Tag Archives: Stephen King

“DOCTOR SLEEP” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Redrum and redemption. 

Doctor Sleep answers a decades-long question that I thought didn’t need answering: what happened to Danny Torrence after his father tried to kill him in The Shining? We know that he survived the encounter with his mother and much post-traumatic stress to spare. But what happened to him when he grew up? Did he let the demons haunt his gentle spirit, or did he grow from the experience and learn to help others that were as afraid as he was?

In Doctor Sleep, Danny’s epilogue is intertwined with two other stories of other people who “shine” as he does. In his elder age, Danny is played by Ewan McGregor as a man who wants to leave the supernatural world behind but is inevitably pulled back into it when an elusive spirit writes messages to him on his chalkboard. His mysterious friend is Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a brilliant and curious young teenager who dreams and shines brighter than Danny ever did. And mixed into these two’s unusual friendship is Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a huntress who leads a troupe that feeds on the souls of children who shine – and she’s caught Abra’s scent.

Now caught up in a hidden war between psychic wolves and sheep, Danny needs to decide what he’s going to do in the midst of all of this confusion and calamity, and where his place fits in all of it.

I never asked for a sequel to The Shining. I never wanted a sequel to The Shining. Who did? With The Shining being one of the greatest horror experiences ever put on film, who on Earth would have even thought of building upon Stanley Kubrick’s insanity and innovation? What I didn’t realize, however, was that this sequel didn’t spawn from the mind of corporate Hollywood – it came from the mind of Stephen King himself. After penning The Shining in 1977, King revisited Danny’s universe when he wrote the sequel Doctor Sleep in 2013. That puts his film adaptation into a tight pinch, because King infamously didn’t like Kubrick’s 1980 adaption of The Shining. As such, whoever adapted Doctor Sleep for the big screen had a unique challenge: they had to satisfy both Stephen King fans and Stanley Kubrick fans at the same time through the same story.

The great news is that writer-director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil) is more than up to the task. One of the most impressive aspects of Doctor Sleep is how it builds on The Shining mythos without taking away from the appeal of the original movie. The Shining was special because its premise was limited to an enclosed and claustrophobic environment inside of an abandoned hotel, and it worked so well because its characters were slowly losing their minds in lonely solitude. Doctor Sleep is not limited to the madness or the seclusion of The Shining. It is much more free, open, and intentional with its structure and world-building.

You would think that this change in setting and tone would hinder, maybe even harm Doctor Sleep as a whole. Yet, it’s nearly as effective as Kubrick’s original Shining was. Although they’re not locked away in some haunted hotel, the characters inside Doctor Sleep are so caught up in the eeriness and the mystery behind their strange abilities that it feels almost inescapable to disillusion yourself from it – almost like being trapped inside of a cage that moves with you no matter where you go. Flanagan and his cinematographer Michael Fimognari illustrate a forced perspective that feels very vivid and immediate with its tension and unease. I was surprised to find that in many moments, not only was I scared for Danny and the little girl he was protecting in Doctor Sleep – at times, I even felt scared for Rose and her crew as well. It takes a good director to invest you in the plights of the film’s protagonists, but it takes a great director to invest their audience in the film’s antagonists as well. Flanagan does both in Doctor Sleep, and the scares stay with you regardless of whether Danny or Rose experiences them.

Another unexpected element to the movie is its emotion. While it would have been too easy to simply plop its audience halfway into the movie and dive right into the blockbuster horror, Flanagan takes the time to build up Danny’s backstory and elaborate how he came to this point in his life in the first place. That means for about the first hour of the film, Danny isn’t fighting spirits or soul hunters but is simply facing his life as it is, alcoholism, addiction, nymphomania, recovery and all. You might think that this sounds boring or uneventful for a Stephen King movie, but these personal moments were actually very meaningful and significant. One of the most touching moments early in the film was when it showed how Danny got his titular nickname “Doctor Sleep,” and why. I appreciate this movie being able to slow down and thoroughly give its characters the development they deserve, and McGregor likewise does a great job in portraying Danny’s sense of vulnerability, grief, and eventual redemption. It’s too easy to write in a generic one-note horror movie hero and call it a day. Doctor Sleep shows Danny as something much more significant than merely the film’s protagonist – it shows him as a person.

I have one and only one complaint with the film, and that is its third act. While most of the movie pulls you in with its intrigue, wonder, and grotesqueness, the third act slows down to a screeching halt and loses much of the film’s sense of identity. This is especially ironic because the third act has the strongest connection to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Strange, that this movie’s most culturally recognizable element also possessed the story’s weakest crux. The film worked much better when it was exploring its own premise and ideas, not revisiting older ones when they were done first, better, and more hauntingly.

Still, Doctor Sleep is a mysterious, eerie, and memorable entry into the Stephen King mythos, and one that has earned the right to call itself the sequel to The Shining. I’m glad Danny turned out okay after the horrifying events of The Shining, and I’m even more happy that I found it out through a movie that is nearly every bit as captivating and enigmatic as its predecessor is. The film may be called Doctor Sleep, but I guarantee you sleeping will be the last thing you do in this movie.

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“IT CHAPTER TWO” Review (✫✫✫)

Why, Pennywise! What big teeth you have!

It Chapter Two opens on a scene of horror, not from the titular clown mind you, but rather from the prey he’s supposed to be hunting. It’s 2016 in Derry, Maine, and a gay couple just left the local carnival to go home. But on their way, they are attacked in the street by a gang of homophobic teenagers who beat them, taunt them, and then throw one of them over the bridge and into the river despite knowing that he can’t swim. It’s a harrowing, disturbing, and unsettling scene, especially since it’s something that doesn’t have to come from a horror movie. For many, it’s a reality they have to face every day they wake up. That’s scarier than any clown could ever be.

Of course, this encounter inevitably ends with the murderous Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) eating somebody. Thought to be dead, Pennywise has reawakened after he was defeated by the Loser’s Club 27 years ago. The now older Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) is the first to discover Pennywise’s return and reaches out to the rest of the Loser’s Club. His first call is to Bill Denborough (James McAvoy), a famous writer whose brother Georgie was eaten by the vicious clown 27 years ago. There’s Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), who now works as a fashion designer with her abusive husband. There’s Ben Hapscomb (Jay Ryan), a famed architect who lost a ton of weight and replaced it all with raw muscle. There’s Eddie Richmond (James Ransom), a hypochondriac and risk assessor from New York. And then there’s Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), the smart-aleck of the group that grew up to become a standup comedian.

Mike reunites all of the Losers together for one reason: because they swore that if Pennywise ever returned, so would they and finish him off for good. So the Losers Club reunite to find Pennywise, kill him, and end his reign of terror against Derry once and for all.

If you liked It Chapter One, chances are you will like It Chapter Two just as well. Even with Chapter Two being an obvious two-parter, there are still several elements from the first movie that are replicated faithfully in the sequel here. Take Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise as one example. He was an eerie, hair-raising presence in It Chapter One, and he’s just as creepy, haunting, and darkly comedic here as he was in the first movie. I’ve watched his performances back-to-back in Chapter One and Two and compared them both side-by-side, and the thing that keeps impressing me is how much he’s able to build on the character despite how little we know about him. From his maniacal laughter to his side-eyed stare to his drooling, creepy smile, Skarsgard lines up all of the qualities that make Pennywise a wacky, haunting, and unsettling figure. He surmises all of Stephen King’s appeal into one charmingly twisted character.

But its not just Skarsgard that works so well in this movie: much of the newer cast keeps up with him just as much. James McAvoy does a fantastic job as the stuttering Bill and performs brilliantly under the pressure in expressing his paranoia, grief, anger, guilt, and frustration. Jessica Chastain is just as phenomenal in playing Beverly, and she does a wonderful job in portraying the character’s psychological trauma while at the same time being the glue that holds the Loser’s Club together. Bill Hader is particularly my favorite as Richie. I spent half of the film’s runtime laughing, and most of the time it was because of Hader’s snappy quips and one-liners (especially when it had to do with Eddie’s mom).

What surprises me the most about this movie is how much it relies on flashback sequences to tell its story. It Chapter Two is two hours and 50 minutes long, and probably about a quarter of that time is used in flashback sequences. That means that much of its runtime flips between James McAvoy and Jaeden Martell, Jessica Chasten and Sophia Lillis, Bill Hader and Finn Wolfhard, etc. Mind you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The younger cast members, after all, were great in the first film and are just as reliable here. Still, I wasn’t expecting them to be featured so prominently in Chapter Two. I would have rathered the movie focus more on the adults rather than their younger counterparts. It would have given the new cast more space to build on and more opportunity to dive into the background of their older selves.

The rest of the movie carries out its typical horror movie routine. Pennywise pops out in a few jump scares, there are some heartfelt drama and lighthearted comedy to break up the action, and a giant CGI monster appears for the Loser’s Club to fight at the end of the movie. Granted, it doesn’t look nearly as terrible as the original monster did in the 1990’s television miniseries starring Tim Curry. Still, why do these movies have to end with a generic movie monster battle in the first place? Because it was in the book? Because it was required in Stephen King’s contract? Or because Bill Skarsgard got tired near the end of filming and told the animators to digitally edit him in so he could go home early?

Of course, I have to answer the inevitable question: which movie is better? It Chapter One or Two? My preference is It Chapter One, not only because it was such a lightning bolt of horror entertainment, but because it was a tightly-knit and brilliantly woven story that carried through fluidly without much confusion or interruption. There was a clear beginning, middle, and end to Chapter One, and we were easily able to immerse ourselves in the Loser’s Club’s plight and their terror of Pennywise. Chapter Two is a little more broken up and convoluted in its narrative, and the scares don’t land quite as hard as they did in Chapter One.

Still, It Chapter Two is a thrilling movie and a reliable sequel to one of the most unique and original horror experiences of our time. Movie fans are sure to be pleased by this duology, and Stephen King fans even more so. Just please, please stick to the book’s ending and don’t bring Pennywise back for another sequel. Otherwise, he’ll take the form of my greatest fear as It Chapter Three.

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“IT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Be afraid.

Stephen King is a master at personifying fear. Whether it’s with haunted hotels in The Shining, or rabid animals in Cujo, or even with female puberty in Carrie, King always finds a way to scare us in the most unorthodox of ways. Most horror writers are content with scribbling in the clichés of the genre (the teenagers that have sex dies first, group gets picked off one by one, female survivor is the only one to live at the end) and calling it a day. But like a literary sadist, King feeds off of his readers and their absorption into his material. And like any skilled predator, he likes to play with his prey.

In It, Stephen King gives us his most terrifying personification of fear yet in Pennywise the dancing clown (Bill Skarsgard), an omnipotent apex predator who comes out of hibernation every 27 years to feed off of children’s fears. If you were terrified of clowns before, you don’t even want to see what Pennywise is like. This is a creature that can take the appearance of any fear that you possess, from decapitated corpses, to zombies, to even paintings. If you can think it, Pennywise can be it.

His victims mostly consist of one group of children who dubbed themselves “The Loser’s Club.” Their leader Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) lost his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to the clown months ago during a rainy afternoon. One by one, the kids meet Pennywise and his many different forms as he terrorizes them using their own fears against them. As they continue to learn more about Pennywise and the history of Derry, the Loser’s Club decides to unite together and put an end to Pennywise’s villainy once and for all.

One of the most terrifying things about It is that we don’t even know what “It” is. Throughout the film, we see Pennywise use different approaches to terrify the children and to make them more susceptible to his manipulation, but even after finishing the film we still don’t get a clear idea of who or what he is. Maybe that’s the point. When we’re confronted by a threatening force, do we really care about what it’s supposed to be? Are we more interested in the facts surrounding our fears, or are we only caught up in surviving them? I thought about the animals in the natural food chain while watching this movie. When a gazelle is face-to-face with a lion, does he care about what exactly is hunting him, or is he more concerned about getting out alive?

In that sense, Pennywise does not inspire fear like his horror icon counterparts (Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, etc.) but rather embodies it, filling it with our own emotions, anxieties, and perceptions of fear and subverting them against ourselves. Bill Skarsgard, who is the son of actor Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Thor), demonstrates an impeccable understanding of Pennywise and appropriately embodies the madness and bloodlust that a being like him would possess. Any other actor who would have taken on the role might have mistaken Pennywise as evil or insane. Skarsgard rightfully doesn’t make that inference because Pennywise is not human like any of the kids are in this movie. To human beings like us who possess moral compasses and value of life, we obviously see Pennywise as an evil that must be destroyed. But to Pennywise, a natural predator, there is just his meal and the meal he’s having after that. If beings like Pennywise are beyond concepts such as right and wrong, does that mean that he’s still quote-unquote “evil”, or is he immune to such labels because of his ignorance to the concepts? Circling back to the lion metaphor for comparison, is the lion evil for killing the gazelle, or is he only acting off of his instincts?

These are endlessly complex concepts here made simple by director Andy Muschietti, who years ago helmed the eerie and unusual horror film Mama. In It, Muschietti smartly juxtaposes human nature with that of a predator’s nature, and in that sense asks us if these two concepts can exist in the same society. After seeing the film, I’ll admit I have no answer to his query. I just know that I’m terrified of Pennywise and that I never want to see him again. That is, until the sequel comes out a few years from now.

Technically, the film is immaculate. The cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung (2003’s Oldboy) is smooth and calculated, following the action while never getting distracted by it. The child actors all give passionate performances, with Lieberher demonstrating the most layers as a kid grappling with the guilt and grief of his brother’s death. And the makeup work done on Skarsgard is among the best I’ve seen in years. I actually saw Skarsgard earlier this year in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde. Yet in the first moment when he appears on-screen as Pennywise, I didn’t even recognize him.

As always, I don’t like all of the violence and the trauma that these kids go through, and some scenes I think would be difficult to stomach even for adults. And of course the kids swear it up in typical R-rated fashion, as if they’re trying to meet the F-word quota by the end of the month. Yet none of these things change the thoughtful concepts being explored here, the scares that the film builds up to, or the great demonstration of acting and art on display here. Take caution while watching It: you don’t know which of your fears Pennywise will use against you.

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