Castle Rock Reaction

Some thoughts on the second season of Hulu’s series Castle Rock, which concluded today with episode 10, “Clean”…

The plotting in Season 2 was much stronger than that in the show’s inaugural run, where obtuseness tended to produce lingering confusion. Here in Season 2, the puzzle pieces steadily fit together into a more perfect assembly–no small feat, considering the multiple plotlines unfolding and telling quite disparate stories (psychological vs. supernatural horror).

There are a couple of “holy shit” twists woven into the narrative, starting with the end of the first episode (I don’t think I will ever look at an ice cream scoop the same way again). The reveal at the end of episode 7, which hearkens back to Season 1 and gives viewers a new perspective onto those proceedings, was positively staggering.

Without a doubt, the highlight of Season 2 was the performances by the cast, led by Lizzy Caplan. Playing a younger version of Annie Wilkes, the actress has no trouble filling Kathy Bates’s formidable shoes, and gives a no-less-award-worthy performance. She easily convinces viewers that this is Annie Wilkes, via both nuances of body language/voice inflection and more histrionic outbursts. There are levels of complexity here to the character that aren’t present in the Stephen King novel or the Rob Reiner film, and the season-long interaction with her “daughter” (a terrific Elsie Fisher) was magically dramatic (my one quibble: naming the counterpart to Annie from Misery “Joy” came off as just a bit too cutesy). Thankfully, the show’s producers don’t simply appropriate one of King’s most iconic characters for mere cachet value; Season 2 works to demonstrate what ultimately turned Caplan’s Annie into the deadly fanatic immortalized by Bates on the big screen. Annie’s 10-episode arc on Castle Rock proves supremely satisfying (yet also heartbreakingly tragic).

Alas, the same cannot be said for the show’s other thread involving the reincarnated cultists. The sinister body-snatching of Castle Rock’s citizens makes for some chilling scenes (the group’s use of the Marsten House as the home base for their unholy crusade also forms a fine toward Salem’s Lot), but this plot doesn’t pay off as well as it might have. For starters, the cultists’ expressed goal of global conquest seems too grandiose, in the sense that it reduces the significance of the town of Castle Rock (such apocalyptic stakes seem more associated with other King locales like Derry and Haven). As if not quite sure how to handle this material, Castle Rock resorts to a series of bad action-film clichés. Yes, there’s a lot of noisy gunfire and booming explosions, but what the audience really wants to hear more about is that mysterious moaning of the schisma that began in Season 1. “Clean,” though, abruptly washes its hands of any explanation, leaving Castle Rock in a literal cloud of dust (shifting across the border into Canada for the remainder of the episode). The fact that we aren’t granted any further insight into the enigmatic Kid/Angel yet again makes me want to channel my inner Annie and call the show’s writers a bunch of dirty birds.

Castle Rock can be frustratingly uneven at times, but the series is never less than entertaining. I do hope it returns for a third season, one that finally answers the questions that have been raised over the past two years.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Death of Halpin Frayser” and Frank Norris’s “Lauth”

The long-overdue return of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“The Death of Halpin Frayser” by Ambrose Bierce

Bierce’s 1891 tale brims with Gothic atmosphere and ambiguity. While slumbering, the unfortunate title character experiences a nightmare of a haunted forest glowing with “witch-light” and whose menacing trees drip blood “like dew from their foliage.” The “startling whispers and the sighs of creatures so obviously not of earth” are audible, and an ultimate “supernatural malevolence” appears in the form of Frayser’s own dead-eyed mother, “standing white and silent in the garments of the grave.” Frayser unknowingly sleeps in a fog-drenched graveyard (in the hills neighboring the Napa Valley region of California), a “village of the forgotten dead” filled with an “air of abandonment and decay.” The fogginess of this setting covers the events of the plot as well. Does Frayser end up murdered by his maniacal stepfather (a man he never met before)? Was he attacked by the evil, soul-less lich of his mother, upon whose grave he unwittingly lies? Might the guilt-ridden Frayser (who abandoned his mother years earlier) even have strangled himself while in the grip of his terrible dream?

The sinister and surreal scene that the sleeping Frayser envisions recalls the vaguely European landscapes of Poe’s work, but Bierce’s tale also links clearly with the tradition of American Gothic literature. As Charles L. Crow notes in his study History of the Gothic: American Gothic, “The Death of Halpin Frayser” aligns with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” “the classic American story of nightmare encounter in the woods. Like Hawthorne’s story, it bristles with psychological implications.” The opening of Bierce’s piece (hunting in the hills, the uncanny effects of sleep) recalls “Rip Van Winkle,” but by tale’s end it’s another Washington Irving story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” that is invoked (both by the image of an abandoned schoolhouse and by the ambiguous ending that fails to choose between natural and supernatural explanations). Akin to Irving in “The Legend,” Bierce (a known hoax-lover) here can be seen as having written a mock-Gothic: the ghoulish laughter that rings out in the concluding paragraph perhaps is directed not just at the pair of hapless investigators in the story, but also the author’s readers. “The Death of Halpin Frayser” allows various interpretive views, but from any angle conveys distinct aspects of American Gothicism.

 

“Lauth” by Frank Norris

Norris’s 1893 story features some strong Gothic elements, starting with its account of “the roar of an angry mob, than which nothing is more terrible and awe-inspiring in the whole gamut of human sounds.” The author also exposes the thinness of the veneer of human civility, as the title character quickly devolves into a bloodthirsty sniper during a riot in France: “At the sight of blood shed by his own hands all the animal savagery latent in every human being woke within him–no more merciful scruple snow. He could kill. In the twinkling of an eye the pale, highly cultivated scholar, whose life had been passed in the study of science and abstruse questions of philosophy, sank back to the level of his savage Celtic ancestors. His eyes glittered, hie moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue, and his whole frame quivered with the eagerness and craving of a panther in sight of his prey.” The very house that Lauth holes up in during the fighting has a haunting, Gothic aspect, “full of shadows and echoes.” Also, Lauth’s macabre meditations (e.g. “Suppose he should fall into a comatose state and they should bury him alive?”) after being mortally wounded evince the concerns with death and dying so prevalent in works of Gothic horror.

After the suffering Lauth finally expires, his surviving, medical-doctor friends attempt to revivify him, to jump-start the life force believed to be lying dormant in his corpse. Such misguided, scientific prying into the secrets of life and death no doubt hearkens back to a seminal Gothic novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The grotesque end result of this experiment–Lauth eventually degenerates into a “horrible, shapeless mass” splashed across the floor–parallels Poe’s “The Facts in the Case in M. Valdemar.” These European Gothic works, though, are not imported into an American context, as Norris’s tales is marked by its Parisian setting and strictly French cast. “Lauth” is an indisputably Gothic tale by an American writer, but it is not an American Gothic tale; like several other of Crow’s editorial selections, the piece thus makes for a curious inclusion in this anthology.

 

Lore Report: “In Plain Sight” (Episode 130)

[I’ve been negligent with these posts since Halloween season, but it’s time to get back on track…]

Today we know a lot more about our world than we used to, but if we were to go back in time and live through a less learned age, we would be amazed by the stories that await us. Tales of creatures that sit at the very edge of our imagination, living things that defy logic and monsters that inspire wonder. Our hearts want to believe while our heads are ready to move on. Instead what we tend to feel is a mixture of deep curiosity and primal fear. And if the tales of the past are any indication, there’s a good reason why.

In the latest episode of the hit podcast series Lore, Aaron Mahnke ventures back to early times, when technology was much less prevalent and the gaps in humanity’s knowledge of the surrounding world were much larger. Accordingly, volumes like Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedic Natural History and medieval illuminated bestiaries were often filled not with verifiable classifications but instances of cryptozoological creativity. In such books, one would be able to find a menagerie of incredible specimens, from the basilisk and the dragon to the kraken and the mermaid. Lest we simply dismiss the ancient bestiary as “a time capsule of our gullibility” as a species, though, Mahnke regales us with tales of human encounter suggesting that these mythic creatures could have a basis in reality. He also reminds us that our state of knowledge in the modern age of Google might not be as complete as we would like to think, noting, in a mind-boggling example, how over 90% of ocean life is still a mystery to us.

Episode 130 epitomizes the nature of lore (and Lore): it arises in that liminal space between superstition and science, fancy and fact. The various anecdotes concerning shadowy, marvelous figures that Mahnke shares here clearly make “In Plain Sight” as entertaining an episode to listen to as paging through a bestiary proved for medieval readers.

 

Flanagan and Garris Chat

In case you missed it…

Mike Flanagan was the guest on last week’s (#68) episode of Mick Garris’s podcast Post Mortem. The two directors renowned for their respective adaptations of Stephen King works discussed the recently-released Doctor Sleep, the 1997 TV miniseries version of The Shining, the Kubrick film, as well as the source novels. This hour-long interview is a terrific listen, brimming with interesting details. Some of the highlights:

  • Flanagan discusses his plan for navigating the Room 237 vs. Room 237 conundrum, and the reason he made his final choice as to what to put on the hotel room door in the film.
  • Flanagan reveals the aspects of King’s novel that so “desperately” made him want to direct a film version of Doctor Sleep.
  • Garris explains why King nearly pulled the plug on the miniseries just before shooting was set to begin.
  • Flanagan cites his favorite scene from the finished film version of Doctor Sleep–a scene, he says, that convinced King that returning to the Overlook (still standing at the end of the Kubrick film) was a good idea.
  • The directors discuss the salient differences between the novels The Shining and Doctor Sleep, and consider both books in the context of King’s biography.
  • Flangan identifies the specific scene from King’s The Shining that he has been “honoring” throughout his filmmaking career.

 

Extra Helping of Horror

Yes, it’s three decades late to the dinner party, but tonight’s episode of The Simpsons finally provides a Thanksgiving-themed follow-up to the show’s annual “Treehouse of Horror” edition. Naturally, good taste isn’t on the menu, but “Thanksgiving of Horror” still is a televisual dish to savor.

The episode riffs nicely on the “Treehouse” tradition, as Marge steps on stage for one of her preliminary p.s.a.’s. There’s also the obligatory Kang and Kodos cameo; here the aliens appear costumed in pilgrim garb that has nothing to do with holiday spirit (“Is this not how oppressive colonizers dress?” they are curious to learn).

With countless turkey decapitations throughout, and a climactic mauling of Wiggum by a bear, the opening segment “A-Gobble-Ypto” arguably features enough graphic violence to fill a baker’s-dozen-worth of “Treehouse” episodes. The segment is also absolutely hilarious, as turkey versions of The Simpsons cast speak in gobbledygook that still contains discernible echoes of the characters’ famous catch phrases and ejaculations (e.g. Turkey Homer’s “Woo-Hoo!” upon witnessing the slaughter of the Patty and Selma birds).

The Black Mirror-reflecting middle piece, “The Fourth Thursday After Tomorrow,” deals with an A.I. version of Marge that is a whiz in the kitchen. I have never been a big fan of the “Treehouse” segments that take A.I. as their subject, and this “Thanksgiving” equivalent similarly underwhelmed me. Not that it isn’t witty (e.g. Moe’s grouse that his “burps taste like lies” after finding out it was an A.I., not the flesh-and-blood Marge, that prepared the holiday banquet); there’s just not much here that really qualifies as horror.

Thankfully, there’s some sci-fi horror to relish in the closing segment, “The Last Thanksgiving.” Referencing classic films like Alien and The Blob, the segment presents a cylinder of cranberry sauce turned into a sentient, metastasizing, predatory Jelly Monster. There are terrific sight gags (many involving Milhouse’s floppy arm) stemming from the Monster’s sucking of victims’ bones right out of their bodies, not to mention some grotesquely humorous lines: “Doesn’t the thing know that the skin’s the best part?” an incredulous Bart expresses as piles of spurned epidermis are left sloughed on the floor of the spaceship.

Rather than rehash Halloween leftovers, this November-centric episode finds plenty of fresh fare to offer up (right down to the altered-names bit in the closing credits). It’s doubtful that “Thanksgiving of Horror” will become an annual tradition like its “Treehouse” precursor, but with this single serving The Simpsons has crafted a classic feast of satiric terror.

 

Three Critiques

In my last post, I waxed ecstatic about Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. Admittedly, it is one of my all-time favorite films, and I consider it a modern classic of the horror genre. Still, I am capable of viewing this beloved movie without wearing Burton-tinted glasses. Not every note that the film struck was a perfect one. Here are three moments I wish had been done differently–or edited out completely:

1.The jump scare where the Witch of the Western Woods pops her eyes right out of her head was jarringly cartoonish, and would have worked just fine without this CGI-type special effect. Every time I see it, I think Beetlejuice has somehow smuggled his way into Sleepy Hollow.

 

2.In the climactic scene, Ichabod tosses the Horseman’s skull back to him, but the latter’s palming catch of it is totally unrealistic (it appears to pop right into his hand). There’s also a somewhat laughable gaff, because it’s clear that the teeth in the skull aren’t filed, yet get decidedly pointier once the Horseman grows his head back.

 

3.The snowy closing of the film–which has Ichabod return to fin de siècle New York City with Katrina and young Masbeth–felt tacked on to the plot, in a strained attempt at an optimistic ending. This unnecessarily Dickensian conclusion formed a complete contrast with the autumnal atmosphere prevalent throughout the film.

 

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

On this date back in 1999, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, a feature-length adaptation of Washington Irving’s legendary story, premiered in theaters. The film has aged finely in the two decades since its release, and has become (not just in my household, I’m sure) an autumnal classic that calls for annual viewing. Here on the twentieth anniversary of its first beaming onto movie screens, I would like to offer my thoughts on the dark brilliance and lasting greatness of Sleepy Hollow.

Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a multi-genre piece (combining elements of mock-heroic comedy, local-color sketching, romantic-triangle drama, and ghost-story telling), and Burton’s film clearly follows the tale’s venerable lead. The key distinction, though, is that the genres woven into the 1999 movie are not an exact match of those in the source text. In the film, the Headless Horseman is a tangible threat and not just a bit of frisson-seeking fireside lore, and thus pushes the action squarely into the realm of horror. There’s also an element of the police procedural here, as Ichabod Crane is recast as a a New York City constable rather than a Connecticut pedagogue. Even a whiff of steampunk can be detected, in the strange gadgets the investigating Ichabod carries in his supped-up satchel. Finally, while Irving’s story employs some ambiguity concerning the climactic events (supernatural chase or native prank?), Burton’s effort offers a full-blown murder mystery.

Perhaps one of the most appreciable aspects of Sleepy Hollow is its ability to pay homage to a beloved narrative while simultaneously taking it in a new direction; Burton does not just rehash, but reshapes “The Legend” into something strikingly original. For example, the iconic climax of Irving’s tale (Brom/The Horseman’s pursuit of, and pumpkin-tossing at, Ichabod) is transferred to a much earlier scene (in which Brom is explicitly identified as the antagonist). Burton returns, though, to Sleepy Hollow’s famous covered bridge in a subsequent scene that has both Brom and Ichabod teaming up to battle the actual Horseman. In the source text, crossing the bridge is supposed to deliver Ichabod to a safe remove that proves anything but once the Horseman launches his gourd. This dynamic is reflected in the terrific scene in the film where the frightened villagers seek sanctuary within the hallowed grounds of the church, yet the fiendishly clever Horseman manages to draw out and decapitate Baltus.

The plot of Sleepy Hollow is no doubt complex, and grows increasingly intricate as the film unfolds. It’s gruesomely obvious that the Horseman is doing the killings, but a greater question–at whose bidding is this undead mercenary strategically picking people off?–persists. Ichabod’s investigation uncovers a conspiracy involving a cadre of town fathers, as well as the occult machinations of a scorned woman hellbent on revenge against those who dispossessed her family. By the very nature of its mystery trappings, the film invites repeated screenings: what at first appeared to be passing, insignificant details in retrospect form key pieces of the puzzle picture. The viewer caught up in the whodunit aspect the first time around can later revel in the “howdunit,” the filmmaker’s masterful techniques for seeding clues into the narrative. Furthermore, Sleepy Hollow forms a rewarding rewatch because of the subtlety of Burton’s visual artistry. I must have seen this movie umpteen times before I caught glimpse of the ghost faces that briefly, almost subliminally, manifest in the flaring fireplace flames just prior to the Horseman’s invasion of the ill-fated Killians’ home.

Beyond its rich plot, Sleepy Hollow succeeds because it is firmly grounded in an immersive setting. When making the film, an entire town–along with the leaf-carpeted woods on its outskirts–was constructed on set. This commitment to physical, structural detail creates a strong sense of place, giving viewers the impression that they are witnessing a slice of life in an actual late-18th Century village. Anyone who has ever walked the sloping landscape of the real-life Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (where Irving himself is buried), will further appreciate the verisimilitude of the film’s scene of Masbeth’s funeral, which takes place out on a hillside graveyard.

Sleepy Hollow also prospers from uniformly superlative performances, starting with Johnny Depp in the starring role. Depp is doubtless a more dashing and endearing figure than Irving’s Ichabod, yet retains the schoolteacher’s laughable skittishness. The actor manages to combine and convey multiple facets of the character–a squeamish detective, a childish coward (in the director’s commentary on the DVD, Burton repeatedly likens Ichabod to an adolescent girl), yet ultimately an adventurous and heroic leading man. Depp’s counterpart, the doe-eyed Christina Ricci, is positively spellbinding as Katrina, a beauty with wiccan proclivities. A performance by a young American actress affecting a pseudo-British accent could easily have come off as jarring and grating, but Ricci’s Katrina is both a convincing and sympathetic character. Miranda Richardson’s portrayal of the tigerish Lady Van Tassel is blackly comedic yet never devolves into campy quips and theatrics. As the slain Hessian turned Headless Horseman, the shock-haired, sharp-fanged Christopher Walken (who kills here in an unbilled cameo) effuses menace with nary a word of dialogue.

The Headless Horseman here makes for an unforgettable movie monster. His portentous arrivals are staged in appropriately dramatic fashion, presaged by rolling fog, strobing lightning, and fleeing, panic-stricken animals. Armed and mounted, the Horseman cuts a figure of macabre majesty. He’s a headless badass, a German Terminator impervious to wounding by ordinary weapons. Arguably the greatest legacy of Sleepy Hollow is its utter transformation of the Headless Horseman mythos. Not just some restless churchyard spook, he’s envisioned by Burton as a netherworld resident who emerges topside from a twisted, eldritch monument dubbed the Tree of the Dead. In countless books, films, and TV episodes thereafter, the character is more than a former soldier engaged in nightly search for his cannon-blasted noggin; necromantically controlled by his recovered skull, the Horseman’s sent to hunt others’ heads.

As it transforms Irving’s genteel ghost story into a latter-day Hammer horror film, Sleepy Hollow certainly earns a hard-R rating. It features a slew of graphic beheadings of humans (and a witch-abused bat), not to mention one nasty bisection of Brom by the doubly-armed Horseman. Still, the film balances savagery with sublimity–beautiful atmospheric shots, such as of the looming Van Tassel manse and the no-less-Gothic locale comprised by the Western Woods. This period film rooted in a specific time and place nonetheless conveys the timeless feeling of a fairy tale. For all these reasons, Sleepy Hollow stands heads above all other adaptations of “The Legend” before and since, and in my estimation represents the crowning achievement of director Tim Burton’s distinguished career.

 

Roman à Cleft

Like some down-home Hitchcock, Stephen King has made a (second) career out of brief acting appearances in film and TV adaptations of his works. By the time of the publication of his monster opus IT in September 1986, King had already portrayed the gone-to-weed Jordy Verrill in Creepshow and a man rudely insulted by an ATM in the opening of King’s directorial debut (and perhaps thankfully, finale) Maximum Overdrive. These appearances established a pattern of darkly comedic, happily hammy cameos that has continued for decades now, but King took a much grimmer approach when working himself into the pages of one of his own books.

In the “Derry: The Fourth Interlude” section of his novel IT, the author shows up in somewhat thinly-veiled disguise. I refer to the character Eddie King (Edwin is Stephen King’s middle name), who is self-deprecatingly depicted as “a bearded man whose spectacles were almost as fat as his gut.” Eddie King’s sharply abbreviated role in the book consists of playing one of the victims of Claude Heroux’s gruesome axe attack  inside Derry’s Silver Dollar tavern in 1905. Amidst this Pennywise-inspired slaughter, Eddie (whom the labor organizer Heroux targets as part of a group of murderous union-busters) suffers some especially bloody redress:

The axe came down, its head almost disappearing in King’s ample gut. Blood sprayed all the way up to the Dollar’s beamed roof. Eddie began to crawfish on the floor. Claude pulled the axe out of him the way a good woodsman will pull his axe out of a softwood tree, king of rocking it back and forth to loosen the clinging grip of the sappy wood. When it was free he slung it up over his head. He brought it down again and Eddie King stopped screaming. Claude Heroux wasn’t done with him, however; he began to chop King up like kindling-wood.

King would go on to incorporate his real-life near-death experience (his rundown by Bryan Edwin Smith’s van in 1999) into the Dark Tower series, and has also appeared in the (cleaved) flesh in a recent Mr. Mercedes cameo (pictured above), but nothing can beat this scene in IT where the nominal stand-in for the horror author ends up pulped. The interlude sections of the novel serve to trace Derry’s long, dark, and deadly history, and it appears the haunting influence of this fictional locale even extends to the town planner himself.

 

1984: It Was a So-So Year

Some final thoughts on the latest season of American Horror Story, which concluded last night with Episode 9.9 “Final Girl”…

Overall, AHS gave a strong showing in its hearkening back three decades. It invoked, and poked some loving fun at, 80’s aesthetics (shorty shorts, porn star ‘staches, mercilessly teased hair) and trends (most of all, the aerobics craze), without getting too distracting or giving the sense that the show was targeting clay pigeons. There were some memorable performances–John Carroll Lynch displayed terrific range as the not-mere-Mr.-Jingles Benjamin Richter, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Dylan McDermott more than for his work here as Bruce, the sleazy psycho aspiring to serial killer stardom.

The first half of the season was particularly entertaining. These early episodes continuously hooked the viewer via the unities of time and place. A slew of events transpired over the course of a single, blood-soaked night at Camp Redwood in the summer of ’84, and the writing positively brimmed with wild plot twists and character reversals. In these episodes, AHS seemed to revel in the recreation of 80’s slasher horror.

Sustainability, though, is perennially the big problem for this show, and, alas, this season proved no exception. The action derailed at midseason with the jump ahead in time period that made “1984” something of a misnomer. My biggest issue was with the return of murdered characters as instant spirits haunting the campgrounds. I wasn’t a big fan of this dynamic back in season one (“Murder House”), and even less so here. In defiance of logic and genre convention, these so-called ghosts are tangible, indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood people, and quite adept at dispatching the living with handheld weapons. Because of such contrivance, the show dispenses carnage without consequence, and victims’ deaths prove about as emotionally impactful as the demise of video game characters.

The ghosts’ never-ending slaughter of the Satanically-resurrected Richard Ramirez did furnish some wicked good moments of graphic violence, like a grindhouse version of Groundhog Day. For sure, gore is gloriously splashed across the screen in the season finale (including the most gruesome use of a wood chipper since Fargo). But the build toward a seemingly bloody climax at the Halloween 1989 concert turned out to be a misdirection rather than a massacre (I was disappointed, too, that the much-referenced Billy Idol never showed up at Camp Redwood, either in cameo appearance or via actor impersonation). Also, despite the title of the last episode (and some self-conscious commentary by the female leads), 1984 ultimately doesn’t present any revolutionary development of the concept of the final girl. Finally, the concluding scene, with Mike and the Mechanics’ “The Living Years” playing with no hint of subtlety in the background, made for a terribly sappy happy ending; the sentiment was as saccharine as a six-pack of Slice.

AHS: 1984 started off with a clever reworking of slasher elements, but in the end, serial killers and deadly, repeatedly-returning ghosts made for a sloppy mix.

 

Pleasant Nightmares: A Review of Doctor Sleep

For his latest directorial effort, Mike Flanagan no doubt faced a task as daunting as the prospect of spending a winter snowbound inside the Overlook Hotel. He would be helming a sequel to one of the most revered horror films of all time, and his own endeavor inevitably would be measured against a Shining touchstone. Not only is an adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep no easy task (considering the book’s size and scope) in and of itself, but Flanagan also had to deal with the fact that the author famously hates the Kubrick interpretation of the precursor novel The Shining. That Flanagan manages to overcome these obstacles and create a film both faithful to its source text and aligned with the Kubrick classic is testament to the director’s considerable cinematic skill.

The novel version of Doctor Sleep presents a sprawling narrative, featuring three parallel plotlines that span decades in time and cover countless miles of national ground. Flanagan’s adaptation streamlines matters without sacrificing breadth or complexity; it hearkens to all the major beats from the book. The film takes the time to establish its various characters, and takes off thanks to the brilliant performances turned in by its three leads. Ewan McGregor is terrific as the flawed yet endearing Dan Torrance (a relatable American Everyman in the vein of Christopher Walken’s John Smith in The Dead Zone). Dan’s struggles with alcoholism and anger management throughout his adult life are successfully established without ever becoming cliché or tedious. Just as her character steals gifted kids’ “steam,” Rebecca Ferguson steals scenes here as the simultaneously sexy and sinister leader of the True Knot, Rose the Hat. In lesser hands, her character might have been reduced to a (figurative) mustache-twirling, (literal) black-hatted villain, but Ferguson renders Rose a multi-faceted and fascinating figure. Lastly, newcomer Kyliegh Curran sparkles as Abra Stone, the paranormally-talented young teen stalked by the True Knot. This superpowered adolescent (whose shining ability far exceeds Dan’s) could easily have become annoying or cartoonish, but Curran’s impressive work makes Abra a finely nuanced rather than one-note character.

At so many points this adaptation might have skidded off the road, but time and again Flanagan navigates deftly. King’s narrative is rife with telepathic gymnastics that could have proved quite hokey-looking when projected onto the big screen, yet such scenes are not only convincing here; they are marked by sublime cinematography. Likewise, the “cycling” of True Knot members when they get a taste of mortality could have been cause for some cheesy visuals, but the film’s dramatization of these death throes shows off some eye-popping special effects.

I imagine that the ultimate question that a review of Doctor Sleep has to address is: Is it scary? The answer is yes, but with the addendum that moviegoers should expect a different viewing experience than they had with The Shining. That earlier film established much of its atmosphere from a sense of terrifying confinement (as the Torrances are trapped within a quintessential Bad Place), whereas the sequel is more expansive in its horror, typically foraying into the great American outdoors. The ghosts of the Overlook are overwhelmingly haunting in their posthumous habitat, but the supernatural nemeses in Doctor Sleep have a knack for messing with character’s heads form afar. The vampy campers comprising the cult of the True Knot are undeniably creepy, in the flesh and even in broad daylight. Their nocturnal torture (with the headlights of their vehicles beaming eerily on them) of an abducted Iowan child is as chilling as anything Kubrick depicted in the 1980 film.

One significant difference between the book and film versions of The Shining is that the Overlook is not destroyed at the end of the latter, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to note that the still-standing (now abandoned) hotel figures into the proceedings in the film version of Doctor Sleep. Flanagan invokes the iconic scenes, settings, weapons, and revenants of the Overlook, not just as facile callbacks, but as a strategic key to Dan and Abra’s battle with Rose. This climax thus diverts radically from King’s novel, yet satisfies in terms of plot logic and proves wildly entertaining (even in its quieter moments–there’s a conservation between Dan and a ghostly bartender that’s worth the price of admission alone). Fans of Flanagan’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix will revel in the work the director does with the Overlook here.

Personally, I was captivated by Doctor Sleep, and marveled at the delicate balancing act it pulled off. I also understand, though, that there will be plenty of viewers resistant to this movie. Some will criticize it for being nothing like The Shining, while others will treat its borrowings from the earlier film as almost sacrilegious. But like the True Knot in a feeding frenzy, Doctor Sleep is bound to gather steam: I believe appreciation of the achievement will grow steadily over time, and in retrospect the film will be regarded as Flanagan’s magnum opus.