Tuesday, March 31, 2020

"Doctor Sleep": review

2019's "Doctor Sleep" is written and directed by Mike Flanagan and stars Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, and Cliff Curtis. It picks up after the events of both Stanley Kubrick's 1980 movie "The Shining" and Stephen King's 1977 novel The Shining. Flanagan has said that he had deliberately set out to reconcile the disparate stories found in the decades-old film and novel. In this new story, young Danny Torrance is now Dan Torrance, a man in his forties who has followed his father's path into alcoholism, although in Dan's case, this is a way of coping with his unasked-for gift, "the shine," i.e., the ability to connect telepathically with people, spirits, and objects imbued with psychic energy. Dan's alcoholism reaches its near-nadir and, realizing he needs to start over, Dan travels to New Hampshire to begin a new life. While there, he befriends Billy Freeman (Curtis), who gives Dan a job, arranges for Dan to have a modest apartment, and acts as Dan's sponsor at the local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous.

While Dan is getting his life together, young Abra Stone (Curran) is proving to be a psychically powerful child. Not only gifted with the shine, Abra is capable of telekinesis and the "push," a telepathic ability seen in Stephen King's novel Firestarter. The "push" is like a Jedi mind trick: it's a powerful psychic shove that, when done right, can make another person do the "pusher's" bidding unquestioningly. Abra somehow encounters Dan's mind while she's trolling the psychic sea, and she and Dan become long-distance friends long before they ever meet face-to-face. Abra also becomes aware of a malevolent group of seemingly human beings who call themselves The True Knot. Their leader is Rose the Hat (Ferguson), whose nickname comes from the distinctive magician's top hat she likes to wear. The True Knot is essentially a coven of soul-eating vampires who have a special craving for people gifted with the shine. For these vampires, though, the purest form of psychic energy—which they call "steam"—comes from children not yet blunted and corrupted by the world. It's not enough simply to eat these children's souls: the steam is made more delicious by pain and fear, so children caught by The True Knot are first tortured before being killed.

Dan ends up working at a nursing home as an orderly. Along with a cat that can sense when residents are about to die, Dan provides spiritual comfort to the elderly, many of whom fear the moment of their passing, which Dan describes as being like falling asleep. In this way, Dan earns the moniker "Doctor Sleep," and he finds a way to use his rusty telepathic gift to help others. Dan gets occasional visits from the revenant of Dick Hallorann (played by Scatman Crothers in 1980, and by Carl Lumbly here), the aged psychic who helped him as a little boy during the events of The Shining. The ghost gently admonishes Dan at certain ethically crucial moments of Dan's existence, and he ultimately provides Dan with the motivation to help young Abra, who is powerful and confident, but also vulnerable.

And so "Doctor Sleep" is the story of the convergence of these three plot lines: Dan's, Abra's, and Rose's. Rose gets wind of Abra's raw psychic power and immediately aims to claim Abra's soul. Abra finally meets Dan in person, and the two try to figure out how to stop Rose and her evil commune. The movie strongly implies that, like classical vampires, many members of The True Knot are centuries old and have been feeding off souls for ages.

This is going to sound strange, but "Doctor Sleep" struck me as containing plenty of Star Wars tropes. We can start with the fact that Ewan McGregor starred in the prequel trilogy as a younger Obi-wan Kenobi. More than that, though, "Doctor Sleep" features many Jedi powers from all nine Star Wars films. We see the already-mentioned telekinesis; we see a type of psychic projection reminiscent of the "Force projection" done in both "The Last Jedi" and "The Rise of Skywalker." In that latter film, we also watched Emperor Palpatine suck the life-energy out of Rey and Kylo Ren, regenerating himself in the process; at a certain moment in "Doctor Sleep," Rose performs much the same trick. When members of The True Knot die, they disappear much the way the Jedi do. Finally, the very notion of the "push" is reminiscent of the "Jedi mind trick," which causes people to do whatever one asks, even numbly repeating parts of the instructions being given.*

There are a couple tropes, though, that don't come from the Star Wars universe. Dan's ability to "lock" ghosts inside a prison in his mind reminds me of a similar trick used by a character in Stephen R. Donaldson's The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. In those books, a powerful-but-abused character learns how to "bury" opponents in the ground of a metaphysical "cemetery" that exists only in his mind, thus taking away their potency. Another trope occurs in about the middle of "Doctor Sleep": Rose the Hat projects herself across the American countryside in her search for Abra; we see Rose, or her psychic avatar, flying over the landscape and finally alighting inside Abra's bedroom. This strongly reminded me of Randall Flagg's demonic ability to project his Eye across the landscape in King's The Stand. So I associate this particular form of privacy-invading projection with a satanic ability. This isn't merely a radar sweep: this is a remote drone that also acts as a bug for espionage. Another trope is The True Knot's collection of souls, which are, hilariously, kept in what look like thermoses. These soul-thermoses have push-open caps that allow a victim's "steam" to escape into the air and be breathed in by any vampires surrounding the thermos. I was obliquely reminded of King's Needful Things, in which Satan-surrogate Leland Gaunt possesses a suitcase that, it turns out, contains all the souls he has collected through his diabolical work.

"Doctor Sleep" also has much more self-consciously deliberate callbacks, especially to 1980's "The Shining." Without throwing out spoilers, I can say that the film's final reel mostly takes place in the ruins of the Overlook Hotel, a haunted patch of ground that Dan and Abra hope to use to their advantage against Rose. So we see the Overlook some thirty or forty years later, and we get flashbacks (these happen periodically during the movie's run time) of Dan's past. The Overlook looks different thanks to the passage of time; the characters populating Dan's memory of the past also look different because everyone has been recast: not only has Scatman Crothers been replaced by Carl Lumbly, but Shelly Duvall—who played Danny's freaked-out mother Wendy—has been replaced by the very different-looking Alex Essoe. Perhaps the weirdest replacement of all was that of Jack Torrance: originally played by Jack Nicholson, the axe-wielding Torrance is now played by Henry Thomas—yes, the guy who played Elliott all those years ago in "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial."

Does this work? Well... yes and no. Each of the replacement actors (I forgot to mention Roger Dale Floyd as this film's version of young Danny) proves capable in his or her assigned role, especially Carl Lumbly as the kindly Hallorann.** I think I had the hardest time swallowing the idea of Henry Thomas filling Jack Nicholson's shoes, even for brief moments. Thomas does what he can; at first, I didn't even recognize him in profile, although he did seem strangely familiar. It wasn't until I looked the cast list up online that I had my holy shit moment. It was a brave choice by the director not to rely on trendy deep-fake and de-aging CGI technology; Flanagan is on record saying that he thinks the tech hasn't evolved enough, by this point, to be totally convincing. So he went old-school and simply recast the roles.

And how does "Doctor Sleep" work overall? Well, like Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," the new movie also deviates in very important ways from the novel: one crucial character who survives to the end of the novel dies in the movie version. I found the movie's conclusion to be satisfying, and the movie overall was enjoyable, although about thirty minutes too long for my taste. That said, I did enjoy how the film took its time allowing the three plot lines to converge; this helped crank up the suspense a bit through character development, although on the whole, the movie wasn't particularly scary. I like how sympathetically the story treated the issue of alcoholism, as well as the parallel theme of redemption. The movie also—and I might sound like a sicko for saying this—thankfully pulled no punches in its depiction of child-killing. Even many R-rated movies, despite their "R" rating, are apt to go easy when it comes to depicting the harming of children. No, this film definitely goes there, and by the time the story ends, the body count includes a few kids.

Ewan McGregor, a Scotsman, handles the American accent ably (he's done this before, of course); the same goes for veteran Kiwi Cliff Curtis, who has done many US films with an American accent (e.g., "Live Free or Die Hard"). Both actors also play their roles as former drinkers convincingly and sentimentally. Kyliegh Curran does a good job as plucky little Abra (I'm pretty sure you're supposed to think "cadabra!" every time you hear her name). I was a bit worried about having Rebecca Ferguson play the big bad, possibly because I'm in lust with the woman, and I worry that her beauty might be a sign that she's only good for action-movie roles that don't require much emotional subtlety. Happily, I was wrong: Rose the Hat, our head vampire, is a memorable villain. Ferguson plays the role with relish, allowing herself to be vulnerable when she encounters the sheer might of Abra's psychic abilities, and she somehow manages to look scrumptious while being evil. Ferguson is Swedish, and her slightly "off" accent works to her advantage, reinforcing the impression that she is a long-lived vampire who has traveled great stretches of time and space to be where she is now. Hats off to the whole cast, really, and hats off to writer-director Mike Flanagan as well. While I might chide him for his pacing, I think Flanagan largely succeeded in welding together the stories from Kubrick's movie and King's novel. I don't know whether that trick can be repeated: with important characters dead in the movie and alive in the novel Doctor Sleep, I have no idea what shape a sequel might take. For the moment, though, it's enough to say this was an enjoyable watch—not very scary, but filled with characters you'll care about.

*Stephen King's novel Firestarter, about a pyrokinetic girl and a dad with the ability to psychically "push" people, came out in 1980. "Star Wars" came out in 1977. Was King influenced by Lucas? Hard to say. It's possible that King came upon his idea for the push completely independently of George Lucas. For all I know, King has featured the push in even earlier novels. To be fair, the notion of pushes and Jedi mind tricks springs out of the concept of hypnotic suggestion, which is why I go no further than to suggest that King's push is reminiscent of the Jedi mind trick and not influenced by it.

**Lumbly was a memorable guest star on a particularly good episode of "Battlestar Galactica."


John from Daejeon said...

I found the film to be watchable but merely a one-off. Something that I have no desire to see again unlike the original which I can watch again year after year. It could also have been because I had just recently watched Henry Thomas in the much better, and scary, The Haunting of Hill House. Of course, the Netflix series played out of ten truly sublime episodes. Another reason could be because I didn't expect much from Netflix, yet it truly delivered above and beyond being just merely watchable while I expected so much more from King's latest film adaptation after being so disappointed by "It Chapter Two."

Kevin Kim said...

I left Netflix years ago and have been pondering going back to it, but I'm not very happy with how all the services have adopted a subscription model that forces us to subscribe to twenty different services and get nickel-and-dimed to death monthly.

John from Daejeon said...

All the different streaming services are no joke. Luckily, I have a big family with shared accounts as several services allow this to some extent. And some of my family members just join for a month or two to quickly watch the likes "Stranger Things" and "That Mandalorian" once all the episodes were available and then cancel their subscription as soon as they get their fill them whatever else they want to binge-watch.

I think you would enjoy Flanagan's "The Haunting of Hill House" as it is a constant slow burn/scare that really amps up towards the last couple of installments. This was "his" pet project that Netflix kept their hands out of as is the second version, "The Haunting of Bly Manor." With "Sleep," he didn't have near the control, plus he counted on a sequel that is no longer in the cards as "Sleep" didn't do much at the box office.