M.L. Miller here and welcome to my tenth anniversary Best in Horror Countdown! Every day in this glorious month of October I’ll be counting down the best in horror, culminating with the best horror film since last Halloween! With theaters closed for the bulk of this shitty, shitty year, much of the countdown comes from alternative sources like streaming services, digital download, and On Demand. Plus, we saw the return of the drive-in theater, which is awesome! This list compiles the best horror films released beginning on October 1, 2019 and ending on September 30, 2020. No elitism here—only films released to the public on this list which rules out haughty festival flicks that only esteemed reviewers get to see. If it played on a public screen this year, it’s fair game to be on the list. Here we go!
Released on November 8, 2019. Available on digital download and On Demand from Warner Brothers! Director’s Cut available on HBO MAX!
DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Written by Mike Flanagan, based on a book by Stephen King
Starring Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Selena Anduze, Robert Longstreet, Carel Struycken, Catherine Parker, James Flanagan, Met Clark, Zackary Momoh, Jocelin Donahue, Dakota Hickman, Carl Lumbly, Henry Thomas, Bruce Greenwood, Sallye Hooks, Alex Essoe, Roger Dale Floyd, George Mengert, Jacob Tremblay, Chelsea Talmadge, Violet McGraw, Bethany Anne Lind, Nicholas Pryor, Deadra Moore, Jason Davis, Alyssa Gonzalez, Shane Brady, Danny Lloyd, Michael Monks, Hugh Maguire, Sadie Heim, Kk Heim, Mistie Gibby, Molly C. Quinn, Evan Dumouchel, MacLeod Andrews, Fedor Steer, Marc Farley
Find out more about this film here!
Set up with a no-win situation, somehow Mike Flanagan manages to make a worthy follow up to one of the favorite and one of the scariest movies of all time with DOCTOR SLEEP. While at times, the film feels more like an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, it still manages to tell a different kind of tale and mesh the two together remarkably well. Not perfectly. But remarkably well.
Picking up right where THE SHINING left off with Wendy and Danny Torrence relocating to Florida and Danny continuing to be haunted by images from the Overlook, DOCTOR SLEEP then advances from 1980 to 2011 to find an adult Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor) directionless and coping with alcoholism in order to drown out the Shining powers. Finally settling in an East Coast town, Dan is able to get a job and join AA in order to try to get his life together, taking a job as an orderly in a hospice where his power helps ease the worries of those near death. Meanwhile, a cult of psychic vampires make their way across America, tracking down those with the Shining power and feasting on their souls. When a powerful young psychic named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) begins communicating with Dan through psychic means, it pings on the radar of leader of the cult, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). This prompts Rose and the cult to make their way to Abra and forces Abra to reach out to Dan for help.
Adapting a Stephen King novel is no small feat. It’s been done poorly more than it’s been done right. The issue is that Stephen King is a wordy mo fo and editing his text to feature length means that one must pick and choose between what characters need the extra characterization and what ones can be chopped. Too many of Stephen Kings film choose to chop off too much of the exposition and characterization resulting in films that forget the character in favor of flat thrills. This leaves the story with fun names for the cast, but little else as far as character and the investment in these characters is sacrificed because of that.
Mike Flanagan seems to understand this as he has adapted two Stephen King stories; GERALD’S GAME and the subject of this review. In DOCTOR SLEEP, he gives us just enough to work with catching us up with Dan Torrence, Wendy, and the spirits of the Overlook, before introducing some new cast members such as Ferguson’s Rose the Hat, a 15 year old influencer dubbed Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), Zahn McClarnon’s Crow Daddy and Curran’s Abra. Somehow, Flanagan boils down what most likely took a few chapters of King’s book in just a few scenes, giving us some interesting characters to follow on this journey across America. Having not read the book, but knowing King’s tendencies, I’m sure more info was provided for some of the other colorful characters in Rose’s gang, but enough is given in order to get that these are a bunch of scallywags and not to be messed with that we don’t need to know everything about everyone, and Flanagan knows just how much of this elaborate exposition is necessary to not bog down the story.
Across the board, there are some fantastic performances by the cast. McGregor is, as usual, likable, even when he’s troubled and self-destructive. He’s just the kind of everyman actor that works in this situation. Cast opposite him is the seductive and snake-like Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat, who stands out as a truly well-developed monster with all sorts of dangers swirling about her. But what makes it so interesting is that she is able to show cracks in that confidence she has when she faces people with powers that are greater than her own. It’s these cracks in the armor that make the character one of the more understandable villains in King’s universe. Cliff Curtis is underutilized as Dan’s noble friend and confidante Billy Freeman, though I’m sure there was more from him left on the cutting room floor. And while child actors are often annoying, Kyliegh Curran’s Abra proved to be just the right amount of cute and sassy to be tolerable in the necessary role. Smaller roles like Emily Alyn Lind’s Snakebite Andi is particularly vicious and it’s always great to see ADDAMS FAMILY’s Carel Struycken in a prominent role (here he plays the elder of the cult).
McGregor again assumes the reluctant mentor role in DOCTOR SLEEP, not wanting to accept the responsibility, but knowing that he has to with the endangered Abra. I liked the way McGregor plays this role here as the focus shifts from him to Abra numerous times in the film. Still, Flanagan knows it’s McGregor who we all want to see and makes sure to give the climax of the film to him. This is Dan Torrence’s story, after all, despite the focus on Abra as the main prize.
I was surprised at how little jump scares were in this film. Instead, Flanagan relies on an ever-growing danger as the cultists make their way towards our heroes. It’s this slow build of tension that gives the entire film a forward momentum that isn’t bogged down with jarring distractions and feels remarkable singularly focused on the way it plays out. Again, Flanagan’s ability to cut through the minutiae is uncanny and powerful.
I guess the most controversial aspects of DOCTOR SLEEP involves the refilming and remaking of key scenes from THE SHINING. Rumor had it that Flanagan worked hard to please both fans of King’s book and the Kubrick classic—this task made even more difficult with King’s public dissatisfaction with Kubrick’s version of his book. Still, it looks like the court of popular opinion won out as this film relies heavily on the fact that you have to have seen THE SHINING in order to fully appreciate this sequel. Having watched THE SHINING so much that it no longer scares me, I feel that much of the replays of the twins, the bloody elevator, and the bleeding bartenders don’t scare me as much as they used to. But I must admit, the old woman in Room 237 remains to be one of the most bone-chilling parts of both films. I imagine those not immune to THE SHINING’s horrors will get the same kind of chill seeing this imagery again as many of the scenes are shot for shot remakes of the original. Still, Flanagan has fun with this as there are numerous scenes set up to pay homage to THE SHINING such as the scene where Dan interviews for a job that is set up exactly like Jack Torrence’s interview in THE SHINING. Little touches like this can be seen throughout the movie where Flanagan sets up similar situations that reflect key scenes from the previous film.
Flanagan doesn’t ever-do the homage though and shoots an entirely different movie with DOCTOR SLEEP. The pacing is much quicker and the edits much crisper. The setups are less meticulous and clean as Kubrick’s, with Flanagan choosing more fluid camera movement and performances from his cast. This isn’t a filmmaker trying to ape Kubrick’s style. He pays homage to key bits and pieces but manages to tell a completely different story involving the same characters. It’s a smart move and no one can remake Kubrick. Flanagan doesn’t even try to, and I admire his decision to do that.
It is a ballsy move to cast actors to play Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, Scatman Crothers and Danny Lloyd. While some might have found it distracting or even blasphemous, Flanagan does his best not to parody those extreme actors and extreme characters. STARRY EYES’ Alex Essoe is downright uncanny as Wendy and Carl Lumbly does a mean version of Dick Halloran. But it’s E.T.’s Henry Thomas that shocked me the most as Jack. The scene where an adult Dan Torrence confronts Jack Torrence is priceless and the highlight of the film for me. McGregor and Thomas knock this scene out of the park. All of the actors were surprisingly spot on in roles that have become so iconic it’s hard not to do a parody of it. Still they manage to make it all work.
I wasn’t scared out of my pants, but I think returning to the Overlook as many times as I have has made me jaded. I tip my hat to Mike Flanagan who has proven to be one of the best new horror filmmakers to arrive in the last decade. One of my first reviews back in 2010 was his ABSENTIA, a terrifying missing person film. All these years later, it’s commendable that he has stayed in the genre and churned out some very impressive horror. It’s a ballsy move to take on this project and Flanagan proved he was up to the task. DOCTOR SLEEP was no small feat and though it will never top the terrors that THE SHINING cursed us with, this sequel is able to convey the same feel and tell a completely different tale.
THE 2019-2020 COUNTDOWN!
#14 – DOCTOR SLEEP
#15 – DANIEL ISN’T REAL
#16 – THE VAST OF NIGHT
#17 – HOMEWRECKER
#18 – IMPETIGORE
#19 – BUTT BOY
#20 – BECKY
#21 – UNDERWATER
#22 – THE DEAD CENTER
#23 – BLOOD MACHINES
#24 – ALONE
#25 – THE BEACH HOUSE
#26 – AMULET
#27 – LAKE OF DEATH
#28 – SEA FEVER
#29 – THE RENTAL
#30 – ANTRUM: THE DEADLIEST FILM EVER MADE
#31 – REPLACE
M. L. Miller is a wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of MLMILLERWRITES.COM. Follow @Mark_L_Miller.
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