Movie Review: The Dark Fantasy of DOCTOR SLEEP

Doctor Sleep

Following years after the events of The Shining, a now-grown Danny Torrance struggles to deal with the traumas he endured as a child by suppressing his powers through alcohol. At the same time he starts to face and deal with his alcoholism, Abra Stone (a young girl becoming aware of her own powers) initiates a long distance friendship with Dan through the shining. When a cult of immortals who prey on children with powers becomes aware of Abra’s existence, Dan has to find a way to protect her. 

Ewan McGregor as Dan Torrance.
Ewan McGregor as Dan Torrance.
Kyliegh Curran as Abra Stone.
Kyliegh Curran as Abra Stone.

Doctor Sleep is a fascinating challenge for any screenwriter and/or filmmaker. On the one hand, it’s an adaptation of Stephen Kings book. On the other, it also exists as a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall — an adaptation that King is notably not a fan of, but who’s influence has entered pop culture to such an extent that it’s impossible to ignore. 

I can’t speak to how well the movie adapts the book, as I have not read it yet. In comparison to Kubrick’s The Shinning, however, which can easily be listed among the scariest movies ever made, it seems inevitable that Doctor Sleep would pale in comparison. In other words, it’s really not that scary (with the exception of a particularly harrowing scene in the middle).

The filmmakers do a lot of work to call back to the 1980 film, designing the imagery and  sound design so as to echo the original — both of which I enjoyed. However, Doctor Sleep doesn’t deliver on the ever present menace of The Shining. There are a number of reasons for this. The movie has to jump between multiple characters and locations across the U.S., eliminating the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped alone in a hotel through the winter. Doctor Sleep also is imbued with a greater amount of exposition and tends to be more on the nose with its horror, with the ghosts in full view — compared to The Shining in which much of the tension comes from the eerie uncertainty of what’s happening within the hotel. 

It’s the portrayals of the Torrance family from the ‘80s that I found the most . . .  upsetting? Disturbing? There’s an inherent challenge of trying to recreate the iconic portrayals of Jack (Nicholson), Wendy (Duvall), and Danny (Danny Lloyd) from the original movie. Other filmmakers have managed to pull of convincing computer generated recreations of past characters (Princess Leia and Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One, for example). For Doctor Sleep, however, the filmmakers (likely do to cost considerations) elected to cast actors who look eerily similar to their 1980s counterparts. The result represents a strange uncanny valley — they are similar enough to be recognizable, but dissimilar enough to be unsettling — which pulled me out of the movie just as much as bad CGI would have. 

All of that said, I actually enjoyed the experience of Doctor Sleep. I particularly like the portrayal of Rose the Hat, who is an interesting blend of charming, cruel, compassionate to those in her group, and terrifying to those who are her victims. She’s was instantly a character I found fascinating — and one that I’d consider cosplaying or dressing up as for Halloween in the future. 

Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat.
Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat.

As a completely separate experience from The Shining, and subsequently separate from my expectations for horror, Doctor Sleep works for me. I delighted in the movie as an ethereal dark fantasy, which offers up the dangerous underbelly to a world in which supernatural powers exist. There are parts of this that are visually beautiful, and parts of this that are graphically disturbing. Having watching the movie, I’m now wanting to go read the novel in order to dive more deeply into these characters and their backstories. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOzFZxB-8cw

Book Love: The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

Description: “It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’ bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh.

As rumors spread about the grotesque transformations, soon everyone from nosy tourists to clinic doctors and government men start arriving on Denton Street, eager to catch sight of “the Rust Maidens” in metamorphosis. But even with all the onlookers, nobody can explain what’s happening or why—except perhaps the Rust Maidens themselves. Whispering in secret, they know more than they’re telling, and Phoebe realizes her former friends are quietly preparing for something that will tear their neighborhood apart.

Alternating between past and present, Phoebe struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens—and her own unwitting role in the transformations—before she loses everything she’s held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.”

My Thoughts: I’ve been hearing about The Rust Maidens for a while now, the book continually recommended by others in my social media feed as a stunning work of horror. Having now read it myself, I can whole heartedly agree with each and every one of these observations.

The story takes on body horror with young women at the center. This seems a natural progression, since, as the book illustrates, young women’s bodies are already not their own. One of the aspects of this book is how the mother’s rule the block, meeting out rules, structures, and punishments for their girls. When one of the girls gets pregnant, it’s the mother’s who decide what to do with her and her baby, regardless of what the girl wants (the boy is also irrelevant in this). So, when the young women’s bodies begin to change, taking on the oily, glass-strewn decay of the city, it goes from seeming to be a strange disease at first to seeming like an act of defiance. All the wrongs quickly become cast onto the shoulders of these girls, who dare to be anything other than the kinds of girls people expect them to be.

Maybe that’s why Phoebe remains untouched by this metamorphosis — she’s already something other than the kind of girl she’s expected to be. We see the story from her point of view — both during the events and long after. All at once, she is both horrified by the changes she sees in her cousin and the other girls, and awed by them, finding a strange beauty in their transformations. She holds so many levels of loss and guilt, feeling she’s made all the wrong choices along the way. I love her as a character, not because she’s perfect — she’s far from that — but because she comes off as so human, housing anger, sorrow, and compassion for the people and community around her.

This story is so touchingly beautiful on so many levels, providing a blend of deep, unsettling horror with human love and hope. I particularly love the way the relationships between these girls changes and evolves over the course of this story. It’s just so, so good. As soon as I read the last page, I clutched the book to my chest and just held it. I’ll be looking for all the things by Kiste in the future.

If you want to get some more insight into Kiste’s process writing The Rust Maidens and her love of horror, the Darkness Dwells podcast has a great interview.


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Horror Noire: The History of Black Horror

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror

Horror Noire (2018) directed by Xavier Burgin is a phenomenal documentary on the history of Black horror — from the silent film era to the present day, examining the racist underpinnings of early horror and how genre films have evolved over the decades to begin positioning Black characters as heroes.

“We’ve always loved horror. It’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us,” explains novelist Tananarive Due near the beginning of the doc. This love for horror is present throughout the thoughtful critiques of the genre by filmmakers, writers, actors, and scholars. There’s a feeling of excitement and hope for the future of the genre, as new filmmakers come on the scene with Black protagonists at the forefront.

I loved every moment of this documentary. They analyze some of my favorite genre films, such as Night of the Living Dead (1969), The Craft (1996), and Get Out (2017) and discussions a vast number of movies I haven’t seen but are now on my to-be-watched list. In fact, I now have a long list of movies I need to seek out and watch.

Horror Noire is available for streaming on the Shudder network, which also features a number of the classic films discussed, such as Ganja & Hess (1973), The People Under the Stairs (1999), Tales from the Hood (1995), and others.

You can also check out the Horror Noire syllabus over on Graveyard Shift Sisters, for a quick reference list of movies, nonfiction, fiction, comics, and other works to check out.


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Women in Horror – Short Film: Danger Word (2013) directed by Luchina Fisher

Friends, it is February and that means that it is Women in Horror Month. I’ll be participating by consuming books, movies, and short films written and/or directed by women — and highlighting as many as I can here on my website.

Danger Word

Directed By: Luchina Fisher
Written By: Tananarive DueSteven Barnes

Length: 18:40 minutes
Genre: Horror

What It’s About: A 13-year-old girl and her grandpa struggle to survive in a zombie infested world.

Why I Like It: The zombies are situated into the background, as such the violence and scares are subtle with the relationship between the grandfather and granddaughter being at the forefront. The writing in this regard is excellent with believable dialog and some genuinely moving moments, and Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott both do a great job of bringing these characters to life. Every scene is well utilized, so that when the truth about the zombies is revealed, the story delivers some chilling realizations.


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Book Love: I Am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland

I am not your final girl by clair c holland

Just in time for the Halloween season. I Am Not Your Final Girl is a collection of horror-themed poetry draws on the female characters of horror cinema — the survivors, victims, villains, and monsters — who prowl through dark worlds, facing oppression, persecution, violence, and death. In her introduction, Claire C. Holland notes, “I draw strength from the many strong women around me, both real and fictional.” The women in this collection channel their pain and rage into a galvanizing force. They fight. They claim power over their own bodies. They take their power back. They do not relent.

“I have known monsters and I have known men.
I have stood in their long shadows, propped
them up with my own two hands, reached
for their inscrutable faces in the dark. They
are harder to set apart than you know.
— “Clarice,” The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

As a horror fan, I know many of the characters and movies referenced, and it’s fascinating to peer in at them from the unique perspective of these Holland’s words. That said, there just as many that I haven’t seen and a few I had not hear of — but not knowing the direct reference in each case did not stop me from enjoying the poem for its own sake, the words drawing me in. And now I have a list of movies that I need to seek out and watch.

“Separate yourself, like sliding wire through
clay. Divide your organs – heart, lungs, tongue,
and brain. You think you need them all?
You’d be shocked what a woman can live
without. We’re like roaches, we thrive”
— from “Shideh,” Under the Shadow (2016)

I read I Am Not Your Final Girl from top to bottom with delight. Although the subject is focused on horror, the collection doesn’t come off as a downer. Instead, it presents a sense of fierce hope in the act of resistance, in rising up, in fighting back.

Footnote: I won a copy of this book in some sort of contest — Instagram or Twitter or something, where precisely has completely swooshed out of my head (it’s gone and I don’t expect to get it back). Whatever or wherever the contest was held, I am grateful to have received a copy of his collection, because I loved reading it.