Doctor Sleep

Director: Mike Flanagan

Screenwriter: Mike Flanagan

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, and Carel Struycken

When I heard that a film adaptation was in the works for Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining, I admit I was worried. When I read the 2013 novel, I remember immediately thinking, “Well, this will never work as a film.” Then, to my surprise, within a few years, it’s announced that it’s already in production, and with the talented horror-guru Mike Flanagan (Haunting of Hill House, Hush) as writer/director. That’s enough to get me in the theater, and fortunately, Doctor Sleep does not disappoint.

As I mentioned, Doctor Sleep is Stephen King’s long awaited follow up to his horror classic, The Shining. The original film version of The Shining from 1980 directed by Stanley Kubrick has taken on a life and mythology of its own being hailed as one of the greatest horror films of all time as well as inspiring countless stories and documentaries about some of the strange occurrences associated with the production. Doctor Sleep picks up 30 years after the events at the Overlook Hotel from the original novel. Danny, now going by Dan (Ewan McGregor), is a fully grown, recovering alcoholic, and still has the shine, a term referring to his psychic abilities. Dan’s pretty messed up as one tends to be after a haunted hotel possesses your dad leading him to chase you and your mom around with an axe and just murder a bunch of people before freezing to death in a hedge maze. Oh…spoiler alert.

Now, Dan is sort of a lost soul leading him to taking a job as a hospice nurse, a job that puts his abilities to good use, as his shine gives him an uncanny ability to help soothe the dying in their final moments – subsequently earning him the nickname Doctor Sleep. The shining is a pretty valuable thing – even more so to a group of steam-punk looking, cultish demons known as the True Knot. Lead by ancient matriarch, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the True Knot travels by RV across the country seeking out those with the shine, torturing them, and then devouring their essence, which they call steam. It’s a motley crew of weridos with weird names to say the least (a tip of the cap to Twin Peaks’s Carel Struycken as Grandpa Flick). They survive on steam and it must be extracted through pain and torture, which results in some very unsettling scenes in the film.

When the True Knot sense the presence of a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) who possesses incredibly strong abilities, Rose and her band of scoundrels look to hunt her down. Abra reaches out to Dan asking for his help to stop the True Knot from capturing and killing more people in their caravan of death!

I enjoyed Doctor Sleep much more than I expected I would. The performances are good, especially by Rebecca Ferguson as Rose. The horror is quite terrifying in parts, and while The Shining is on a different plane in terms of achievement and experience, Doctor Sleep is a well-told, strongly designed sequel. The nods to the first film are appropriate, but this is a fully realized, complete story all on its own. The adaptation from the source material is extremely faithful in most respects, but Flanagan also takes some massive left turns in other places, most notably with when Abra’s powers manifest and with the film’s ending. Stephen King said in an interview that it is important for readers to understand that the novel Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the novel The Shining and not the film. I think Flanagan took to that approach with this film in that the movie Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the movie The Shining and not the book, therefore the choices he made to deviate from the book make sense to the characters as we know them from the movie (even though I would have loved to see the novel’s ending play out in the film).

Doctor Sleep does what it set out to do very well. It invokes the spirit of The Shining without needlessly relying on it to stay above water. The inexplicable 152-minute running time does unsurprisingly result in the occasional drag here and there, especially in the first act. Still, there’s plenty that works and more than enough play in this film to keep Doctor Sleep from being a dull boy. B+

Doctor Sleep is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 32 minutes.

The Conjuring

ImageOne of the best things you can say about a horror movie is simply this: it’s scary.  In January, I wrote a short discussion on the horror genre masked as a review of Mama.  I have chosen to foolishly assume that my small blog post has single handedly reminded filmmakers and studios of the potential effect creative horror films can have.  The Conjuring is scary.

Strangely enough, the man who revitalized the exploitative “torture-porn” style of horror with his 2004 film Saw is now looking to do the very same thing to the classic horror style that films like Saw all but demolished.  James Wan helms the efficaciously eerie film, The Conjuring which tells the true story of two paranormal investigators who agree to help a family whose house may be infested with a demonic presence in 1970s New England.

From the Exorcist inspired main titles, The Conjuring is off and running.  We are introduced to paranormal investigators Ed and Loraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they hear out potential clients explaining a feared demonic infestation by way of inhabitation of a very disturbing looking doll.  We discover that Ed is a demonologist who while not ordained is still accepted among the Catholic church and his wife Lorainne is a clairvoyant, both with many successful cases behind them.  After this introduction, we are informed that the true story that follows details the most horrifying case that the Warrens have ever encountered.  The film’s structure then fragments into a dual narrative where we simultaneously follow the Warrens as well as the frightening events that lead a family to seek them out.

This dual narrative is an excellent choice for Wan to keep the scares coming as well as inform the audience to what is happening while not losing track of either the Warrens or the Perron family’s decent from infestation to oppression and ultimately to possession.  The story of a family bothered by something extra-terrestrial is not as fresh of an idea as it once was, but Wan’s simple techniques like a quick focus  or a back and forth camera pan offer terrifying results.  Additionally, the Parron family is quite large composed of Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters.  This allows the danger to feel more real and their options to seem more limited while the terror is more expansive.  Furthermore, the appearance of a bouncing ball, a creaking door, or a quick clap provides some of the best scares in recent horror history without feeling cheap or cut-rate.  Not since the first Paranormal Activity have ghostly scares been so effective, but unlike Paranormal Activity, the scares in The Conjuring do not necessarily come with the forewarning of a timestamp on a video camera.

Reviewing a good horror film is an art in itself as quite a bit must remain unsaid, but enough must be said to entice the reader to see it.  James Wan has created a horror film that appeals to a nostalgic retro vibe that calls back to the monumentally creepy films of the 70s like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Don’t Look Now.  I first saw The Exorcist at age 17 on home video on a sunny afternoon and it still scared the ever-loving shit out of me.  I can say that The Conjuring provided me with the closest experience to that in a long time.  I’m sure it will be quite a while before I decide to watch The Conjuring alone at night.  A-       

The Conjuring is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.    

Mama

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Mama (an excuse to critically discuss horror)

The horror genre has an unusual history in the cinematic world. Unlike traditional genres like comedy and drama, horror films seem aimed at a slightly more specialized market. And yet, with this specialized market, one would expect more diversity in the content, but history has revealed that this is not the case. Studios that release horror films seem to pray on popular cultural fads and then, most likely due to inexpensive production costs, let loose clone after clone after clone until these films eventually become less lucrative. Take a look at how many films follow this storyline: a mother notices some strange behavior in her child or around the house. She tells her husband, but her pleas fall on deaf ears; she must simply be imagining the pots and pans all stacking themselves all over the kitchen. Eventually, the husband witnesses something he can’t explain and (hesitantly) agrees to contact an expert or specialist in strange behavior who is found on the Internet. Chaos ensues. The expert dies trying to help, one or more friends of the protagonist become victims, and it ends right where it started with a tiny difference that ties everything together. This form of formulaic market saturation as a business model may keep the genre alive, but it has also lessened its reputation. There’s no doubt that horror films have the potential to affect an audience more than any other type of film since audience reaction is basically the watermark for success (consider those film trailers that do not show clips of the film, but rather show a packed, darkened theater of people wildly reacting to some outrageously scary moment).

Now, I am actually a horror fan and will concede that some of the greatest films are horror films (The Sixth Sense, The Exorcist, Frailty – look it up-, Jaws). However, the worst film of nearly every year is also a horror film (intentionally or unintentionally). Consequently, I am always wary of cinema that resists progress to idly make money off of spent franchises that are too cheap, production-wise, to give up. They make you want to cry for your…

Mama is the latest demented fable loosely attached to Guillermo del Toro, regardless of the relentless name dropping that advertisements display. Del Toro did produce, but his influence ends there, and thus, Mama is not Pan’s Labyrinth. Mama begins with a catastrophic series of events that result in two young girls being abandoned in a strange cottage in the woods where they will live for five years before being discovered. Exposition sweeps us through a bizarrely simplified adoption process where the girls’ uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is permitted to raise the girls in a state funded research house in order for the girls to be continuously observed by a psychologist. At this point, most of the stereotypical formula laid out previously proceeds.

Mama is written and directed by Andres Muschietti who bases it off of his own short film, also called Mama. Fundamentally, the story is not incredibly strong, and leaves the viewer with some noteworthy qualms, but Muschietti clearly understands where the few strengths of his story exist and manages to create a couple good scares. Additionally, he adds some fresh complexity to the film by writing Lucas’s girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), as a bass guitarist in a punk band who is apprehensive about having children and settling into a housewife role, but suddenly finds herself doing both. Muschietti also makes another honorable choice in that he tells a ghost story where the revelation of the ghost itself is not the object of the film. He, instead, introduces the ghost early and uses it as his chief form of tension building; that and the kids. The kids are creepy.

Mama is what it is. It raises no bars, but it holds a reasonably heavy one somewhat steadily in place. Expect the upcoming months to offer at least four more “clones” of this film as this fad works its way out. Then it should be smooth sailing… until it all starts over again in September. C

Prometheus

ImageWhile the conversations surrounding Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus are mostly about its relationship to Scott’s early sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alien (1979), there is an unavoidable comparison to be made to an earlier classic: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A scene near the beginning of the film includes a Kubrickian juxtaposition where robot “David” (Michael Fassbender) speaks with a HAL 9000-esque computer to wake up the Prometheus’s 17 man crew from cryo-sleep (a scene reminiscent to Alien, of course). This sets the tone for the film, which has always been one of director Ridley Scott’s strengths. The tone of Prometheus is at first pensive. The film’s momentum is firmly rooted in the mythology of man’s existence. This is not an unusual thematic trapping for sci-fi/horror, but this time it feels fresh. The Alien universe provides curiosity and character development that allows for some unique and clever insights on this idea. Prometheus is also a great looking film. The film opens with beautiful landscapes and Scott’s slow moving, sometimes static, floating camera movements both accentuate the pensive tone and allow the viewer to have time to appreciate and enjoy the film’s look. This is not to say Prometheus is not without its intensity. Plenty of scenes are punctuated by gripping suspense and cringe-worthy extra-terrestrial horror (it is a 17 man crew, or should I say was). The cast is well chosen from the soulless Michael Fassbender to the charismatic and surprisingly effective Noomi Rapace as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers is an intriguingly mysterious character as well. All in all, Prometheus delivers, and as its namesake suggests, not without catastrophic results. A-

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