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Doctor Sleep Cures Cynema

Reversing Cynema

Cynema is not about movie reviews. While I have to tackle some plot points of 2019’s Doctor Sleep, the sequel to 1980’s The Shining, this post is more about the human effort that went into reversing a number of things that left The Shining a sterile and cold film that I always felt was undeserving of the title “terrifying.”

You can read my assessment of Cynema in The Shining here: http://horrorfuel.com/2019/04/09/all-work-and-no-play-makes-the-shining-a-dull-film/

Or you can listen to it here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/ep-17-friends-dont-let-friends-option-bad-scripts/id1472545207?i=1000453326016

Was Cynema at work with Kubrick’s “masterpiece?” I argued that the answer was “yes.” The original 1980 film was a thin translation of King’s best-selling novel and acted more as a personal indulgence for Kubrick than a functioning horror film. Beautifully made, well done, well produced…it was all those things, but terrifying? No. Dull? Yes. Overrated? Absolutely.

Why A Sequel Now?

Many forget the overall “Meh” reception of the 1980 The Shining. Critics were mixed to positive and the film did not catch fire that summer. It slowly made boxoffice but was not the resounding hit the studio hoped for. Instead it took decades of pop culture rehab to reform the film into a “masterpiece” of surrealistic tension that allowed fans to accost anyone who disliked it as “not getting” what Kubrick was going for.

Slow? It’s supposed to be. That’s how Kubrick unsettles you.

Confusing? It’s supposed to be. That’s the genius of Kubrick to unsettle you.

Cold? It’s supposed…

…you get my point.

I propose Kubrick made a cynical film for his own purposes. He discounted the millions of fans of King’s book and made a movie for Stanley. Good for him but a mixed bag for us. Stephen King played nice for the film’s release but over the years made his contempt for Kubrick’s film quite clear.

There is no accident that the poster for Doctor Sleep says: “Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep.” The last one said it was Kubrick’s.

And it was.

This time around is different. Director Mike Flanagan pulled a cinematic hat trick. You ever see that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry and George try to figure out how to do the impossible “girlfriend switch?” Jerry declares George a genius and claims a victory for all heterosexual men everywhere. Flanagan did a similar switch with his Doctor Sleep.

Not only did he make a superior sequel, he bridged both films into a single world and it all works. The fact that film has been declared a “bomb” at the time of this writing is unfortunate. Not only do I predict it will eventually break even and turn a profit because of its relatively modest budget, the good reviews on the film have set Doctor Sleep for the same pop culture rehab found by its predecessor.

So why make this film over thirty years later? Especially once entrenched in the annals of horror history?

Ditch the Cynicism

Doctor Sleep picks up not long after the events of The Shining and provides more warmth and human interaction in those few opening minutes than all of Kubrick’s original running time. A selection of good actors to play the parts of Duvall, Scatman Crothers and boy Danny Lloyd show that care was taken to handle the departure from Kubrick’s vision with respect. Flanagan gave us more of the father-son bond between Danny and Dick Halloran and we are grateful because it was sorely needed in the original film.

Doctor Sleep is less a sequel than an extension and filling out of The Shining. While we get a whole new set of characters and a daunting new villain in Rose The Hat played with great menace by Rebecca Ferguson, The Overlook still lords over everything. It is still the central villain to this story as it was in the original.

All roads lead to Colorado and the monstrosity that sits in the mountains. There was unfinished business at the end The Shining and Flanagan closes out the rooms. Ewan McGregor plays a tormented soul in Danny Torrence and yet there is the slight shadow of his father in there. Casting was brilliant in this film.

I’m avoiding spoilers because Flanagan provides so many genuine moments in his film. There are surprises, twists and yet it’s all on a familiar road. He went back and added new coats of paint to old rooms that looked good at first glance but didn’t hold up so well under scrutiny.

So let’s see how he did this.

Warm it Up

The Shining film was described by Stephen King as a beautiful Cadillac without an engine. Flanagan is reported to have gone back to King, who at first was not so sure he was the director for the job. “The Other Steven”–Spielberg memorialized King’s contempt for the Kubrick film in Ready Player One and Flanagan was coming off of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, but King remained unconvinced. However, if you watch the last 15 minutes of Doctor Sleep you see how Flanagan and King came to an understanding, and King finally got what the 1998 mini-series of The Shining failed to deliver: absolution and closure.

SPOILER: DON’T READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW.

The entire ending of Doctor Sleep is the ending of King’s novel version of The Shining. The wonderful Kyliegh Curran who plays Abra stands in for a young Danny Torrence in facing the hotel’s malevolence. In King’s novel, the energy of The Overlook took over Jack Torrence who then pursues his son with a polo mallet to bash his fucking brains in. Right the fuck in. In a touching moment, young Danny appealed to his father who still existed somewhere in his father’s body, buying him time to escape as Jack came to the surface and fought off the hotel long enough for his boy to flee.

In Doctor Sleep, the same exact scene plays out except Abra stands in for young Danny and she faces a now-possessed adult Danny Torrence who manages to fight the hotel, get Abra free and destroy The Overlook for good. It’s the exact same ending of King’s original novel. I have not read the novel Doctor Sleep but I suspect it doesn’t end this way. King sacrificed his latest work to right a wrong in the original film.

In doing this, Flanagan gives us the warmth we needed and craved from Kubrick’s film. My God, couldn’t there have been one moment where it seemed Jack didn’t hate his kid or wife? Especially his kid. The guy is pissed off from the first time we see him and he’s a complete asshole to his son throughout the entire film. Kubrick was as cold and indifferent to us as Jack was with Danny, he’s an abusive, emotionally detached father and his film reflected that.

As in the original novel, what Kubrick forgot, Flanagan remembered.

It seems as I write this that Kubrick was a human form of The Overlook–an icon, a monolithic figure that held contempt for people, tortured souls (Read about Stanley and Shelley) he seemed to make a love letter to The Overlook more than a family tragedy.

World Building

Flanagan went back and made the story about the people and their relationships. He focused on their fears and their hopes and their love. He knew to keep The Overlook as the precipice–the giant thing that sits up in those mountains like Frankenstein’s Castle looking over the scared villagers below. There is even a great shot of something akin to this when Danny pumps gas at a station at the base of the Overlook’s mountain.

It sits up there dark…waiting…and what walks it halls, walks alone.

And that’s where Flanagan shines. Months ago, after seeing the first trailer, I hoped that this new film might fill in some things that left me wanting in the original film. I don’t need things spoon fed to me nor do I want everything explained. The Overlook should maintain some of its secrets, but Kubrick’s telling of its story was almost contemptuous of its audience. It was like he said “fuck you” to everyone who read the book. “I’m not giving you dick. Go stumble around the maze.”

Flanagan instead takes the good bones of Kubrick’s film (and it has them if you read my piece on The Shining) and packs on the layers. The strongest aspect of the original Kubrick film was that he made The Overlook a foreboding entity. That hotel was alive. Its doors, windows, lights…it was Shirley Jackson’s Hill House with balls. Flanagan knows his way around there.

You have a director who goes back and fleshes out the original characters in his new film. We love Dick Halloran even more. Danny’s mother takes on depth Kubrick denied her in his film. Flanagan reversed the cold cynicism of the first film and gave us not what was needed, but what was deserved. He went back to King, not just asking the author’s blessing, but took his input and seems to me collaborated to find a proper balance compromise.

This is something Kubrick did not do.

Flanagan also does something else with casting new actors to replace the iconic originals: he gave them so much depth, we don’t care.

When I saw Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs I was lost in the first few minutes as Julianne Moore was no replacement for Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling. All I could think was, “Who is that woman up on the screen who isn’t Jodie Foster?”

This could’ve been a problem with Doctor Sleep but it wasn’t. The temptation to use CGI to recreate the original actors (ala Peter Cushing inĀ Rogue One) had to be strong. I don’t know the legalities behind it but a chance to recreate the iconic faces of Nicholson, Duvall and Crothers had to be tempting top say the least.

I am glad they didn’t do it.

World Building II

We have a new kid who can shine and this one seeks out Danny. We also have villains that feed on children who shine. They are no different than the predator that is The Overlook and it is here where the worlds bridge as Flanagan allows Halloran to explain what we needed to know about The Overlook. The ending of the original film shows us Jack Torrence now part of a picture from 1921, confirming that he’s “always been the caretaker.” But it really didn’t tell us much. Did the hotel absorb him? Was he reincarnated? Was that really our Jack Torrence that we saw throughout the movie?

The Overlook is a supernatural power station. It generates energy that can take the form of our fears. It is a conscious, living thing and Flanagan doesn’t play coy. We have a new Lloyd who looks awfully similar to Danny’s father yet he insists his name is Lloyd, just like the name of the cultured man serving Jack drinks in the original film. Seems The Overlook makes a Lloyd to dig deep into its victims. Lloyd is what we fear. So perhaps Jack Torrence’s Lloyd was his own father or some figure that tormented him from his past?

Now THAT is cool. Flanagan explains some things without being ham-fisted. The Overlook is an evil Holodeck and it will create whatever characters it needs to feed. A monster like this requires great energy and this something Danny understands which is why he brings himself and Abra back to it. The goal is to tempt it with food and trick it because of its appetite.

That’s my spin and it’s hell of a lot better than Kubrick shrugging and saying he made an anti-ghost story.

Flanagan makes it clear, the ghosts were and ARE real and they’re starving.

World Building III

We have a whole new group of people that have been around a long time…out there feeding off the “steam” of those who shine. They are as evil as The Overlook and yet they never found that hotel, but we get the feeling they were always on a collision course with it. Why didn’t they find it? Because of Danny. He suppressed his shine; he buried it deep to the point where, like a cancer, it started to eat away at him. Because of this, the gang of vampiric gypsies known as The True Knot has wandered always on the periphery of two of the most powerful steam generators: Danny Torrence and The Overlook. They were out there during the events of the first film and that’s so cool to know. They help to fill in some of the gaps that left us saying, “I guess” by the time the original film ended.

The True Knot builds onto the world of The Shining, fulfilling Dick Halloran’s original statements that there are more out there who shine. It’s a whole world out there and suddenly The Shining universe is cohesive and means something instead of a random story about random people randomly put into an “anti-ghost story.” While Kubirck pushed us away, Flanagan invites us in to sit by the fire.

Danny Torrence is The True Knot’s blindspot and he tricks his life-long tormentor, The Overlook into being his unwitting accomplice.

So…

Doctor Sleep was rewarded for this inventiveness, care and quality with a less than expected opening and recent labels of it being a “bomb.” The usual suspects trotted out to say the problem was an audience unfamiliar with the source material, the original film or even Stephen King himself. One argument said that the original 1980 film was released at arguable peak of King’s popularity and now there is a whole generation out there that have no idea who he is.

I don’t understand what that means. So what? We also now have access to digital resources which let us catch up pretty quickly. I mean all you gotta do is watch the original film, right?

It’s a different world now, much like it was for Danny Torrence. I have steadfastly stated whether on The Howard Stern Show or in interviews that the original The Shining is a dull, plodding and cynical film that got a lot of free horror passes. It took decades to turn it from a film that was “just okay” to a “masterpiece of terror.” Stern himself once called it a terrifying film. it isn’t. Not by a long shot.

Flanagan didn’t go for cheap scares or to terrify. Instead he gave us a film that gives us terror through the evolution of its characters. The killing of the Baseball Boy is far more horrifying than all two-plus hours of Kubrick’s film. You know why? Because that shit really happens.

Mike Flanagan didn’t try to emulate or revere The Shining. Instead, he quietly fixed what was wrong without disparaging it and alienating its hardcore fans. While there are plenty of tributes to the original film and some re-creations of key scenes, they stand on their own in a whole new film that says to its audience: “Enjoy” instead “fuck off.”

Flanagan also gives us a film with some hope. “We go on,” is the theme. We shine on. We are energy. The Overlook feeds and generates it. Rose and her supernatural Manson Family feed off it. While we die, we don’t end. Dick Halloran makes this clear and the film’s final moments actually GIVE us something.

This is a film that should not take 30 years to find success and to break even. King is right to stand up for it. Flanagan gave an imaginative sequel that allowed us to go back and pick up some pieces to form a whole new world while fleshing out the old.

That is no easy feat in a day of remakes, reboots and bullshit “re-imaginings.”

A shame Doctor Sleep is not performing because there are other worlds out there to build upon. The Overlook still has its stories behind each of those rooms and I fear now we may never get to see them.

I end this by saying I appreciate The Shining far more after Doctor Sleep. I will now go back and watch The Shining with all that Flanagan gave me in his film, and I look forward to seeing the new addition blended into the original structure.