I’ve spent the last 39 years trying to love, or even like, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version of Stephen King’s The Shining, but my perhaps heretical confession must be that I haven’t had much success. I don’t, as King himself does, have issues with the fact that the movie differs in significant ways from the novel—they are, after all, two different entities produced from the minds of two very different artists. But the movie has always felt like an intellectual exercise undertaken by someone who isn’t engaged by the genre he’s chosen to play with, the product of a director who is profoundly bored and needs to create an elaborate landscape of puzzles and design to distract from his fundamental disinterest. (Before the comments start, it could very well be that The Shining meant the world to Kubrick; my response is based not on some insider dope, but the vibe that I personally feel from the movie itself.) I think the movie’s deliberateness masks a certain listlessness as Kubrick pokes around the edges of the story; what registers as a profound rumination on haunted house tropes for some feels to me like a hodgepodge of perspectives, as if Kubrick himself hadn’t quite decided what was really going on, only that he wasn’t buying King’s version. And it doesn’t help that Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance starts at nuts and has nowhere to go but through the Overlook roof. He’s surpassed by Shelley Duvall’s all-too-believable despair and exhaustion as Torrance’s terrified wife Wendy– her every gasp and scream cut mighty close to some very real bones.
I haven’t read Doctor Sleep, the novel King brought forth some 40 years after The Shining was published, but it’s hard not to suspect that the new(er) book, which chronicles the trials of young Danny Torrance as he becomes an adult still haunted by ghosts and ghastly pursuers, exists in some respects as an attempt to wrestle The Shining back from Kubrick’s dominant influence. And that’s the way writer-director Mike Flanagan’s film of Doctor Sleep feels too, up to a point. Flanagan, who directed competent, occasionally inspired horror pictures like Hush, Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil before making a terrific film out of King’s ostensibly unfilmable, interior-based nightmare Gerald’s Game, has an unhurried style that gives Doctor Sleep a weird mix of urgency and, if not outright somnambulism, then at least a deliberate pace that might, for some, be as off-putting as Kubrick’s intellectual dithering is for me.
The movie establishes the Kubrick connection early on in scenes with Wendy (Alex Essoe, the lead in 2014’s Starry Eyes, who is made to resemble and sound like Shelley Duvall’s Wendy to an almost disturbing degree) and young Danny in the days and months immediately following their traumatic escape from the Overlook Hotel. But young, traumatized Danny becomes older, still traumatized, still shining Danny (Ewan McGregor), who soaks his adulthood in alcohol-and-drug-fueled fury as he attempts to flee the supernatural demons still nipping at his heels, and Flanagan’s movie begins to find its own , oddly inflected rhythms and timber.
Danny eventually establishes a connection with a young girl, Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who shines brighter and stronger than Danny ever did, and the two of them end up the focus of a cult of psychic energy-absorbing vampires led by the seductive Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, in top form), a pursuit which will ultimately end at the entrance to a dark, forbidding place that Danny would rather remain in his past. In what is probably Doctor Sleep’s most impressive and lyrically sustained set piece, Rose projects herself across the country in search of signs of Abra’s supernaturally potent psychic signal, and Flanagan visualizes that projection as an eerily beautiful nocturnal journey through the clouds along the visible curve of the planet’s surface, until Rose finds what she came for and ends up hurtling backward toward her original point of departure, dazed and confused and genuinely threatened, and more furious at Abra’s superior power over her own than ever before. It’s a genuinely unsettling moment in the middle of a picture which has no shortage of rhythmically distinct sequences capable of producing the sort of pleasurable dread found wanting in the average modern American horror film.
The first two-thirds of Doctor Sleep feel like the product of an original sensibility, which in this day and age might be enough to land it in murky waters, commercially speaking. But in the final third, Flanagan, apparently pursued by the sinister pull of the Overlook Hotel himself, can no longer avoid Kubrick’s influence and, as if by either studio mandate or a crushing sense of inevitability, the movie becomes a sort of greatest-hits recap of the 1980 film’s designs, strategies and visual motifs, with all your favorite weirdo Overlook party guests popping in to repeat their most famous quips. If, in 1980, you loved the man in the tux hoisting a drink and intoning “Great party, isn’t it?” while blood from his forehead threatens to drip into his tumbler, Flanagan is hoping you’ll love it again here. And, yes, the little girl twins, that bleedin’ elevator, and especially the old naked crone from Room 237 all appear and reappear to ever diminishing effect. Even Jack Torrance himself pops in for some fun, though this time from the other side of the Gold Room bar—no, Nicholson doesn’t make a digitally de-aged cameo, but you might be surprised, as I was, about who has been recruited to step into his loafers. (Check the end credits.) They all add up to a whole bunch of stunts that ended up throwing me out of the movie emotionally, even if the narrative hadn’t already begun to fizzle, as King’s climactic confrontations often do, all on its own.
There’s a lot to like in Doctor Sleep, and for a 151-minute movie that hasn’t been edited and assembled to current industry standards of predictable beats and jump scares, it doesn’t feel flabby or overstuffed… until that third act, when the ritual bowing and genuflecting to Kubrick’s entirely arguable masterpiece replaces the clever nods to its enduring presence that have populated its shivers up to that point. Clearly, in the universe of the movies it’s Kubrick’s vision that holds dominion over King’s, whether the original author or the audience likes it or not. It’s just a shame that in the pursuit of something more original, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep takes a path not unlike that of a nightclub performer doing an impression of, say, 1980-vintage Jack Nicholson, and along the way ends up losing its own voice.
Just a quick couple of recommendations before I go:
If you’ve ever marveled at the way a movie looks—hell, if you’ve ever seen a movie—then the sublime and fascinating documentary Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers, now screening on Turner Classic Movies, ought to be a must-see. Directed by Daniel Raim (Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story) and written by the esteemed film critic Michael Sragow, the movie deftly chronicles the literally visionary work of men like Billy Bitzer (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance), Roland Totheroh (City Lights), Charles Rosher and Karl Struss (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans), William Daniels (Anna Christie, Grand Hotel), Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Best Years of Our Lives) and James Wong Howe (The Thin Man, Hud), as they create poetic imagery, forge new paths in technique and technology, and virtually define the possibilities of American and world cinema going forward from its earliest forms. It’s the sort of nuanced, intelligent documentary that ought to, if there’s to be any real education in film history perpetuated for future filmmaking generations, become an essential text. You’ll find it at various times throughout the month on TCM. Consult their schedule to find out just when.
Finally, as we inch toward end-of-the-year awards and ten-best lists, I feel like it’s already game over in terms of picking what will end up at the top of my own list. I haven’t seen too many movies for which I would even entertain the descriptive “perfect”… but I’m entertaining that word as I continue to think, after two viewings now, about just how perfectly modulated a social satire on class resentment Parasite is, not to mention how thrillingly entertaining and moment-to-moment unpredictable. It also has, in the work of actors like Boon Joon Ho veterans Song Kang-ho (The Host) and Lee Jong-un (Okja), as well as Jo Yeo-jeong, Jang Hye-in, and especially Park So-dam, the highest caliber ensemble performance by any cast this year. Do yourself a favor– keep yourself in the dark about the details and rush to see this on the big screen as soon as you can. Bong Joon Ho (Mother, Memories of Murder) has made an exquisitely controlled, fiercely alive movie that ought to make just about every other director out there sick with envy and at the same time excited again for the possibilities when a great movie is realized. And this is most definitely a great movie.
The only movie I think even comes close to Parasite in 2019, at least as far as I’ve seen, couldn’t feel any more different than Bong’s masterful suspense comedy. It’s called Diane, and chances are good you’ve never heard of it. Mary Kay Place, as the sincere, and sincerely beleaguered title character, is in every scene, and no better news about movies in 2019 could be heard. I came away from Diane wondering where I had to go to sign the Mary Kay Place Deserves an Oscar petition? She will be a revelation to those who haven’t known or loved her work for 40-some years, but it’s no surprise to me that she is as magnificent as she is in this, a movie that finally gives her a chance to shine in a great, still-waters-run-deep sort of role. And she’s surrounded by actresses like Dierdre O’Connell, Andrea Martin, Estelle Parsons, Joyce Van Patten, Glynnis O’Connor and Phyliss Somerville who match her every lived-in move with grace and humor. The movie itself is a masterful piece of unforced, beautifully modulated, formally engaging storytelling without an ounce of fat, written and directed by documentarian and former film critic Kent Jones, whose tone and confidence is so assured you’d think he had five or six marvelous narrative features under his belt already. (He directed the marvelous documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut from 2015.)
As a friend said to me before I saw this, there’s really no way to speak about what Diane is up to, it’s themes of social and familial responsibility, mortality, identity and inescapable guilt, without making it sound hopelessly depressing, or a chore of well-intentioned, kitchen-sink humanism. But if you’re like me, the movie will energize you instead of bring you down simply because it is such a rare example of unostentatious, yet intelligent style married to a whole raft of great acting, headed up by Place, of course. Such occasions are, as my friend also said, thrilling, and not a reason in themselves to adopt the despair and frustrations of the characters in the film’s purview. Try to see Diane, like Parasite, as I did, knowing as little as possible, and see if you don’t settle pleasurably into its beautifully rendered, sharply observed world of actual people and familiar textures with eyes that feel wide awake and open, your empathy sharpened and your sensibility heightened by actors and filmmakers at the top of their game.
(Diane is currently streaming on Hulu.)