To put it out there upfront, I don’t consider The Shining the greatest horror movie ever made – it wouldn’t make it into my Top 20. It’s okay, but I think the recent Honest Trailers review pretty much sums up my feelings on it.
Still, I went to the opening day screening of Mike Flanagan’s new adaptation of the Stephen King sequel of the same name. King has professed love for this new movie – but before we get too excited, he also raved about the Pet Semetary remake, IT 2 and The Dark Tower. I love Stephen King, but I don’t take much notice of his recommendations – be they for books or movies.
The trailers played pretty well for this new movie – atmospheric, spiritually connected to the original book and film (which King famously dislikes) and some spooky-looking visuals. I didn’t love the book – it was okay (another example of my stunning critical capabilities – ‘OK’.) but sandwiched between what I felt were two stronger works – Joyland and Mr Mercedes.
So as a brief synopsis – Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor) is now all grown up, and drinking heavily to try and numb the memories and on-going visions from his childhood. A travelling band of psychic vampires led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) are taking and killing children with abilities to drain them of their life-force which gives the group life-extending powers. When they sense Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) a 13-year-old girl with extraordinary powers they sense a ‘payload’ of power and Danny must decide whether to help protect her against their evil plans. Help which may (hint: it does) include the epicentre of evil, The Overlook Hotel.
It was clearly always going to be a tricky business making Dr Sleep – base it on the source novel? the source prequel? the original movie which differed quite substantially from the book – particularly in its most iconic moments? Mike Flannigan’s screenplay attempts to do a bit of everything and this, as well as the common problems of translating so many of King’s novels, may be the reason why for me, the film played as a messy disappointment overall.
How much will viewers see this as a true successor to The Shining? It depends on how much they’re just waiting for the return to the Overlook – a happening that’s made clear will occur from the trailers, posters and multiple articles on ‘recreating the look’. Bringing in a flesh and blood ‘monster’ rather than the general underlying creep of the building is a challenge and one which, for me, Rebecca Ferguson’s character wasn’t really up to. Part Mr Dark, part Wicked Witch of the West, she does her best to ooze menace and power, but too often comes across as a one-dimensional bad fairy godmother. Similarly, the other members of her True Knot band of baddies are forgettable cannon fodder, with the exception of Emily Alyn Lind’s Snakebite Andi – a 15-year-old psychic who the group initially find as she honey-traps a cheating husband and apparently has deep-rooted anger to society and men in particular. It’s not overtly stated, but it’s pretty clear the background we are to infer she comes from. Reminiscent of Chloe Moretz she gives one of the better performances in the movie despite a fairly cliched character – at least we believe her anger. Her ‘Preacher’ like powers of total control via verbal suggestion is not new, and her use of them for one particular plot point is signposted from a mile away, but in a bland crew, she does shine a bit.
Ewan McGregor is perfectly okay as Danny – his recovering alcoholic is something of a stock King character, but it is handled better than a lot of movies in its portrayal here. He looks grungy enough to get across the demons Danny has faced over the years and despite some truly clunking lines of dialogue, McGregor handles it as well as could be expected – in the process, in one brief scene giving a sneaky little Jack Nicholson impersonation – more enjoyable than either the (sort of) look-a-like employed in the movie’s climax (And both the reimagined versions of Wendy and Danny are very flattering to their original performers…). of all the performances, Abra Stone as the young prodigy stands out as most impressive. She’s got quite a lot of heavy lifting to do and does it well.
Overall though, it IS a mish-mash of a thing. Whether we should blame King for this or the many years of ‘homage’ to his work is up for debate, but it’s too tempting to tick off the similarities as the film goes on, in terms of story, characters, themes and FX. So whether it’s the Buffy-like dusting of the vampires, the White Eye possession of too many to mention, the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-whose-reality-am-I-in-now? of Dreamscape, Inception, and films before them or more recent (Spiderman, Far From Home) there’s little original in the way it’s treated. There are the memory palaces of the likes of Thomas Harris, or the aforementioned Inception, and, of course, always with the original looming over it spiritually and, ultimately, literally in the movie’s third act.
Perhaps it’s the third act that is most troublesome – if you’re a fan of Kubrick’s original you may well feel by this point the movie hasn’t earned the right to invoke the ‘classic’. Personally, I didn’t have any problem with that aspect of it – I just found the return to the Overlook dull and unrecognizable in terms of tone or feel. Sure, we get the bar scene, and the lobby, and room 237. We’ve had the slopping bodies throughout the film. We get the obvious references with axe and doors and so on – scenes which have been parodied so much over the past forty years or so, they’re beyond referencing with any real effectiveness. The issue for me was that, despite all the evidence to the contrary about the recreation detail, it just didn’t feel like The Overlook. The size, the austerity, the scale of the thing just felt so diminished. The bits are all there, they just felt shrunken in scope. Except for the maze. Ah, the maze. I’ll avoid spoilers other than to say the scenes which take place within are the most pointless, cliched ‘action’ scenes I’ve seen for some time. There’s a spectacular lack of logic in some of the decisions made and a scene which apparently tries to pay homage but fizzles out like a damp squib- affecting not just the scene, but the entire movie.
If superhero movies have taught us one thing, it can be difficult to make a protagonist powerful enough to impress and a villain strong enough to create fear. Such films may use a ‘power-up’ feature to make the big-bad EVEN MORE POWERFUL for a fitting finale. Dr Sleep may not be a superhero movie, but it employs a lot of the traits – physical actions which would kill, maim or permanently cripple occur but are shaken off or have no effect from scene to scene. Jump shots are used for ‘tension’ and ‘shock’ (Interestingly, I watched Brightburn the same day as this, and it uses exactly the same technique for its ‘tension’.)
One final note: The most effective part of the original movie for me was the soundtrack. Here the filmmakers appear to have heard that and decided a deafening sound will equal ‘SCARE’ – whether it’s a jump shock or ‘tension-building’. It doesn’t. It just comes across as lazy and annoying.
Not the Halloween scare I was hoping for. I didn’t find the original particularly scary, but I can honestly say I didn’t feel one moment of tension watching Dr Sleep.