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

Overlook Film Fest’s New Orleans Debut

It’s an exciting time to be a film nerd in New Orleans. It feels like our art cinema scene is finally bouncing back from when the AMC Palace megaplexes wiped out smaller independent venues in the 90s & 00s. The Broad Theater, The Prytania, and Chalmette Movies are keeping adventurous arts programming alive on local big screens on a weekly basis. Both New Orleans Film Fest and New Orleans French Film Fest are gaining steam in screening the most exciting films of any given year in a city that would have to wait to catch them on VOD otherwise. Joining this embarrassment of riches is the Overlook Film Festival, a nomadic horror film fest that originated in Oregon and has yet to find a permanent home. Over four beautiful late-April days in the French Quarter, the Overlook festival made its welcome New Orleans debut, making me question what we did to deserve such a magical, unprompted blessing from the indie cinema gods. Like WrestleMania’s recent return, the festival felt like a birthday present to the city on its 300th anniversary, one I very much appreciated even if we ultimately don’t get to keep it.

The tricky thing about holding onto Overlook Film Fest is that it’s young and looking to expand. A four-day festival that originated at Oregon’s Timberline Lodge (which was used for exterior shots in Kubrick’s The Shining, where the festival borrowed its name), Overlook quickly outgrew its original locale in both size & tone. Festival organizers noted in an interview with Indiewire that the theater space was too small to accommodate their planned expansion, but it also seems like their mission statement as “a summer camp for genre fans” was at odds with the hotel’s Shining-rejecting nature as “a family-oriented establishment.” This branding conflict forced the festival to shift its focus away from association with Kubrick’s shooting location to a wider range of “iconic locations that evoke the spirit of the Overlook hotel, horror’s most infamous haunted fictional location.” For its New Orleans debut, the fest landed itself in the Bourbon Orleans, which unlike the Timberline, leans into its spooky reputation by billing itself as “one of New Orleans’s top haunted hotels.” The brilliance of the move is that the Bourbon Orleans’s French Quarter locale opens the festival to several screening venues instead of one self-contained building. It transforms the French Quarter, an area crawling with “ghost tour” tourist traps, into a horror nerd’s playground the fest’s site describes as being “home to countless apparition sightings voodoo legends, and vampire curses.” They also propose that a ghost child spotted at the hotel was likely on influence on the creepy twins in The Shining, which sure, why not? Of course, the French Quarter is a limited space with its own set-in-stone boundaries and the Overlook’s arrival during peak festival season means it might have to fight for screening venues as it outgrows the mere two it reserved this year, but for now the events weren’t at all overcrowded and the city seemed to have the exact vibe they’re looking for. Let’s hope that lasts.

Speaking of gradual expansion, Swampflix was too small to secure a press pass for this year’s festival. I wanted to support Overlook as best as I could to welcome its return, though, so I bought tickets to a few individual screenings and signed up to volunteer for a shift helping organize the fest. By happenstance, my volunteer shift turned out to be a total joy, as I worked the door for live recordings of two podcasts I regularly listen to anyway: Shock Waves and The Canon. Outside taking tickets & headcounts and occasionally providing information to attendees, I mostly just listened in as guests Thomas Lennon gushed about The Exorcist III (and for a brief, glorious moment, my beloved Monster Trucks) and Barbara Crampton discussed the highs & lows of horror as a medium from the POV of a woman who’s lived them at both extremes. I got to have some brief exchanges with guests, like telling Blumhouse producer Ryan Turek how much I appreciate his podcast & wishing a panel-crashing Udo Kier a good morning (he, Lennon, and Crampton were all promoting the festival’s premiere of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich). The whole event was staged inside the Bourbon’s Orleans’s “haunted ballroom,” the site of frequently reported ghost sightings and, thus, a wonderful podcasting venue. Basically, I’m sure the festival (or, more specifically, the New Orleans Film Society folks who organized the volunteers) appreciated the extra hands, but the whole event felt like something I would have attended for fun anyway.

Since I couldn’t afford an All Access Pass for the festival and couldn’t negotiate my way in as press, I had to be choosy in selecting movies to cover for the site. Major event screenings at the Le Petit Theatre of films I’ve been dying to see like Hereditary, Upgrade, and the Unfriended sequel were calling out to me like genre film Sirens, but I decided to seek out smaller films instead. I knew I’d be able to see Hereditary on the big screen if I could be patient for a couple more months, but the joy of film festivals is often seeing proper screenings of smaller films that you’ll otherwise only see distributed on VOD (if at all). As such, I watched three foreign language horror films directed by women that I’ve heard heavy buzz behind (on podcasts like Shock Waves) for months, but I suspect might not even make it to venues like The Broad: Blue My Mind, Tigers are Not Afraid, (and my personal favorite) Good Manners. All three films (all screened at Canal Place) were excellent, adventurous participations in & subversion of familiar genre tropes – the exact kind of programming you dream of for a horror-themed festival. The programming of Good Manners & Tigers Are Not Afraid as an effective double bill was especially harmonious, as both films operate on a similar post-del Toro dark fairy tale vibe while still varying wildly in visual & thematic material. The body horror transformations of Good Manners & Blue My Mind were also interesting reflections of each other, as discussing the very nature of their exact creature feature premises could constitute spoilers given their patient reveals (even though seasoned audiences know what monsters to expect long before they arrive). It was an incredibly small sampling of the two dozen features that screened at the festival, but I could not be happier with the titles I saw. At the very least, I expect to be evangelizing for Good Manners as one of the Top Films of 2018 for the remainder of the year.

It’s impossible to tell what the future holds for the Overlook Film Festival as it expands in size & ambition. I doubt even the festival organizers themselves have a clear idea of where they’re going. I can report, though, that the first year in New Orleans was an ooky-spooky delight, an experience I’ll gladly repeat for as many years as they’re willing & able to return. The crowds were simultaneously more laidback and more enthusiastic than what I’m used to seeing at our local film fests, which made for a wonderfully nerdy genre film environment. I hope everyone who traveled here had as rewarding of an experience as I did. I also hope they saw some ghosts.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

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Have you ever completely forgotten that you’ve seen a film before until you’re in the middle of watching it? I ran across a couple posts recently that compared Stanely Kubrick’s masterful horror landmark The Shining to a 1920s Swedish film named The Phantom Carriage. There was one .gif in particular that mirrored the two works’ infamous axe scenes that really caught my attention while scrolling through Tumblr posts. I made a point to bump the Criterion-restored version of The Phantom Carriage to the top of my Hulu queue only to discover about five minutes into the film that I had seen it once before, years & years ago, and already really enjoyed it.

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A silent film that combines horror & dramatic tragedy, The Phantom Carriage tells a similar story as works like It’s a Wonderful Life & A Christmas Carol with an intense focus on the supernatural aspect of that framework. In the movie’s mythology whoever dies last on the last day of the year must drive Death’s carriage for a full year. Each day feels like 100 years as the titular phantom carriage’s driver makes their rounds like a mail room clerk, collecting souls from the recently deceased on Death’s behalf. The horse & carriage are always the same, but the driver is different each year, almost like a morbid version of the Tim Allen comedy The Santa Clause.

On this particular New Year’s Eve the newest phantom carriage driver-elect is one David Holm, a boozy sinner who’s spent most of his life abusing anyone who dares to love him. Before David’s (literally) given the reins, however, he’s forced to take a remorseful journey through his own past, bearing witness to each horrifically shitty thing he’s done to his fellow man. David is forced by Death’s previous servant to watch as his past self abandons his family in favor of booze, shames the charitable for caring about his well-being, and intentionally tries to spread consumption among the innocent out of pure malice. He can barely stand to watch himself act like such a destructive ass & that discomfort is a large portion of his punishment as Death’s new servant.

Outside the obvious homage in the axe scene pictured above, there isn’t much to The Phantom Carriage‘s connection to The Shining except on a very basic thematic level. The Phantom Carriage is a ghost story about alcoholism & familial abuse in which the temporary caretaker of a supernatural, cursed establishment is driven to cruelty, so yeah, it does telegraph a lot of the basic structure of where Kubrick would take his Steven King adaptation over 50 years later. However, Kubrick is far from the first director who comes to mind while watching The Phantom Carriage, which is likely why I didn’t remember seeing the film before when prompted by those social media posts.

It’s Ingmar Bergman who pulled the most readily recognizable influence from the silent classic. As soon as Death’s servant arrives in the iconic hooded robe & sickle get-up, Bergman’s version of Death in The Seventh Seal immediately comes to mind. Before I even read this film’s Wikipedia page I could’ve told you Bergman watched The Phantom Carriage religiously and, indeed, the director claimed to have viewed it at least once a year. It’s possible to argue that The Shining would’ve been a very different work without The Phantom Carriage‘s influence, but what’s an even more immense question is just how different Bergman’s entire aesthetic would be without the seminal work. It’s crazy to think of the massive influence Bergman’s image of Death has had across pop culture, from The Last Action Hero to The Independent to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (naming a few personal favorites), and that its seed was actually planted in the silent era.

The Phantom Carriage is well worth a watch even outside its massive influence on the likes of Kubrick & Bergman. The film was noteworthy in its time for innovations in its ghostly camera trickery and its flashback-within-a-flashback narrative structure. Those aspects still feel strikingly anachronistic & forward-thinking today, especially the gnarly phantom imagery, but you don’t have to be a film historian to appreciate what’s essentially a timeless story of brutally cold selfishness & heartbreaking remorse. I also like the movie’s gimmick of trying to make a non-Halloween holiday spooky (the film was set, plotted around, and released on New Year’s Eve), something schlock horror would do with Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and whatever else for decades to come. It’s a shame that at one point I forgot I watched The Phantom Carriage in the first place. It’s a great slice of horrific silent cinema & innovative filmmaking history.

-Brandon Ledet