‘Doctor Sleep’ Demonstrates That You Can Never Fully Outrun the Darkness of Your Childhood

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyleigh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Carl Lumbly, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Bruce Greenwood, Zackary Momoh, Jocelin Donahue

Director: Mike Flanagan

Running Time: 152 Minutes

Rating: R for Creepy Nudity, Shotguns Fired at Supernatural Villains, and an Overall Generally Disturbing Vibe

Release Date: November 8, 2019

The end of 1980’s The Shining did not promise that all would be well for little Danny Torrance. But the opening act of Doctor Sleep is much more encouraging. Danny and his mom Wendy have made it out of the Overlook Hotel, but they haven’t quite escaped it. Danny is still being harassed by the spectral residents, but thanks to a few words of advice from the ghost of Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly taking over for the late Scatman Crothers), he is able to firmly close the door on them and keep them at bay. But cut to thirty years later, and Dan (now played by Ewan McGregor) isn’t looking so good anymore. We meet him anew as an alcoholic getting brutally beaten up at a bar and stealing money during a one-night stand from a single mom after she stole money from him to buy cocaine.

I am not an alcoholic myself, so I do not know what it feels like to deal live with that disease. But now that I have seen Doctor Sleep, I imagine that alcoholism must resemble the experience of being constantly surrounded by relentless supernatural villainy. Or at least I imagine that’s what it feels like for Stephen King, who has been public about his struggles with the bottle and has used it for inspiration in his own work. How else to explain the prologue to Doctor Sleep, which feels like a happy ending, but is instead a red herring that leads into more than two hours of evil letting us know that it’s not done with us? It must be agony to endure all that pain when intellectually you know, as Danny does, how to fight it off but you just cannot bring yourself to do it.

But perhaps that understanding of the darkness is ultimately where Danny is able to draw his strength from. He certainly needs all of it, as there is a new threat in the form of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who leads a band of vagabonds who are basically energy vampires. They are not quite immortal, but they have lived for centuries by feeding off the life force of people with remarkable abilities. They have their sights set on thirteen-year-old Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran), who exceeds perhaps even Danny with her mastery of the shining (which is basically a combination of telepathy and clairvoyance, as well as something akin to astral projection).

One of the biggest pleasures of the film version of The Shining was how it left so many of its striking images ambiguous, often cutting away before we had a chance to make sense of what was happening or even where we were spatially or temporally. Doctor Sleep is at its strongest when it follows this approach, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so as Danny and Abra commune via the shining. Even moments of revisiting specific settings from The Shining do not play as fan service, but rather, they have an ominous sort of “we shouldn’t be here, we’re playing with fire” vibe. The only major misstep is when writer/director Mike Flanagan’s script over-explains what is happening. I haven’t read the Stephen King novel that the film is based on, but King has a reputation of being a little wordy, and that seeps into the film a bit. But otherwise, Doctor Sleep is a solid frightener about how the darkness within human brains can be quite demandingly resilient.

Doctor Sleep is Recommended If You Like: The Shining, But the Stephen King Element More Than the Stanley Kubrick Element

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Mind Tombs

Movie Review: For Better and Worse, ‘IT: Chapter Two’ Goes Full Stephen King

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CREDIT: Brooke Palmer/Warner Bros.

Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Jay Ryan, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff

Director: Andy Muschietti

Running Time: 169 Minutes

Rating: R for Bloody Clown Chomps, A Few Stabbings, Nervous Vomiting, and Creepy Nudity

Release Date: September 6, 2019

IT: Chapter Two is solidly built upon a foundation of a melancholy truth about human existence. When we’re young, we may vow to keep what’s important to us as children just as important when we became adults. But somehow, some way, we all forget some of the things we once held dear, while also remaining stuck in some of the patterns we thought we would eventually grow out of. The Losers Club of Derry, Maine represent the epitome of this mercurial attachment to the past. And so it is that 27 years after their first series of misadventures, they must return to once again defeat the supernatural evil entity that terrorizes their hometown.

This melancholy setup is an apt formula for psychological agony mixing with real in-your-face terror, but the trouble with Chapter Two is that so many of the scares are so scattered from the overarching purpose. Winged insect-bird hybrids popping out of fortune cookies and an old naked lady who turns into a floppy-breasted gargoyle are plenty creepy in and of themselves, but these moments just keep piling onto one another as a series of random horror set pieces, and the effect is eventually exhausting. Even some of the moments that actually feature Pennywise (like a gay couple being beaten up by a mob only to then fall victim to the clown or a cute little girl bonding with Pennywise over facial deformity) are effective mini-movies unto themselves, but they could have easily been cut without losing the main thread involving the Losers. Their story of coming to grips with what won’t leave them alone is effective when the full-to-bursting script actually focuses on them. Ultimately, IT: Chapter Two is decidedly overambitious and overdramatic, but it is a fascinating mess, embracing Stephen King at his weirdest and most extra.

IT: Chapter Two is Recommended If You Like: The most unfiltered Stephen King adaptations

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Hidden Memories

Movie Review: The Resurrection of Loved Ones Leading to Disaster is a Tale as Old as Time in the Latest ‘Pet Sematary’

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CREDIT: Kerry Hayes/Paramount Pictures

Starring: Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jeté Laurence, Hugo Lavoie, Lucas Lavoie

Directors: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: R for Roadside Accidents, Scratchings, Stabbings, and Creepy Voices With a Surprising Amount to Say

Release Date: April 5, 2019

Little kids often ask their parents what happens after we die, but they’re less inclined to follow up about what happens after we return from death. And yet, it isn’t like that latter question has gone unanswered. Speculation about that possibility has in fact been the domain of mythmakers for thousands of years. Stephen King is one of the most prominent mythmakers of the past few decades when it comes to our most pressing supernatural concerns, so the fact that Pet Sematary is only the latest one of his stories to be not only adapted but also re-adapted does not need to lead us to despair over the death of originality in our reboot culture. Instead, we should wonder why we need to keep re-telling these stories when their lessons should have been clear enough from the very beginning.

The setting is a sort of Anytime, USA in a way that demonstrates the limits of going back to nature, as Louis and Rachel Creed (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz) move with their two young kids into a big house deep in the woods of rural Maine. This is the kind of creepy place where kids in animal masks march to bury dead animals in the title misspelled gravesite. Interestingly enough, the Creeds are not especially unnerved by this ritual, but if they were more in touch with the supernatural, they would realize that they should interpret the procession as an ominous warning. But instead, when their beloved cat Church is killed by a truck, Louis lets himself be convinced by their friendly but foolhardy neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) to bury Church in a spot that just screams, “Come here if you want to meddle where you don’t belong.”

It should be plainly obvious what disaster awaits the Creeds from this point, whether or not you’re familiar with King’s novel and/or the 1989 film. But the overwhelmingly crushing power of one mistake compounding into inescapable horror is effective nonetheless. The resurrections of Church and others result in some unholy combination of zombie and possession. The power of something familiar being just slightly off is profoundly unnerving. People have been warning each other for ages about the folly of what is attempted in Pet Sematary, and this edition does not offer much new, but it is still likely to make you shiver in your seat or laugh at the insanity.

Pet Sematary is Recommended If You Like: Stephen King’s Maine, The Orpheus myth, Mama

Grade: 3 out of 5 Wendigos

This Is a Movie Review: Gerald’s Game

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CREDIT: Netflix

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood

Director: Mike Flanagan

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Would Easily Be an R for Cuttingly Physical and Psychological Entrapment

Release Date: September 29, 2017 (Streaming on Netflix)

If you watch Netflix’s new movie Gerald Game, chances are you might do so on a computer. Often in such a viewing scenario, it is advisable to wear headphones to get the full aural experience. But in this case, it must be noted that that full experience might be unbearable. Bones are squeezed, flesh and blood is squished around, and the sound mix does not hold back in making all that as nauseating as possible. I generally have decent fortitude when it comes to horror grossness, but I had to look away and unplug my headphones for significant stretches. In case there was any doubt, a personal computer is more penetrative than a public theater.

Based on a 1992 Stephen King novel, the setup of Gerald’s Game is viciously simple. Jessie (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) head up to a remote cabin to spice up their marriage with a little S&M. He handcuffs her to the bed, but before they can get going, he has a heart attack and dies. And thus the majority of the running time is devoted to Jessie’s attempts to break free.

Gugino is mostly on her own for about an hour and a half, but she does have some visitors, whether real, hallucinated, or remembered. A feral, hungry dog is a nuisance that pays no respect to the dead. Jessie’s internal back-and-forth monologue assessing her chances of escape is represented by the most oppressive version of Gerald convincing her she can’t do it and the most confident version of herself discovering that there might just be a way.

Occasionally Jessie falls asleep, revealing repressed memories of her father (Henry Thomas) sexually abusing her when she was a teenager, which turn out to be the key for how to save herself. This is fascinating, and filled with striking symbolic imagery, but it is also maddening, a classic example of King at his most on-the-nose. Furthermore, it begs the question: why does Gerald’s Game even need the backstory? The action could easily be contained to what is actually physically happening in the room. Although, to be fair, not everyone has the patience or the stomach to withstand this story without any breaks. Ultimately, there are two legitimate of presenting this premise, and considering the one not taken remains for now a fruitful “what if.”

At the end, there is a huge exposition dump that confirms the existence of another villain (Twin Peaks’ Carel Struycken) who easily could have (and probably should have) had his own movie. He is actually present throughout the film, but it sure does not feel that way once it is explained what his deal is. This conclusion comes out of nowhere and serves no narrative purpose other than allowing Jessie to stand up to one more roadblock. Still, despite this and other odd detours, Gerald’s Game is high-quality claustrophobic horror and a powerhouse showcase for Gugino.

Gerald’s Game is Recommended If You Like: Saw, You’re Next, The flashback scenes in Split

Grade: 3 out of 5 Slices of Kobe Beef

This Is a Movie Review: I Saw ‘The Dark Tower’ – Please Send Help

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2017.

Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Gunslinging and Fire Beasts

Release Date: August 4, 2017

Unlike most bloated modern blockbusters, The Dark Tower keeps it under two hours, clocking in at a merciful 95 minutes. Unfortunately, that is the best thing about it. Within the first 10 minutes of this dud, and for the remaining 85 thereafter, my primary thought was, “Well, at least it is going to be over soon.” This adaptation of Stephen King’s long-running series of novels could benefit from an extended runtime, as it would allow room to actually explain what the hell is going on, but that could only improve it so much, as its problems run much deeper than narrative confusion.

The crowd I saw it with applauded at the end, and several other times throughout, so perhaps if you’re a Dark Tower aficionado (do you call yourselves “gunslingers”?), it might work for you, but for the uninitiated, there is no effort to explain character motivations or the rules that govern this world. The point of this whole adventure is saving the titular structure, as its destruction would lead to the extinction of all existence. Roland (Idris Elba), a gunslinger, is trying to protect it, but he is stuck in an epic interdimensional struggle with Walter (Matthew McConaughey), aka the Man in Black, a sorcerer who wants to … destroy the tower? Or control it? Or just accumulate power in general? The fight between these two has possibly been lasting for centuries, or maybe just hours. The stakes between them seem especially personal, but they do not need to be, considering that Walter’s villainy is all-encompassing.

Sucked up into all this, for no clearly discernible reason, is young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor). Jake does not really fit the Chosen One fantasy trope, mostly because he barely registers as a character as all. His presence in this conflict is mostly accidental. He has “the shine,” a psychic ability found in many of King’s works, which allows him to observe interdimensional goings-on in his dreams but does not make him particularly interesting.

The Dark Tower manages to wring out a few decent stabs at humor, thanks to Roland’s fish-out-of-water presence when Jake whisks him away to Earth. He asks “what breed?” when told he is eating a hot dog and pops a whole cocktail of painkillers like they’re candy. Most pointedly, Jake assures him that he is going to love Earth, due to its much easier availability of bullets than Roland is used to. But it occasionally feels like he should have a better idea of what is going on, or maybe he should have no idea at all. If you told me that Roland had visited Earth 100 times previously, or never, both possibilities would sound just as believable.

Something resembling laughter also comes from King’s knack for inexplicable dialogue, which is relentless throughout. The Dark Tower epitomizes the sort of complicated story that makes perfect sense to the people telling it but leaves no guidance for outsiders to find their way in.

The Dark Tower is Recommended If You Like: Stephen King’s awkward dialogue, Administering the autopsy on a box office disaster

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Magics