Doctor Sleep (2019)

I reread The Shining this past October. It was part of my effort to read more spooky books after finishing up a posthumous Shirley Jackson collection (Let Me Tell You) that had a few good gothic outliers in it but was largely more domestic than the portions of her body of work with which I was more familiar (my next read after The Shining was David Mitchell’s Slade House, which was great but should really only be read if you’ve already finished his Bone Clocks, which is an endeavor). My erstwhile roommate and I talked about it midmonth when we met up for a mutual friend’s birthday, and he mentioned that, of all of Stephen King’s works that he had read, The Shining is the one that most closely resembles an objective (and admittedly pretentious) definition of “literature,” and as someone who loved the pulpiness of The Dead Zone but also literally threw Salem’s Lot into the trash at about the midway point, I had to agree. At the time, I had no idea that the forthcoming Doctor Sleep was an adaptation of the sequel to the earlier novel (or a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining from 1980, or something between the two, as the case turned out to be), but boy was I excited once I learned that was the case!

2019 marks the first time that three theatrical King adaptations have hit the big screen in the same year since 1983, which featured the hat trick of Lewis Teague’s Cujo, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, and John Carpenter’s Christine.* I had more positive feelings about IT: Chapter 2 than most (long story short: it was a better Nightmare on Elm Street movie than about half of the films in that franchise) and didn’t see the Pet Sematary remake, but boy was my King itch scratched by Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep follows an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who, following the incident at the Overlook Hotel in the first film, was taught by the ghost of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly, taking over for the late Scatman Crothers) to “lock away” the malevolent spirits that followed him—the rotten woman from Room 237, the Grady twins**, and even Horace Derwent—inside mental boxes. As an adult, he finds himself falling into the same patterns as his father and even going further; he’s not just an alcoholic, but abuses harder drugs as well, and even Jack Torrance never stole cash out of a single mother’s purse. Taking an inventory of his life, Danny starts anew in another town, where he seems to thrive and even becomes “psychic penpals” with a girl named Abra, whose Shining is perhaps even stronger than Danny’s. Elsewhere, however, a group of quasi-immortals called The True Knot seek out and murder children with the Shining in order to feed on their psychic essence. When the Knot’s de facto leader Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) becomes aware of Abra, the group seeks her out as their next victim, and she turns to Danny for help.

I loved this movie. I’ve been a fan of Mike Flanagan’s since Oculus, and I think that he may be the best horror director of this generation. The Haunting of Hill House series that he released last year was stunningly, achingly beautiful, and his adaptation of Gerald’s Game established that he was more than capable of adapting the tone, tension, and dry bones terror of a Stephen King narrative. With him at the helm, there was little to no chance that this film would be anything less than perfect. Every shot is beautifully composed, and although I know many probably balked at the film’s 152 minute runtime, there’s not a single frame of wasted celluloid in this film. Even the moments when, theoretically, nothing is happening (like Danny’s and the Knot’s long cross country drives), the camera watches from a place of elevated removal, watching and waiting and letting the tension build, subtly echoing Rose’s viewpoint when she “flies” while astral projecting in her pursuit of Abra. It’s elegant in its simplicity, but isn’t above descending into occasional camp either (Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer mentioned that the villains gave him strong True Blood vibes, which is a criticism not without merit). This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly. McGregor gives one of his best performances here, and Ferguson is likewise a delight (the supermarket scene is a particular standout). Sleep really and truly deserves all the attention that it’s failing to garner in the mainstream, and is the rare horror sequel to live up to (and feel like it truly belongs to) the legacy of its predecessor.

*Graveyard Shift, Misery, and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie all came out in 1990, but Darkside is an anthology with only one King adaptation in its ranks, so I don’t count that. 2017 actually boasted four features, but Gerald’s Game and 1922 both premiered on Netflix and not in theaters, and although IT was a clear success, the less said about The Dark Tower the better. Technically, King’s website also lists an April 2017 release date for My Pretty Pony, which is a movie that I’m not entirely sure exists. Even the Wikipedia page for the short story on which it is based talks about the film’s 2017 release in the future tense, and I can’t find any evidence of the film ever coming to fruition.

** Yes, I know they are not identified as the children of former caretaker Grady in Kubrick’s The Shining, and that Grady’s daughters in the novel are explicitly not twins (being aged 8 and 10); don’t @ me.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Hush (2016)

threehalfstar

There’s still a few weeks of breathing room left for 2016 to surprise us with a year-defining trend, but barring an unexpected radical shift, I think it’s safe to call it The Year of the Confined Space Thriller. Between Green Room10 Cloverfield Lane, The Invitation, Emelie, and Don’t Breathe, the year had already delivered enough efficient, violent thrillers with cramped locales to earn that distinction, but with this genre entry from horror director Mike Flanagan, 2016’s fate has essentially already been sealed. Like with Flanagan’s other modest budget genre works Oculus & Ouija: Origin of Evil, his confined space thriller Hush turns a straightforward, familiar formula into an exciting exercise in suspense-building & tone. Although it’s the only feature in that trio not to earn a proper theatrical release (Hush was distributed by Netflix), it’s just as enjoyable as anything else I’ve seen from the director. The worst you could say about Hush is that in a year crammed with excellent confined space thrillers this one is merely very good while being far from the best. It’s unfair to ding Flanagan for submitting a worthy entry into a flooded market, but we are certainly on the edge of being oversaturated with this particular genre this year, which makes it difficult for any films that traffics in that territory to stand out.

As far as standing out from its genre peers goes, Hush doesn’t do itself any favors in terms of plot. A home invasion thriller about a lone woman fighting off a mysterious male assailant, Hush resembles too many movies to count. Even its distinguishing details feel overly familiar. Our woman in peril protagonist is a novelist who writes the very same kind of plots she falls victim to; she even has Stephen King books lining her shelves & winking at the audience. The movie’s main conceit is that she is especially vulnerable to her attacker because she is deaf & mute, as hinted at in the film’s title. This is a slight deviation from films like See No Evil, Wait Until Dark, and Don’t Breathe, as blindness is typically the preferred handicap in this kind of genre territory, but it doesn’t stray too far from the usual blueprint, all things considered. There’s no real twists or surprises to the way Hush plays out; this is not coming from the same place as the much more experimental You’re Next. Instead, Hush survives on the strengths of its details. Because it’s a dialogue-light affair that frequently communicates through body & sign language, its muted soundscape sets a unique tone. The endangered novelist uses her talent for plotting to help decipher a possible way out of her plight. The slight smile on its killer’s fixed, stoic mask is a subtle nightmare. The film uses very brutal, but highly specific tools in its sudden bursts of intense violence: a kitchen knife, a hammer, a crossbow, a slammed door. 

Nothing in Hush is especially surprising once you get a handle on what kind of story it wants to tell, but the film still impresses in its competence & efficiency. Considering the familiar ghost story territory of both Oculus & Origin of Evil, that competence seems to be Flanagan’s speciality. I’ve yet to fall madly in love with a single one of his films, but they’re all memorably enjoyable & well crafted. If someone were asking for examples of the greatest home invasion thrillers of all time, it’s doubtful that Hush would make many lists. If, however, someone were merely looking for a list of recent thrillers that were particularly well made, this one might deserve a nod. The only problem is that it happens to have a lot of company this year, maybe even too much for a crossbow or a creepy mask to give it a fighting chance.

-Brandon Ledet

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

ghost

threehalfstar

campstamp

Between Battleship, Clue, and now Ouija: Origin of Evil, I can honestly say I’ve never seen a movie based off a board game that I did not enjoy. It’s a strange feeling, considering how many awful movies based on action figures, video games, and comic books have been released over the years. My best guess as to why the board game movie has a fairly high success rate, besides not having a large number of chances to shit the bed, is that there’s a playfulness inherent to the sub-subgenre that calls for a kind of in-on-the-joke campiness that deflects a lot of potential criticism with a casual wave of the hand. The trailers for Ouija: Origin of Evil signaled to me, “Hey, we’re just having fun here. No pressure,” and the film itself followed through on that cavalier attitude. I’m not saying that Origin of Evil was the kind of lazy, winking affair you’d find in a Sharknado or a Lavalantula, but it did have a playful smirk in the way it chose to deliver its genre thrills, one that undercut any of its generic formula and made me wonder if I might be a fan of the board game movie as an artistic medium.

If there’s anything unfortunate about the ad campaign that hooked me into watching Origin of Evil, it’s that it revealed a little too much. Not only was every potential scare up until the last half hour thoroughly spoiled in the trailers, but the film’s few major narrative reveals were also spelled out in the campaign. Since we know ahead of time that a family of scam artist “psychics” who fake communication with the dead will be taught a harsh lesson by actually communicating with the dead through the titular haunted board game, there’s not much room left for the film to surprise in terms of unexpected story beats. Worse yet, the ads revealed that the youngest, most adorable member of the family would suffer a Linda Blair-style demonic possession that causes her to do & say all the freaky Creepy Kid Horror things we’ve been seeing on film since all the way back to Village of the Damned (if not earlier): spooky voices, inhuman contortions, ice cold precociousness, etc. Where Origin of Evil makes these already-expected tropes worthwhile, then, is in how willing it is to have fun with the very familiar space it carves out for itself.

Like with a lot of recent horror films, Origin of Evil sets its haunted house/board game horrors decades in the past, this time opting for the 1960s instead of the well-worn temporal setting of the 70s (like in The Conjuring & We Are Still Here). This not only makes room for beautiful sets & costuming in its production design and removes pesky horror-prevention inventions like cellphones & Google from the scenario; it also harkens back to a time when the ouija board was new & sacred. The religious adherence to rules like “Don’t play by yourself” & “Never play in a graveyard,” makes it all the more significant when they’re inevitably broken and violators are punished accordingly. Visually, the film also has a lot of fun with the detail allowed by the setting, digitally recreating “cigarette burn” reel changes & indulging in the most split diopter shots I’ve seen since Blow Out. There’s some fun touches in the dialogue that are specific to the era as well, like when a teen boy mansplains to a group of girls why we could never land on the moon & in the general Brady Bunch precociousness of the evil little girl at the film’s center as she gleefully channels the restless spirits of the dead. If set in 2016, Ouija: Origin of Evil might have been a generic, by the books blur (which, by all accounts, its 2014 predecessor Ouija was), but something about a rock ‘n roll 60s familial melodrama being invaded by an evil board game allowed a lot of room for camp horror efficiency & the film had a lot of fun playing around in that space.

It’s difficult to say exactly what I’m looking for when I go see a modern generic horror at the theater, but Ouija: Origin of Evil delivers it with ease. It’s got exactly what I felt was missing from other 2016 titles like The Darkness, The Forest, and (the worst of the bunch) Lights Out, bested only by The Boy in putting a smile on my face while supplying what I want from Modern Big Studio Horror, whatever it is. Director Mike Flanagan, who also helmed Hush & Oculus, has a great track record with making gold out of standard horror fare so far, so surely he should be given some significant credit for crafting an enjoyable prequel to a film I never plan to see here, but I also think there’s something to the board game movie as a novelty subgenre that made his playfulness possible. Using the ouija board as a centerpiece opened up a goofy-spooky playground for Flanagan to let loose in and it’s fun watching him gleefully run in circles with his camera within that environment.

-Brandon Ledet