horror

Taking the Shine Off with Doctor Sleep

The following contains spoilers for every version of The Shining and both versions of its sequel Doctor Sleep.

With a legendary, cross-genre publishing career pushing toward its fifth decade, Stephen King’s name has become a thing unto itself. It is adjectival; it has top billing; it is printing money. That said, adapting Stephen King isn’t always an easy proposition, even if you are Stephen King–[gestures to Maximum Overdrive]–although, with legions of eager Constant Readers and more bestsellers to his credit than most people will ever read, let alone write, it will always be a tempting one. To date, there have been 42 King-based film projects, and that’s on top of TV series like Castle Rock and The Outsider. Good stories make for good boob tube–[gestures to Apt Pupil, Misery, ‘Salem’s Lot, It, Lawnmower Man, The Green Mile, Carrie, The Shawshank Redemption, The Children of the Corn, Stand By Me, Pet Sematary (1989), Pet Sematery (2019), arm gets tired, but add your favorites]–and, if not exactly good, certainly a bunch more watchable, profitable popcorn flicks. I know I’m not the only one who liked Sleepwalkers. *

Most people would rank Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) right up there at the very top of not only King adaptations, but horror movies, period. It’s seminal stuff that has long overshadowed the novel that birthed it, not unlike the way Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was transformed by theatrical adaptations into the story we all remember, the story we all think we read. From the soaring crane shot of a crisp outline, the Kubrick version departs in many dramatic choices–i.e. elevator blood–but the substance of the conflicts–Jack Torrence succumbing to a potent cocktail of frustrated ambition, a cycle of child abuse, and alcoholism; the haunted Overlook hotel teeming with hungry ghosts on the inside and impassible drifts of man vs. nature outside; a mother desperately trying to protect her son from an abusive husband and father; and a precocious, troubled little boy lit up with psychic fireworks underscoring raw filial love, both of which will only make him more vulnerable–line up and check all the boxes. It is a simple story in the end, its metaphors as dense and chillingly deep as snow drifts in the Colorado mountains, but still one with clean lines and a near horizon. A man becomes a monster, and his pretty wife and little boy are trapped all alone with that monster, with no way to leave, no one to come for help. Good night.

Except. 

Kubrick’s choices matter, and not simply because they depart from King’s decisions in the book, trading a fiery final act for a frostbitten one, etc. If I’m honest, I don’t find it scary. Did I lose you? It’s okay, I know how you feel. Kubrick lost me. You might think that it’s because I love King’s novel and bristle at the many liberties Kubrick took with that work. The novel is indeed one of my favorite books of all time. I reread it in full every year, same as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, to which it owes not a little. I pick it up and I fly right on through it. It’s that easy to glide through, and yet I also continually find new, strange hallways to get lost in with the Overlook and Jack Torrence’s mind. I can’t say that preference doesn’t affect me at all. I’m annoyed at the lost opportunities in Kubrick’s version, but that’s not my real problem with it. Let me assure you, I also love the novel Pet Sematary, and I think the 2019 remake, which takes massive liberties with the novel, is absolute genius adaptive work, so I’m not worried about fidelity to the text for its own sake. Not to mention that, like most of the world, I saw the 1980 movie first, and we can all appreciate how your first look at a character or a story often defines it for you ever, ever after. I mean, was Dick Sergeant really an inferior Darren? Really?

My distaste for Kubrick’s Shining–because in the end, it really is a matter of taste–is pretty simple. I don’t believe it. I believe the nightly camcorder hijinks of the world’s most stubborn boyfriend in Paranormal Activity before I believe a line of Kubrick’s Shining. I will credit it what it’s due: it’s influential to the point that you can hardly touch a modern horror film that doesn’t owe it something, it’s beautiful, it’s meticulous, it’s ooky and spooky, but I don’t, not for a minute, find it scary. Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers both, ahem, shine as Wendy Torrence and Dick Hallorann, and I like how Kubrick visualized Danny’s imaginary friend Tony. As one very wise friend recently opined, part of the problem with adapting King is how to tackle dramatizing internal action and thought. In 1980, how do you show Danny falling through the mirror in a way that feels right, that looks right? By the same token, I think changing from the hedge animals to a huge maze was pretty smart, too. Yet Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance spoils all that work for me. There’s no suspense. It’s just a Viewmaster of baroque disturbances until Jack Nicholson kicks it up exactly one-half notch into ax murder mode. Kubrick’s Shining is a cold, cold place, sure, but not with the chill of a haunting; it’s the echoey interior of brand-new construction where no one has ever actually lived. The 1990s Shining miniseries has its own flaws, not least a tacked on epilogue that will give you cavities, but I much, much prefer that version. That version actually gets under my skin. Watching Steven Weber’s Jack Torrence slowly, painfully disintegrate, ground down in the teeth of denial, of addiction, of responsibility and desire and ambition, hurts in a good way, in a credible way. It’s scary because it’s true.

All that being said, this article isn’t, ostensibly anyway, about The Shining; it’s about its sequel, Doctor Sleep (2019), and the fact that it took me this long to get to talking about it is a good illustration of the problem awaiting Mike Flanagan when he took up the challenge of adapting the novel to film. There’s a whole prologue before patrons even find their seats in the theater, and more than that, the prologue disagrees with itself. Is it a film of the novel Doctor Sleep, a sequel to the 1977 novel The Shining, or is it a sequel to The Shining (1980)? Does Dick Hallorann make it up that mountain just to get an ax planted between his shoulder blades or does he manage to get Danny and Wendy down the mountain and into a placid epilogue in Florida? Does the Overlook erupt in flames after a possessed Jack Torrence forgets to [kisses metaphor square on the mouth] dump the boiler? Or does he become a Jackscicle in the hedge maze? Even if you commit, single-mindedly and faithfully, to adapting the novel you’re adapting, how do you counter the phantom of the 1980 film changing the story in popular memory? You can’t just ignore the climactic fate of Dick Hallorann. It would be like, I don’t know, bringing back Emperor Palpatine unexpectedly through deus ex machina and expecting the audience not to feel cheated after watching him plummet to his death roughly thirty years before. Who would do that? Well, not Doctor Sleep director-writer-editor Mike Flanagan, we know that. 

Now I can’t speak to the novel here; I’ve started, but not finished reading it. One thing that really sticks out from early in the novel and persists in the film adaptation though is a tonal shift that is consistent with King’s more grandiose work. It feels less like The Shining or Misery and much more like The Stand or The Dark Tower or Desperation: this is King in his more adventuresome, occult road movie mode, and I actually like that. It seems fitting for the back half of this story to go bigger and wider, even if poor Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor) feels like he’s seeing most of it from inside a whiskey bottle. Because that is the initial conflict of Doctor Sleep: Danny has succumbed to self-medicating ancient traumas inflicted by his father with his father’s own fatal remedy, alcohol, but he is finding a way to become a better man and use his gifts for good. Ultimately, this brings him into conflict with a cult of spirit vampires hunting down children who shine the way Danny once did. Danny sort of becomes the Dick Hallorann to the young girl Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a girl who’s older, more powerful, and more resourceful than Danny was in The Shining, but also sought by even nastier things, living things that are far from pictures in a book, whether you shine or not. And they have an RV convoy. Ooh, scary.

Did that sound sarcastic? Good. The heart is in the right place with Doctor Sleep, I’ll give it that, but with a $55 million budget, brilliant talent all over that marquee, and a runtime of 2 hours and 32 minutes, it’s still not enough to make me care and definitely not enough to make me shiver. I’ve written about Mike Flanagan here before, in my glowing review of Hush, and his Oculus is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. I’m a big fan. I don’t see his work here, even though I am certain he worked his butt off on it. What I see is a man trying so hard to sew together two disparate visions of this story that his own vision is entirely forfeited. He is like a child doing extra chores, hoping that if he doesn’t make them mad, then his parents won’t get a divorce. But, Mike, honey, your parents aren’t even speaking. They never did. 

As I alluded to my wise friend’s saying, adapting King almost always means figuring out interesting visual ways to dramatize things that are happening between the eyes. Much of Doctor Sleep’s action, in the film anyway, is psychic people thinking hard, sensing each other, reading each other’s thoughts, making each other do things. Flanagan does a pretty good job with that on the whole, but it’s hard to get a real sense of urgency when our villain is on top of an RV in a campsite somewhere out west, and our vulnerable girl hero is thinking at her from an upstairs window on the East Coast. That’s not exactly the room marked 237 yawning provocatively at Danny on his Big Wheel. And that’s not confined to a prelude. That’s a majority of the film.

Our villains are generally unscary and unsympathetic though, and I’m not sure it matters if lead villain Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) is making faces into a grocery store freezer or holding Abra by the throat. I’m similarly unmoved. Everything is perfectly predictable; we’ve seen it all before, and not because we read the book. Adding to that, our set of energy vampires, the True Knot, don’t really get any development that might make them feel even a little less paint by numbers, including their leaders, Rose and her lieutenant and snugglebunny Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon). What development we do get comes with the recruitment of member Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), a young woman using her shine to turn the tables on men who would prey on her…only to become herself a predator of children with minimal heartburn about it. Another wise friend said to me that she was never scared of “those Johnny Depp jingle-jangle villains,” and why would you be? The worst thing they look like they’d do is break out in a sudden Counting Crows concert. They prey exclusively on children, which is horrific, but if the only points of a horror film where I feel any anxiety are scenes of children being tortured…well, that’s basic, isn’t it? I mean, the animal torture in Rob Zombie’s Halloween is harrowing, too, but he has something to follow it with. Flanagan may make a miscalculation in giving us Abra as competent as she is because, while she is refreshingly fierce, if they’re not feasting on 6-year-olds, the Big Bads don’t seem very big or bad at any point. Add to that, they move at a glacial miniseries pace. Honestly, I don’t know where all that two and a half hours goes when every element this thing needs to be at all good, scary, or faithful–character, plot, conflict–gets sliced so thinly it never quite manages to be any of those.

Oh, no, wait, I do know where some of it goes, actually where a lot of it goes, and sadly, it’s probably the best part: Flanagan trying to make King and Kubrick stay together for the kids. 

Flanagan’s elegant solution to reconciling Shinings is to tack on a prologue where young Danny has a conversation with Hallorann from the book, but it’s Hallorann’s ghost because Kubrick film, and then he gives us 45 full minutes of a final act in the Overlook, which is still standing, because Kubrick film. It’s an interesting compromise, but ultimately an unsatisfying one, as he has the Overlook replay its greatest hits from the 1980 film like a cover band at a free summer festival concert. Putting Henry Thomas, who deserves better, in a Jack Nicholson Halloween costume is not compelling. Taking Abra abruptly offstage while Danny gets his affairs in order is not compelling. Forcing Danny into a Jack Nicholson Halloween costume is not compelling and, even worse, predictable. Subbing in The Shining’s novel ending for a final confrontation with Rose in the Overlook is clever as hell, I’ll give Flanagan that, but still…not compelling. Why don’t I feel as strongly about Danny Torrence’s sacrifice as Mike Flanagan’s cleverness? Could it be because, while the final act of the novel was continually prepared for in King’s text so that the payoff was an explosion worthy of hundreds of pounds of fiery pressure, that in the movie, the prep work was slipped in so quickly that, unless you read the novel, it wouldn’t make sense or have any resonance? It might be that. The “you don’t know where you’re standing” is supposed to wallop with over forty years’ worth of “you will remember what your father forgot” echoing down those halls, but it’s not earned.

I have noticed a lot of people come to the defense of Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep with variations of it’s the best anyone could expect. He had two narratives to serve, two untouchable masterworks, while delivering a film on its own, not to mention the difficulty of adapting Stephen King when he’s in sprawl mode. How do you do justice to a journey like Danny Torrence’s while developing your villains while giving space to introduce a brilliant new heroine who will need Danny, but also be worthy of the audience’s hope in such a dark universe? How do you reconcile a sequel novel with an incompatible film chronology everyone knows better than the novel itself? I mean, that’s tough. I don’t dispute that. In fact, I think it might be impossible, and this movie, ladies and gentlemen, is the proof. But I don’t think that just because it’s impossible means this film gets some sort of pass. It’s not a two-year-old missing the potty. It’s a master storyteller with all the money and time in the world missing the point. Pretending otherwise doesn’t make you a fair critic. It just makes you a pliant consumer. I hate writing negative things, and the last time I wrote something this negative here was my review of the BBC Dracula. That, at least, I thought had ideas that could be recapitulated into something more successful, but here, I’m afraid even that’s impossible, as Doctor Sleep is a grab bag of tropes and cliches from start to finish. In trying to serve two giants, Flanagan failed himself and his audience and, eventually, both masters he sought to honor. He brought nothing new, did nothing memorable with what he did have, and I suspect this will be a two-and-a-half hour ghost tour no one will remember in no time at all.

*My husband assures me I am the only one.

~~~

Angela looks forward to your letters.

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