Stephen King

Doctor Sleep

11/11/19

Stephen King famously disliked Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1980 novel, The Shining – so much so that, in the 90s, he scripted a television series with the same name, one which he felt stuck closer to his original concept. (I haven’t seen it but the general opinion seems to be that it was lacklustre.) So it’s odd to see him executive producing this adaptation of the sequel, Doctor Sleep, considering it has a whole section devoted to Kubrick’s vision, complete with convincing lookalikes of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duval. Go figure.

It’s many years after the events of The Shining and little Danny Torrence has, improbably, grown up to be the dead spit of Ewan McGregor. Now called Dan Torrence (see what he did there?), he’s understandably a troubled soul, addicted to alcohol and cocaine and still haunted  by visions of his time at The Overlook Hotel – indeed, he has regular conversations with the late Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly standing in for Scatman Crothers). Driven to desperate measures, Dan decides he has to change, so he takes off to a new town where nobody knows him, and where he has a chance of starting over. As the months pass, he cleans up his act and eventually takes a job as a hospital orderly, where he soon develops a reputation for easing the passing of dying patients and where he acquires the nickname of Doctor Sleep.

But trouble is coming in the shape of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her band of travelling vapour junkies, addicted to murdering anyone with telepathic abilities and inhaling their unique aura in order to keep themselves alive, long past the time when they should be shuffling off to oblivion. When they fix their hungry sights on a talented teenager called Abra (Kyliegh Curran), she reaches out to Dan, who has been a kind of psychic pen-pal of hers for years, asking for his help. He reluctantly answers her call but the desperate struggle to elude these murderous wanderers inevitably leads back to a very familiar location…

Writer/director Mike Flanagan has done something more than the usual cheapie horror adaptation here. He takes his own sweet time to unload the various strands of the story, cross-cutting effortlessly from Dan to Abra to Rose and giving a very real sense of the events unfolding over the years. There are a few eerie moments along the way, but the supposedly scary scenes never connect as solidly as they might. The overall feel is one of unease rather than out-and out terror. Both McGregor and Ferguson submit nuanced performances and Curran has an appealing presence.

The main problem, however, lies in the film’s final act when Dan, Abra and Rose go hotfoot to Colorado for what feels suspiciously like The Overlook’s Greatest Hits.  Flanagan’s team have done an uncanny job of recreating the look of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, but the internal logic feels decidedly off: there’s never any real justification for them going there in the first place and I find myself asking too many awkward questions of the how, when and where variety as events gallop headlong towards a climactic cosmic punch-up.

It would have been braver, I think, to give us an Overlook that doesn’t already feel way too familiar. As it stands, this decision delivers a fatal wound to the proceedings, making the adventure’s final stretches a bit of an ordeal – and with a hefty running time of two hours and thirty-two minutes, sleep feels, at times, too close for comfort.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

It: Chapter Two

25/09/19

I’m late to the party on this, mainly because I feel the previous film was overrated and I’m not exactly eager to see any more. However, in the end, curiosity gets the better of me. I’ve always considered the source novel Stephen King’s best piece of writing. So here I am, watching It: Chapter Two, and moreover, viewing it on Cineworld’s ‘immersive’ concept Screen X. (Essentially, it’s a big screen with images that occasionally go around corners. Not so much immersive as meh).

The first thing to say is that director, Andy Muschietti, has been a lot more ambitious this time around, ramping up the terror content and aiming for a much more convoluted storyline. Sadly, he’s not reined himself in on the running time. Two hours and forty nine minutes, is, to my mind, about an hour longer than this material deserves. There are things here I like a lot and things that I really don’t. Too many scenes feel over-egged; starting off promisingly enough, only to be swamped by CGI-assisted ‘horrors,’ that diminish the fear quota simply by showing too much.

‘Less is more’ is a famous adage that Mr Muschietti clearly doesn’t subscribe to.

It’s twenty-seven years since the events of the first movie and in the little town of Derry, a horrible homophobic attack signals the return of killer clown, Pennywise. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of ‘The Losers’ to still live in his hometown, realises that all is not well, and summons the other members of his teenage club. All of them seem to be doing their level best to live down their old nickname. Bill (James McAvoy) is now a succesful author and scriptwriter, currently shooting a film with none other than Peter Bogdanovich. Ben (Jay Ryan) is a hyper-successful architect, Richie (Bill Vader) a well-known stand up comedian and Eddie (James Ransome), an accident risk assessor. Beverly (Jessica Chastaine) has the misfortune to be suffering through an abusive relationship, but still appears to be surrounded by the trappings of great wealth. And as for Stanley (Andy Bean)… well, those familiar with the novel will know what to expect on that score and I won’t spoil it for the others.

Anyway, the old team reunites back in Derry, to honour the promise they made twenty-seven years ago…

Incidentally, the film continually cuts back and forth between present day and the characters’ teenage years and I have to say that the matching of young actors to adult ones is superlatively done. If only the film’s internal logic had been approached with such care. There are things here that simply don’t add up, which makes for frustrating viewing. This is a curious rag bag of a film. There’s plenty to enjoy but every time I start to settle into something close to pleasure an incongruous development steps out of the woodwork to smack me in the face. Also, there are fat-shaming comments; outmoded ideas of what a psychiatric institution looks like and the exoticisation of Native Americans. Not all of King’s tropes have aged too well.

Watch out for a neat cameo from Stephen King, visual references to The Shining and a direct quote from John Carpenter’s The Thing, amongst others. And be prepared for a long sitting. Somewhere in this labyrinthine film, thare’s a cracking little horror movie screaming to get out.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Pet Sematary

01/04/19

Since the success of It, Stephen King seems to be enjoying a bit of a cinematic renaissance – and, as most of his books have already been made into films, studios are gleefully remaking the ones that weren’t so successful first time around.

Pet Sematary initially saw the light of a cinema screen in 1989, under the direction of Mary Lambert, and boasted a screenplay by Mr King himself. I know I saw it when it came out but I remember very little about it – other than the fact that I was rather underwhelmed by what I saw. This new version, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, certainly offers a more confident approach to the source material, even if there are some inherent problems lurking  in the mix. Essentially a spin on WW Jacob’s famous short story, The Monkey’s Paw, Pet Sematary still harbours some of the tropes that might have passed muster when the project was first conceived, but which look a little dodgy in the current climate.

Here, Louis (Jason Clarke) is the overworked doctor who decides to move his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and his two children, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie), from the big city to the peace and quiet of the countryside. Major mistake. The family’s new home comes complete with a massive stretch of land, most of which is heavily forested and much of which is the former ancestral burial grounds of the Mic Mac Indians. The land also encompasses the badly spelled graveyard, where the local kids go to bury their dead critturs (though I feel impelled to ask, where are these local kids? We see them only once, wearing creepy looking masks and then never again).

Young Ellie soon makes friends with elderly next-door neighbour, Jud (John Lithgow, twinkling effortlessly), and even introduces him to her beloved pet cat, Church. But the highway beside the house is a regular route for articulated lorries driven by reckless idiots and, when Church winds up splattered across the tarmac, Jud convinces Louis to hide the truth from Ellie and to bury the feline’s remains up on the old Mic Mac land, assuring him that, if he does so, something incredible will happen.

Sure enough, the next day, Church comes wandering home but, as the family soon discovers, something about his nature has changed for the worse…

For the most part, the film holds up well, creating an atmosphere of steadily mounting terror, even if some of the developments do test my credulity. (The family owns a vast stretch of land, so naturally they decide to host Ellie’s birthday party right beside that dangerous highway instead of somewhere safer – like, that would happen, right?) But there are some genuinely nerve wracking scenes here and also some explicitly visceral ones that push the 15 certificate to its very limits.

What really don’t work are the sections that flash back to Rachel’s childhood, when she had a morbid terror of her sister, Zelda – because she had a twisted spine. Sorry, but physical deformity is not fair game for horror and somebody should have thought carefully about those scenes before merrily throwing them into the screenplay – especially when said sister behaves like something out of The Exorcist.

Still, that error aside, this is genuinely compelling in places and offers one of the bleakest endings I can remember seeing since… well, another Stephen King-inspired movie, The Mist. Go to this if you feel like being terrorised but, be warned, some of those body horror scenes have been woefully misjudged.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Gerald’s Game

06/11/17

I remember reading Steven King’s novel on its release in 1992 and thinking to myself, ‘Well, here’s one of his books they’ll never be able to make into a film.’ This was the time when moviemakers were happily turning everything he was involved with into motion pictures, (even, it seemed, his shopping lists), so this was quite a claim, but everything about the story – it features pretty much a single protagonist who is chained to a bed throughout proceedings – seems to suggest it’s a cinematic non-starter. Clearly, nobody has mentioned that to writer/director Mike Flanagan; and it’s to his credit, that he makes a pretty decent fist of this Netflix Original.

Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) and her husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), attempt to spice up their flagging marriage by heading off to their remote summerhouse for a weekend of carnal pleasure, in which Gerald wishes to investigate the possibilities of a little bondage. Almost before you can say, ‘bad idea,’ Jessie is handcuffed to a bed and Gerald (don’t worry, this really isn’t a spoiler) has dropped dead from a massive heart attack. Awkward! Unable to get up off the mattress, Jessie has time to regret leaving the back door open (really?) and encouraging a hungry stray dog to come around and get himself something to eat… also, who is the mysterious Moonlight Man, who keeps appearing from time to time? Is he merely a hallucination? The image of Jessie’s own impending death? Or something much more prosaic?

Given the problematic storyline, Flanagan manages to walk a tricky tightrope between prurience and suspense – and his technique for ‘opening up’ the story is cleverly done. A recurring flashback to Jessie’s childhood cleverly echoes the point that she’s always been held prisoner by a man’s sordid intentions; and, if you thought Greenwood’s presence here was going to be fleeting, think again. There’s also a mercifully brief but extremely visceral sequence that will have the hardiest souls averting their gaze as it unfolds in all it’s bloody detail.

King’s books rarely get the screen adaptations they deserve – even the recent, highly acclaimed It, fell somewhat short of the mark in my opinion – but this is a palpable success and it’s right there on Netflix whenever you feel hardy enough to give it a whirl.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

It

 

 

13/09/17

Like many readers, I came to Stephen King’s writing in the early seventies, when his debut novel,  Carrie had just been released. I read a lot of his books and I thought that It was one of his best later efforts, despite the inclusion of a lamentable (what-was-he-thinking?) scene towards the end of the story that seemed to have strayed in from an entirely different genre. And of course I saw the 1990 TV adaptation, memorable for Tim Curry’s spirited performance as Pennywise but not much else. This new release, however, has certainly caught the public imagination. In a year where overall box office takings are dramatically down, the film is already proving to be a major hit with the public.

The town of Derry is plagued by a string of mysterious disappearances – most recently, young Georgie Denborough (Jackson Robert Scott) has chased a paper boat along a rainy gutter and into the clutches of a homicidal clown. The event leaves Georgie’s older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), riddled with guilt and obsessed with finding his lost sibling. Bill teams up with a bunch of fellow outsiders from his school and together they start to uncover Derry’s infamous history – one that appears to feature a list of similar disappearances going back for centuries…

What made the source novel so good was that King really knew how to write about teenagers – and that’s certainly the element that new director, Andy Muschietti, gets right. There are appealing performances from all of the young actors in this version, especially from Sophia Lillis as Beverly and from Finn Wolfhard, channeling his inner Corey Feldman as motormouthed geek Richie Tozier. Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise is also fabulously creepy in the early scenes, but inevitably, the more we see of him, the less scary he becomes. This means that I really enjoy the first hour or so, but by the time the young protagonists had pursued their supernatural quarry down into the sewers, I am enjoying proceedings a whole lot less. Somebody should have whispered in Muschietti’s ear the old maxim that less is more. But no, he keeps piling it on, and all the menace he’s worked so hard to create runs straight down the drain. Interestingly, it’s the same problem that plagued his earlier film, Mama.

And it’s not just the over-reliance on effects that niggles here. What passed for plotting back in the eighties is starting to feel decidedly heavy-handed in this day and age. I could have done without the cartoonish gang of bullies terrorising the weaker kids in town (or at least had their over-the-top antics dialled down a couple of notches) and, while I appreciate the whole thing is a metaphor for kid’s coming to terms with their true identities, the points don’t need driving home with an economy-sized sledgehammer. As for the decision to turn the book into two different films, one dealing with the nineteen eighties and another featuring the kids all grown up and returning to Derry to confront their old nemesis? Well, given the success of part one, the creators are doubtless rubbing their hands at the prospect of pulling it off a second time.

Whatever I think about It hardly matters. It’s already a massive success and one that clearly chimes with a wide audience. King will, I’m sure, be pleased at what’s finally been done with his book. After so many cack-handed adaptations of his work (including The Lawnmower Man, from which he made a point of having his name removed) this at least is recognisably his brain child. It’s frankly not the spine chilling masterpiece that many have labeled it as, but maybe you can’t argue with bums on seats.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Carrie

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28/08/14

Why do they do it? Brian De Palma pretty much nailed this idea in 1976, but as is the way of things these days, somebody has decided that they can put a new spin on it. Except that director Kimberly Peirce completely fails to do that. Apart from a few tiny changes (Carrie’s mum owns a dress alteration business, Sue Snell is pregnant and Carrie’s first period humiliation is shared on Facebook) this is pretty much a shot-for-shot retread of De Palma’s film, minus the fancy split-screen, slo mo tropes that are his (brilliant) signatures. And apart from a bit of contemporary tweaking, they’ve even used Lawrence Cohen’s 1976 screenplay.

And then there’s Chloe Grace Moretz in the title role. Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s fabulous, but she’s too groomed, too wholesome to play the awkward, naive outsider Carrie White. Her transformation into a beauty on prom night is supposed to be a revelation, but she’s easily the best looking person in the film from the opening shot onwards. And while Sissy Spacek may have been too old for the role in the original, by golly, didn’t she convince at every step? Julianne Moore is a better fit for batty, sex-obsessed Momma White, and she cranks things down a couple of notches from Piper Laurie’s histrionic original, but that’s not enough to justify spending so much time and money on this ‘reimagining.’ Oh and that famous final ‘shock?’ Don’t hold your breath.

To my mind, the only reason for doing something like this is to radically reinvent the material. This is decently made, decently acted and if you’ve never seen the famous original, then maybe it’s worth seeing. But why would you bother when De Palma’s iconic movie is still available on DVD?

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney