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Non-Review Review: Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place, between Stephen King and The Shining.

Of course, Stephen King wrote The Shining. The book belongs to King. It is a profoundly personal work, dealing with his own feelings of inadequacy as a young writer and father, and documenting his own struggles with addiction. Indeed, a large part of the tension between Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick over the cinematic adaptation of The Shining was the way in which it largely eschewed any interiority in its handling of Jack Torrance. In some ways, King has been awkwardly trying to reassert his authorship of The Shining for decades, through works like the television miniseries and the sequel Doctor Sleep.

It’s a hungry world…

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Doctor Sleep is that it has found a director half way between the sensibilities of King and Kubrick. Flanagan is a very precise visual director, with an eye for compositions and an understanding of slow methodical build which makes him a good choice as a director to follow Kubrick’s work on The Shining. However, Flanagan is also a writer who is much more interested in the literary themes of King’s novel than Kubrick was, with Flanagan’s filmography dedicated to exploring the themes of trauma and addiction that wed King’s work on The Shining and Doctor Sleep.

The resulting film still occasionally feels caught between two masters, struggling to satisfy both King and Kubrick’s version of The Shining. It’s to Flanagan’s credit that the film strikes as effective a balance as it does, resulting in a film that manages to work both as a reasonably satisfying sequel to one of the best horror films ever made and as an engaging movie it its own right. Doctor Sleep has some minor problems, but succeeds make an impossible mandate look like child’s play.

Corridors of power…

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Escapist Column! “It” as a Coming of Age Film…

Hey there.

Another sample from my In the Frame column over at Escapist Magazine. This one taking a look at the success of It as a Stephen King adaptation. In particular, the fact that it works in large part because it draws more overtly from Stand by Me than from The Shining, understanding that the source novel’s horrors are the horrors that face every child growing up.

You can read the column here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: IT – Chapter Two

IT: Chapter Two is muddled, messy and bloated, particularly in its middle stretch.

The horror sequel opens relatively strong and delivers a satisfying emotional pay-off. Unfortunately, the film’s structure means that it meanders wildly between those two fixed narrative points. Chapter Two runs a muscular two-hours-and-fifty-minutes, a full quarter-of-an-hour longer than the original film’s already impressive run time. In fact, taken together, the two films are more than one-and-a-half times the length of the early nineties miniseries adaptation of the novel. Chapter Two spends a lot of time on repetitive storytelling beats, splitting up the cast so each of the leads has their own identically-structured adventure.

Glowing, glowing… gone.

These structural flaws feel inevitable. Part of what worked so well with IT: Chapter One was the decision to largely eschew the complicated and convoluted mythology that King wove through his beloved doorstopper of a novel. The original film was not concerned with alien invaders or local legends beyond what was strictly necessary, allowing it to offer an extended horror movie riff on Stand by Me, a coming-of-age saga about young teens on the cusp of adulthood. In Chapter Two, that bill comes due. The sequel not only has to do its own heavy lifting, but take on a lot of the world-building the original film mostly ignored.

Indeed, there is a sense that Chapter Two works much better as a companion piece to the earlier film than as a narrative in its own right. Indeed, there is something interesting in the way that, taken as a whole, the two IT films represent the first real cinematic glimpse of Stephen King as an author of the American epic. IT is the story of a group of childhood friends facing a monstrous evil, but it feels much larger than that. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Chapter Two is the manner in which it creates a sense of scale and scope that has previous eluded adaptations of King’s work.

Pennywise, pound foolish.

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Non-Review Review: Pet Sematary

The horror in Pet Sematary is primal and ancient, both literally and figuratively.

The tropes that power Pet Sematary were already familiar and old-fashioned by the time that Stephen King published the book more than a quarter of a century ago. Indeed, there are extended stretches of the novel when Pet Sematary feels like a game of Stephen-King-related mad-libs: a dash of paternal anxiety here, a sense of existential dread about the American wilderness there, a familiar older character to provide exposition thrown in, and a climax where everything gets very brutal very quickly.

“You just take a left at the Pet Seminary.”

Even beyond the sense of Pet Sematary as a collection of familiar Stephen King elements blended together, the novel riffed on familiar genre elements. There was more than a faint whiff of The Monkey’s Paw to the basic plot, the story of a seemingly wondrous device that could resurrect the dead only for the person responsible to realise that their beloved had come back “wrong” – or, as Jud helpfully summarises, that “sometimes dead is better.” (The novel alluded to this more directly with the story of Timmy Baterman, which is consigned to a newspaper clipping in this adaptation.)

Writer Jeff Buhler, along with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, clearly understand that appeal. The script for Pet Sematary makes a number of major alterations to the book’s plot, but most are logical and organic, rooted in the realities and necessities of cinematic storytelling more than the desire to change things for the sake of changing them. For the most part, Pet Sematary revels in the old-fashioned blend of Americana and horror that defines so much of King’s work, the mounting sense of dread and the decidedly pulpy sensibility.

The purr-fect villain.

Pet Sematary only really runs into trouble in its third act, and this is arguably a problem that is carried over from the source material despite the major branching choices that the script makes leading up to that point. The issues with the third act are not those of character or plot, but instead of tempo and genre. In a weird way, these third act issues make Pet Sematary feel like a spiritually faithful adaptation, carrying over something of the essence of the book, for better and for worse.

Pet Sematary is at is strongest when building mood and mounting dread, when offering its own shading on the familiar iconography of a haunted and untamed wilderness. Pet Sematary is at its weakest when it is forced to shape that dread into a more conventional horror movie climax.

Shades of grey.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Alice (Review)

Alice is a misfire.

To be fair, the episode seemed doomed from its original set of premises. Star Trek: Voyager has never been particularly good at capturing the sense of Tom Paris as a restless unreliable rebel. The episodes of Voyager focusing on the character’s rebellious tendencies tend to be spectacular misfires; Ex Post Facto, Investigations, Vis à Vis, Thirty Days. These stories do not play to the strengths of either the writing staff or Robert Duncan McNeill, feeling largely incompatible with the character of Tom Paris as he developed in the wake of Caretaker.

I’ll never get used to not living inside of Alice.

However, Alice literally weds this familiar and unsuccessful premise to another recurring Voyager trope with a less-than-impressive rate of success. It is not enough for Alice to be another story about Tom Paris proving that he has a rebellious streak, that premise has to be woven into a broad science-fiction gothic horror in the style of Threshold or Macrocosm. Indeed, Alice is explicitly a psycho-sexual horror in the mode of Blood Fever or Darkling, inevitably butting up against the difficulties of constructing an episode that is about sex but can never discuss sex.

Alice is flawed from the ground-up, but those flaws are only further revealed in the clumsy execution and the disappointing storytelling. Alice is a very bad piece of television.

A deep-space dust-up.

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60. The Shawshank Redemption (#1)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and this week with special guest Charlene Lydon, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode along with them.

This time, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption.

Convicted of murdering his wife, Andy Dufresne is sentenced to two life sentences in Shawshank Penitentiary. A harsh and unforgiving prison, Andy struggles to hold on to hope as the years go by.

At time of recording, it was ranked the best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: IT

IT works best as a fusion of weird fiction with a classic coming of age story.

IT is arguably one of Stephen King’s most iconic and influential works. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is perhaps King’s most instantly recognisable creation. King’s work seems to recognise this. The monster clown haunts his fiction, making various appearances in other works, suggesting that the creature is an infection spreading across the author’s vast tableau. There are lots of reasons for IT‘s success and status, but a lot of it comes down to the fact that IT is an encapsulation of many of King’s pet themes and plays to many of King’s strengths.

Bill Skarsgård used his other 98 red balloons on Atomic Blonde.

Director Andrés Muschietti seems to understand this. In fact, IT serves as a smorgasbord of cinematic King adaptations, drawing upon and even quoting from various other successful adaptations of the author’s work. Most notably, IT owes a surprisingly large debt to Stand By Me. The decision to exorcise the “present day” sequences of the novel from this film, leaving them to a potential sequel, means that IT is even more overtly and consciously a coming of age narrative.

However, IT is very much a coming of age horror story, a grotesque and unsettling expression of the nightmares lurking just behind familiar childish fears.

There’s something in water.

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