Movie Review ~ Doctor Sleep


The Facts
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Synopsis: Dan Torrance meets a young girl with similar powers as his and tries to protect her from a cult known as The True Knot who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Kyliegh Curran, Zahn McClarnon, Carl Lumbly, Alex Essoe, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Alyn Lind, Jacob Tremblay

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: R

Running Length: 151 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  It’s time to own up to the dark truth that I’ve seen every Stephen King movie but never read a Stephen King book.  I know, it’s a horrible thing to admit and I don’t offer it up with any amount of pride, only to say that I’ve appreciated that King is a writer with work that has provided so many wonderful adaptations.  Way back in 1980 when The Shining first premiered, it’s well known it wasn’t King’s favorite interpretation of his work.  Legendary director Stanley Kubrick took quite a lot of liberties with the source novel, eliminating characters or changing their make-up all together, to say nothing of the reworked ending.  While a TV adaptation hewed closer to King’s original vision, it paled in comparison to what Kubrick had created.   Over the years, King came to some finality with the movie, for better or for worse, and it was generally accepted by all in thinking of King’s novel and Kubrick’s film as two separate entities that shared similarities.

Re-watching The Shining again (released in a spectacular 4K BluRay) for my 31 Days to Scare, I was struck by how little actually happens (in terms of on-screen action at least) in Kubrick’s film up until the final third.  Over the years I’d always remembered the movie to be this non-stop cabin fever scare-fest that was a journey into madness from the start but that’s what a young imagination falsely remembered will do to you.  Seeing it through a more adult eye with a critical angle, I was taken by how well Kubrick turned up the heat on the Torrance family as they came to the Overlook Hotel in Colorado and the horrible fate that befell them.  Jack Nicholson’s performance is legendary to say nothing of Shelley Duvall’s unfairly maligned and unjustly ignored heroic work as his wife who comes apart at the seams on account of her husband’s own mental breakdown.

Kubrick’s The Shining ended (spoiler-alert) with Jack Torrance frozen to death in the Overlook’s hedge maze and his wife Wendy and son Danny high-tailing it down the mountain to safety.  So when King went to write a sequel to the novel years later, he obviously was writing a sequel to his story that ended with the Overlook destroyed.  King’s follow-up, Doctor Sleep, was a well-received best-seller and soon it was time to consider making that into a movie as well.  Yet, how to merge this book with the previous movie?  Enter Mike Flanagan, riding high off of his success with a series of successful genre films Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game, and the series The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Hired to adapt and direct Doctor Sleep (he also edited the movie), Flanagan worked with King to adjust the novel to fit with Kubrick’s original film and the result is a seamless continuation that’s supremely satisfying and frequently frightening.

Picking up in 1980 where Kubrick left off, Doctor Sleep starts not with the Torrance family but with Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman) and other members of The True Knot.  Surviving on the essence, or “steam”, of those with special powers like Danny has, they move throughout the country hunting children because that is when their “steam” is at its most potent.  The more they feed, the longer they live and the stronger they become.  At the same time, Danny and his mother (Alex Essoe, Starry Eyes) have relocated to Florida where Danny sees visions of a familiar friend from the Overlook.  Jumping ahead 31 years, Danny (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Robin) has dulled the memories of his past and stifled his “shining” with alcohol and drugs and is barely standing when he meets Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis, The Meg) in a small New Hampshire town.

Finding a new life and sobriety, Danny spends the next eight years working at a hospice and often using his gifts to help patients transition to the other side with peace.  He’s also been communicating telepathically with Abra (Kyliegh Curran) another child possessing the power of the shining equal to Danny who has caught the attention of The True Knot.  When she begins to see visions of Rose the Hat and The True Knot in action, eventually finding a link into Rose’s consciousness, Abra knows she can’t take them on alone.  Asking for Danny’s help, he has to decide if he can open up the door to let his dark past back in he’s worked so hard to keep boarded up for these many years.  With so many ghosts from the Overlook locked away inside their individual Pandoras boxes, if that portal opens Danny isn’t sure what else might return with them.  But does he have a choice when a hungry cult will stop at nothing to get to Abra and now for the first time has also sensed his power and presence?

At 151 minutes, Doctor Sleep outpaces The Shining by 5 minutes but offers more movement and thrills at the outset than Kubrick did in his film.  Now, some may see that as a good thing or it could be a sign of Flanagan not totally trusting the audience to wait for two hours to get to the main event – but I don’t agree with that.  This is a movie that has measured out it’s shocks in just the right places, aiming squarely for maximum impact and not just to goose audiences with short attention spans.  No, Flanagan has previously demonstrated in his projects that he knows just when to push the button on the scare machine and here again he proves his timing is spot-on.  He doesn’t even have to push hard, simple things like music cues or familiar images can get those tingles started in your tailbone and send them upwards fairly quickly.

The references to The Shining are both obvious and sneaky and you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for some fun ways Flanagan and his production team have tipped their hat to Kubrick’s original design.  While some scenes from the original are recreated in part, I was so glad to see it wasn’t with old footage made to look new or digitally altered to appear as if Nicholson and Duvall had come back for reshoots.  Casting new actors in these roles that aren’t exactly lookalikes but aren’t doing a pronounced impression was a wise choice too – you get the general idea of the previous actors but it’s more the character that’s important above all else.  Someone at my screening whined at the end they wished Nicholson had returned…but that would have been a huge distraction.

As is typical, Flanagan has assembled an interesting array of actors and it’s not just those at the top.  While McGregor is in fine form as the tortured Danny and nicely conveys the sense of loss and ongoing struggle he’s going through, he often takes a backseat when someone like Ferguson is onscreen because she’s such a commanding presence.  Stalking around the movie (and other actors), Ferguson’s character is wicked scary and doesn’t oversell why she’s the leader of this bloodthirsty pack.  There’s no campy acting going on with Ferguson.  Rose the Hat has survived for a number of years doing what she does and she has little qualms about taking the lives of the young — it’s a really evil role and Ferguson is impressively menacing in it.  I also quite liked Curran’s Abra, delighting in her burgeoning powers but also realizing the reality of the terrifying visions she’s seeing.  She ably holds her own against more seasoned performers and does so in the face of some disturbing material.

That’s another thing about Doctor Sleep that got under my skin and I couldn’t shake, it’s a very unsettling film.  Horror movies are meant to jostle you a bit and then let you go on your merry way into the night but Flanagan’s film digs in and sticks with you for a while after the movie is over.  While the imagery might not be all that gruesome, there are some suggestions of terrible acts that are hard to brush off and it adds to the growing sense of dread leading to the climax of the film.  While I won’t say how or where the film ends, speaking for myself I left the movie feeling satiated with where Flanagan (and King) led these characters.

Bound to keep a new generation of viewers up at night by pairing this with the original, Doctor Sleep is another win for Mike Flanagan and well as fans of Stephen King.  It’s a handsome production that provides the requisite shivers and shudders but takes it’s time to find an emotional core beneath it all.  Adding in the strong performances from the leads and supporting players and you have a solid effort worthy of sitting on the shelf next to its predecessor.

31 Days to Scare ~ Starry Eyes

starry_eyes

The Facts:

Synopsis: A hopeful young starlet uncovers the ominous origins of the Hollywood elite and enters into a deadly agreement in exchange for fame and fortune.

Stars: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan

Director: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Where to Watch: Netflix

Review: We’ve seen it before in movies like Showgirls and The Neon Demon and even stage musicals such as 42nd Street so it’s not a wholly original tale: girl comes to the big city with dreams of stardom only to become compromised and corrupted in her pursuit of fame.  Celebrity comes at a cost and the moral seems to be that it’s necessary to sacrifice a piece of yourself if you really want to get ahead.  So, on the surface, Starry Eyes could be seen as another one of these examinations of Hollywood scruples but in the end I found it impossible to shrug it off.

Sarah (Alex Essoe) is desperate for her big break.  She’s working at a Hooters-esque restaurant alongside other would-be-actors trying to fit in auditions during her breaks.  We get the impression she’s very much alone in the world with only a few surface friendships and no family to speak of.  When Sarah gets the opportunity to audition for a new film for a hot studio, she fails to impress the casting agent and retreats into the nearest ladies room where she has a breakdown. She forgets to check under the stalls, though, and doesn’t realize her screams and violent self-flagellation are being observed by the same woman she just auditioned for.  And the woman likes what she sees.

Now back in the running for the lead role, the meek Sarah puts the cart before the casting couch and severs several valuable ties to the only people that care for her well-being.  Sarah will be tested by the mysterious producers in several more auditions, not for her acting ability but for how far she’s willing to go to and how much pain she’s able to accept in order to sign on the dotted line.

Writer/Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer start at a low heat and gradually turn up the temperature until a finale where all hell boils over.  Is Sarah just releasing some long pent-up violent behavior or is she transforming into the fame monster she’s been all along…whatever it is, she’s ready to consume all that stand her in her way.

The film isn’t all smooth sailing, it’s low budget obviously dictated a short shooting schedule and there are a few scenes/performances that should have been afforded a few more takes.  As with every mystery, the more we find out what’s going on the less interesting it becomes but Starry Eyes avoids disinterest by never coming right out and telling us what’s happening.  There’s no cheap narrative device that explicitly calls out the origins of Sarah’s transmutation from soft-spoken pushover to freaky fiend and more’s the better for it.

While the supporting performances run the gamut from ‘I want to see more of you’ to ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’, there’s no doubt Essoe is pretty damn great.  Putting her body through the ringer and laying herself bare, we’re both turned off and intrigued by her behavior toward herself and especially to those trying to pull her out of a nightmare of her own making.  It’s not a sympathetic character but you’ll likely find yourself empathizing with her as she wastes away.

The finale is probably gorier than it needs to be, considering the preceding scenes are relatively bloodless, but by that time Essoe has you wrapped around her finger and it’s hard to look away.  The conclusion may not please everyone but for me it worked because it stayed true to the overall tone.  Kolsch and Widmyer have something to say about the Hollywood machine and Starry Eyes proves to be a wickedly twisted way to deliver it.