The Shining that have always made me feel that, highly as I may rate it myself, it was still overrated by everybody else who's ever opened their mouths about it: it's not very scary, for starters, and while that's obviously only overfamiliarity speaking, there it is; it is longer than it strictly needs to be, with twenty minutes of genuine dead weight (as Kubrick himself agreed); it spends those twenty minutes, and a hundred twenty more, on some of the most indefatigably one-dimensional characters conceivable (and that they remain compelling is a tribute to Shelly Duvall, Jack Nicholson, and Danny Lloyd); it cheats when it lets Jack Torrance out of the pantry; it has the worst opening credits font in cinema history.

Maybe most curiously of all, it introduces and leans hard upon a concept—the "shining" itself, the psychic power that draws the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel to Jack and Danny Torrance, but for some reason not fellow psychic and Overlook chef Dick Hallorann—that it also doesn't actually have much use for.  Damn near nothing that happens in The Shining as a result of Danny's shining could not have been accomplished by some other, cleaner means—when you get down to it, The Shining is 98% an impressionistic, experiential depiction of hardcore domestic abuse that takes place in a haunted hotel in order to make "hardcore domestic abuse" more approachable and fun, whereas it's maybe 2% Dick picking up bad vibes in his bachelor pad—and, to me, it's always been something of a hat on a hat.

The upshot is that The Shining, for all its tediously-attested magnificence, is still a pretty lousy movie about shining.  (King thought it was a lousy movie about domestic abuse, but that's kind of his problem.)  Even so, writer-director Mike Flanagan has given us a legacy follow-up to Kubrick's film, adapted from King's legacy follow-up to his novel, which aims to correct that problem, and correct it hard.  It succeeds: Doctor Sleep indeed is a great movie about shining—albeit at the expense of being one terrible sequel to The Shining.

That would be the pithy, overly-confrontational one-paragraph review, but it's complicated by the fact that by the time Doctor Sleep finally winds up being a terrible sequel to The Shining, it's already been an unexpectedly worthy and intoxicatingly oblique sequel to The Shining for over two hours, which tends to make the way that it faceplants once it finally submits to being a direct sequel to The Shining even more of a disappointment.  Up till then, Doctor Sleep was likely my favorite movie of the year—and, yeah, but it's been an inordinately, almost comically weak year, so give me a break—and a lot of that was thanks to the unorthodox ways it continues the tale of Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor, making 2019 the year of King movies where American boys grew up to be Scottish men), as Dan has become both like and unlike his abominable father in the three decades since Jack froze to death while trying to kill him in a hedge maze in Colorado.

We meet the grown-up Dan in 2011, as he wakes in a puddle of someone else's puke, and, as quietly as he can, if not before noticing the child toddling around looking for its passed-out mother, steals every dollar in her purse.  Still haunted, sometimes literally, by his months at the Overlook Hotel and by his psychic sensitivity generally, Dan has not had a good thirty years of it, having spent the interval developing a raging alcoholism that is, if anything, even more pronounced than Jack's.  We're finding him now at pretty much rock bottom—though, believe it or not, it can actually get quite a bit worse—and it's plain enough even to him that something needs to change.  At first, that just means a bus ticket north and finding a job at a hospice, where he acquires the sobriquet "Doctor Sleep."  (One of the littler continuities between this and The Shining is how the title has even less to do with the story here.)

However, by the time we catch up with him in 2018, he's finally rebuilt the rudiments of a life, with seven years of sobriety under his belt and his job having become his calling, his shine having granted him the power to better comfort those dying under his care.  But the past is never really past, as they say, and rarely moreso than in King adaptations.  Over the years, Dan's been in telepathic contact with another special child, Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who, going by the telekinesis she demonstrates, is far more powerful than he ever was.  But the same power that put her in touch with "Uncle Dan" is what makes her such a tempting target for the so-called "True Knot," a band of drifters of something of the same nature as Dan and Abra, who, under the leadership of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), have been clinging to the underside of our world for centuries.  That's how long ago it was that they cracked the secret of long and healthy life—namely, by stealing the lives of others, particularly from the children who shine, whom they torture and kill in order to manifest their pain and fear into a gaseous form they can eat.

So, fundamentally, it's Danny Torrance vs. the Vaping Vampires.  This is a high hurdle, insofar as it's kind of stupid (unlike "dog-man blowjobs" or "eerie identically-dressed twins" or "elevator full of blood," which are all really, really smart).  Admittedly, it's sillier than it even needs to be: like a lot of fantasy, Doctor Sleep pounds the crap out of its terminology, particularly the "steam" upon which the True Knot feeds; though I was less purely baffled by the goofy nomenclature than the sub-Cronenbergian note of storing the "steam" in a bunch of little thermoses.  Did Rose buy them from Walgreen's, or did she get a bulk discount at the wholesaler?

In this and in much else, Doctor Sleep is essentially a YA novel premise that has been retrofitted very snugly against the vague and incomplete world that had been previously established by The Shining, while also getting mixed in with King's own perennial themes (if not his own never-ending struggle), with a story that's all about addiction and guilt and hope.  That amounts to three whole different movies, and three whole different types of movies, all in productive conflict for control of a 152 minute film.  With that in mind, it's hardly surprising that it has to start three whole times in order to get to where it's going.  Or four, if you count our two separate introductions to the True Knot in 1980 and in 2011 as two prologues complete unto themselves.

The thing is, it works out just shockingly well, and there is something weird and incredibly appealing about a sequel to The Shining that uses the Overlook Horror as a springboard into a sweeping epic about alcoholism and psychics and immortal cults and generational overthrow, even coming complete with the promise of millennial change.  The thing about actual YA adaptations is that they are never rated R, even when they ought to be, and while Doctor Sleep is a relatively demure R for the most part, the pieces of it that aren't are priceless in developing its stakes, and for casting a long shadow of genuine disquiet over what amounts to an urban fantasy superhero story.  That is already special and unique, but it gains even more traction by being able to gesture at will toward our indelible memories of the trauma that made Dan what he is today, without ever needing to continue a plot that was already complete when The Shining was over.

That there's still an unsteadiness to it all is hard to deny, especially given how much time we spend with young Danny (Roger Dayle Floyd), Danny's mom (Alex Essoe, looking, depressingly, exactly how you would expect a re-cast Wendy Torrance to look in 2019, that is, a model from central casting with Shelly Duvall's haircut), and Danny's dead mentor Dick (Carl Lumbly, looking little like Scatman Crothers but doing a flabbergastingly good impression).  Still, given how many moving parts we're dealing with, it's easy to excuse, and, frankly, the structure coheres almost too quickly.  (I'd have liked a bit more with Dan's "ordinary" life: Dan appears to have practically gone into stasis when he went into recovery, only to be dragged out in time for the plot.)

But it's hard to argue with the decision to eventually just get on with it; and, when Doctor Sleep coheres, it really coheres, with the film being arguably as much of a showcase for Flanagan's particular voice as The Shining was for Kubrick's.  Flanagan has edited all his movies, and Doctor Sleep is an outright editor's playground, starting with the long cross-dissolves that marked The Shining, used in homage but also to differing effect—they were there to underline the softness of time in the Overlook there, and to mark the half-dream existence of those who shine here, a subtle distinction, but a real one—and continuing straight into a multitude of electrifying cross-cut montages that glue together our three central figures even as they're separated by thousands of miles.

So the moment when Doctor Sleep announced itself to me as something I loved rather than something I merely enjoyed was in one of those hyperviolent moments that seem at horrifying odds with the YA material and several jostling tones, as the True Knot completes its ritual murder of a nameless little leaguer (Jacob Tremblay, atoning for his sins in The Predator and Book of Henry by having five lines and dying hard).  Abra sees and feels it, and calls out to Dan in desperation at the exact same time that Rose sees her.  Everything about the timing, the eyelines, the contrasts in cinematography, the sound editing that bleeds around the shots—it's so flawless, so savage, and so full of dreadful portent of even worse things to come that it just kind of blew me away.  And it's not even the most impressive moment in this film; that's when we see what Flanagan makes of astral projection in a sequence that may be the most singular and original take on the concept of flight or telepathy in any number of years—one extraordinary shot in particular uses a widescreen frame in a way it's never been used before.

But the death of the "baseball boy" also should have clued me into how exactly Doctor Sleep was going to treat with The Shining, once it stopped playing coy, since the form Abra's message takes is a big ol' "REDRUM" blasted onto his far wall, as seen in Dan's mirror.  For a quarter of a second, I thought Flanagan hadn't taken it too far.  Then I realized that the thirteen year old had reversed one of the R's, just like the six year old did before her, and that's exactly all Doctor Sleep has for us once its drama brings Dan back to the decrepit ruins of the Overlook—the "pleasure" of recognition.

Of course, that's not fair, since Dan's gambit to save Abra by luring Rose into a haunted hotel trap initially works pretty damn well, both as a love letter to The Shining and as the only natural climax to this story, and it keeps working for as long as it's actually about Abra and Rose.  (Sadly, it makes a humiliating unforced error when it's about Dan and Jack: there's an otherwise very good scene that completes Dan's arc, which spends so much time in a conspicuously long take focused entirely upon McGregor that it's hard to believe anybody, even a studio executive, thought it would be a good idea to open it up into a really risible two-shot.  Plus, good Jack Nicholson impressions have never been hard to find—hell, "Jack Torrance" is practically a Jack Nicholson impression by Jack Nicholson—and so there's no excuse in the world not to have a good one.)  Anyway, once Dan wakes that old hotel up, everything that seemed careful and sincere about this film, no matter how silly it got, gives way to a spasm of iconography that honestly makes its predecessor worse, by revealing that it was only the meticulous curation of tension and madness that made The Shining such an anxious experience, whereas the imagery, outside of Kubrick's vision, is largely just dopey bullshit.  The comparisons to the analogous scene in Ready Player One were inevitable; the difference is that Ready Player One was satire.  Whereas Doctor Sleep is just crass.  There is only one moment of overt Shining referencing that totally works: it's when Rose is confronted with an elevator full of blood emptying out into the hall, and Ferguson smirks at its try-hard unscariness, perhaps because she knows that she's an immortal child killer who's older, and worse, than any haunted hotel.

But then, Ferguson's been walking away with this movie the whole time: it's nice and fair to say that McGregor is good as a sensitive dry drunk yearning for peace, and that Curran is seriously impressive as the YA heroine who rides a difficult line between having too much grit and not enough, but Ferguson gets by far the most to do, with a villain that is just camp enough to be terrific fun and just serious enough to be really horrifying, while also amounting to a third protagonist in her own right; the sense of the True Knot as a real community and not just a collection of misfit monsters is down almost exclusively to Ferguson's commitment to the bit, and the utterly natural way she plays a preternatural being that's decided it's no longer quite human.  As a result, the True Knot stuff might actually be the most compelling part of the film, villains granted uncommon empathy (the speech Rose offers a dying member is one of the most exquisite actors' monologues I've heard in ages), and even surprising grace notes of humor (Ferguson's dubious sneer as a colleague starts off on an "old man yells at clouds" rant is hilarious).  I love almost everything about the True Knot, right down to the borderline-lazy hillbilly costumes that makes them look as likely to storm Austin City Limits as the Overlook Hotel.  I've never disliked Rebecca Ferguson, but I don't think I believed she was a movie star till Rose the Hat; and that I don't feel completely stupid saying "2019's greatest star turn was Rose the Hat" makes it arguably the most complimentary thing I've ever said about anyone's performance.

But that's the problem with Doctor Sleep: for ten minutes before it ends, it stops being a movie about Rose the Hat, or Abra.  Hell, to a certain degree, it stops being a movie about Dan Torrance.  (The fan-film crap Flanagan gets up to with Dan...)  It's a movie about the Overlook Hotel—and who cares?  It comes at the worst possible place—it doesn't even choose the elegant way to do it (do you remember what happened to Jack? it is very much not what happens to Rose).  It turns the frightful visions of the Overlook into a flock of ghouls, with roughly the same impact as a Shining-themed Halloween party.  And that's a huge, huge problem, even if I respect the effort Flanagan has made to redeem everything that King hated about Kubrick's Shining while simultaneously trying to pay homage to Kubrick's accomplishment, and even if it does get right back on track with an epilogue that I love as much as the rest of it.  It's just so frustrating when a movie shits itself in the final mile.  But you have to admire it for finishing the race anyway.

Score: 9/10


  1. One of these days, I'm going to have to read the book this was based on. In King's Shining, the hotel was blown up at the end, so they wouldn't have to go out of their way to remind people that Stanley Kubrick made a movie. Because while the jumping around was fun, everything at the Overlook was less interesting than pretty much every other part of the film. I guess they felt like they had to show us Danny's father, but given who it was, I agree with you that less would be more. Don't get me wrong. I liked the idea of Danny and Abra luring Rose into a trap to be torn apart by hungry monsters like herself. Actually, it was nice to see the heroes take some initiative, both with Rose and with shooting all those vampires. I guess I just felt like the execution was a little fanwanky?

    Rose and Crow Daddy were incredible. The exposition bombs that just felt normal and cool (which was Crow Daddy's main purpose in the movie, aside from tracking kids down) really gave us the information we needed to make sense out of the True Knot. I think the whole movie hinged on making us really, really hate the True Knot, to get a fear, deep in our guts, of these monsters who have left humanity behind. As much as I enjoyed Danny finding some level of stability and perhaps redemption, mentoring Abra as he himself was mentored by Dick Hallorann, what made this movie so incredibly memorable were how horrifying the villains, and Rose in particular, were. How often have you watched a movie where a screaming child is tortured, murdered and consumed by a pack of vampires? In a world where torture porn movies like Saw and Hostel were mainstream for quite a while, this was something else. And yet that scene, as central to making the movie work as it is, isn't the whole of the movie, nor is it repeated. It's not exploitative, but rather used in service to making the film work, to ensuring that the audience realizes that these aren't sexy sparkle vampires like Twilight or the tortured emo souls from Interview. Each and every one of them are monsters, pure and simple. Even Snakebite, who you're supposed to feel some level of sympathy for at some point, is a dangerous predator who inflicts grievous loss on anyone who comes in contact with her.

    I feel like the director's cut that was released some time ago strengthens the film. If you haven't, give it a watch.

    1. I've never read a single King novel all the way through (there was one I tried when I was about thirteen and didn't finish; it isn't one of the major works and I don't remember what it was, but it had a lizard on the cover or something like that).

      The True Knot was pretty great, surprisingly so. I'm still not entirely sold on the thermoses.

      I did watch the longer version when I got it on disc, but I remember not seeing a a big difference, and the added material didn't accrue to Dan's "normal" life. (Not that I wanted half an hour of staid drama, just a little more texture.)