The Doctor is in

doctor sleepDoctor Sleep  (The Shining #2) ★★★
Stephen King
Scribner, 2013

Mr. King and I (or Uncle Stevie if I may) have a loooong history that stretches back decades now. His books have become the soundtrack to my life, the novels I reach for in times of stress and grief in search of comfort and solace. Some may find that weird, considering the man’s reputation as America’s Boogeyman, but it’s never been weird to me.

No one can spin a yarn quite like this man to keep you reading well past dark and into the wee hours of the morning. No one is as good as he at locating our primal fears and anxieties and purging them in a storytelling catharsis that’s as addicting as it is healing. No one can write characters as real as the person you fall asleep next to at night, or have hated to your very core since you were a child.

Yes, Stephen King knows what scares us, because it scares him too, but he also knows how we love, how we fail, how we fall down and find the courage to pick ourselves up again. He knows what makes us human, and better than that, he knows how to write it all down on the page capturing the very essence of our humanity like a magician captures lightning in a bottle.

Can he do it every time? No. But I don’t love him any less for that fact. Does he try his very best to do it every time? You bet, with intent and integrity. King is no sell-out, and no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise.

zip it…shhhh…no…talk to the hand

danny torrence

Danny Torrence, The Shining (1980)

I imagine King approached the story of Danny Torrence all grown up with a lot of respect and trepidation. The Shining is one of King’s most memorable novels, with an iconic film adaptation that in some ways has even eclipsed the book itself. As a reader I approached this sequel with trepidations of my own. Even though you do your best to stranglehold your galloping expectations, you can’t help but get excited and to imagine how it’s all going to come together, what it’s going to feel like.

This is a good book. Once you start it, like so many of King’s best works, you will want to (have to) finish it. But it isn’t The Shining and anyone expecting a full frontal assault horror novel on par with that classic will be sorely disappointed. In a lot of ways Doctor Sleep is a completely different book altogether, because it’s written by a completely different man who has lived a lot of life and learned a lot of things. It’s probably not even fair to compare the two, but it’s inevitable. A sequel is a sequel.

As a sequel it does succeed brilliantly in one important aspect, and that is answering the question: “hey, whatever happened to the kid in The Shining?” Dan Torrence carries some heavy burdens which have derailed his life in more ways than one. Blocking out his traumatic childhood has doomed him to repeat history — at least that of his father and Jack Torrence’s black temper and unquenchable thirst for booze. Dan is an alcoholic, selfish and unscrupulous, and facing his rock-bottom. Anyone who knows anything about King’s personal life, knows he is a recovering alcoholic. So who better to write a story about a life lost to booze and the battle to get healthy “one day at a time”.

Dan’s life, what it was, what it becomes, is a great part of this novel, and I loved reading about it. Then there’s the other part — a band of psychic vampires traveling the dusty back roads of America by RV calling themselves the True Knot. These are interesting, hideous creatures with a colorful history. On the King villain scale however, we’ve encountered way worse, and way more memorable.

Ditto Abra. As a child heroine facing down the supernatural dark King has equipped her with some pretty mighty powers. She is in fact, King’s most powerful, making little Danny Torrence, Carrie White, Charlie McGee, and Johnny Smith combined look like a dim bulb on a Christmas tree. Becky describes it best in her review this way:

Things were just so easy for her, since she was so powerful in the shining, and on top of that, she had a support system – two parents, Danny, Billy, and John. And she was more than twice Danny’s age when he had to fight for his life, alone. So I just didn’t really feel all that concerned about her, as unfair as it may be. I feel like King went easy on her.

Abra surpasses super-human into superhero range. And while I feared for those around her, I never ever feared for her.

There is a lot to enjoy here, but for me there is an emotional depth missing that I’ve come to crave with King’s books and the characters he creates. I wanted to live in this story, and think about it constantly, and I did neither. I enjoyed it for the adventure it was, and will have no problems recommending it, but it won’t live on and linger in the mind the way so many of his other books have for me.

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Carrie versus The Shining (movie edition)

shining

The Shining (1980)

***Note: the following discussion contains spoilers for the movies Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980).

I recently reviewed Stephen King’s classic horror novel The Shining and in that discussion I take a closer look at Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version versus King’s book. I love the movie – always have – but I can also plainly see its flaws and where it becomes an entirely different story than the one King wrote. In many ways, The Shining is a brilliant film, but in many ways it fails as an adaptation.

Carrie_10

Carrie (1976)

Today I want to look a little more closely at another famous King adaptation – Brian De Palma’s Carrie. But rather than compare it to King’s book, I want to see how it stacks up against Kubrick’s acclaimed cinema masterpiece. For a lot of film fanatics, critics and horror fans, Kubrick’s The Shining is the superior movie, a stylistic work of genius that fairly vibrates with terror and suffocates the viewer with its unsettling and provocative atmosphere. I’m here to convince you however, that based on three criteria, Carrie is actually the better film and by far my personal favorite.

1. Acting
Scene for scene Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie deliver brilliant performances that far surpass what the indomitable Jack Nicholson offers and his weird and wacky counterpart Shelley Duvall. Jack is Jack. Jack is always Jack. His performance in The Shining is not all that different from what audiences watched him do just a few years previous in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Enjoyable yes. Memorable certainly. Worth parodying always. Yet, paling in comparison.

Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek | Carrie (1976)

Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek | Carrie (1976)

Spacek and Laurie are practically Method in their approach to their roles — becoming Carrie and her religiously zealous mother. Nicholson on the other hand almost can’t stop himself from hamming it up and goofing around. His performance is so over the top in parts to merit laughter rather than awe or fear. Simply put, Spacek and Laurie become other people — Jack doesn’t ever stop being Jack (Nicholson that is) and in my mind, fails to ever become Jack Torrence.

2. Memorable Scenes
Both films have memorable scenes, or we wouldn’t still be watching them and talking about them this many years later. There’s no doubt that Kubrick was a cinematic genius and that he composed his shots like an artist. Every prop, every angle — everything meant something. Kubrick directs The Shining with an acute hyper-awareness where “the look” of the film is as important, if not more important, than what’s going on in the story and between the characters. It makes for a visually stunning experience, but it’s also a very technical and cold approach to the art of storytelling.

De Palma’s Carrie is the exact opposite. He is telling the story of a young girl who is tormented by bullies, relentlessly abused by her domineering, mentally unstable mother, and terrified of her psychic powers. It is an emotional story, told with great sensitivity. De Palma wants to shock us, and scare the crap out of us, but he also wants us to feel empathy and sorrow at the tragedy of Carrie White’s short life. There is no empathy or sorrow in The Shining — there is no sense of tragedy. While King’s novel is rife with it, Kubrick has other cinematic goals to achieve with his movie that excludes the emotional in favor of the visceral and cerebral.

Memorable scenes The Shining:
1. Danny cycling the Overlook’s maze-like hallways until he encounters the Grady twins.
2. Jack entering Room 237 – the old woman in the bathtub.
3. Wendy finds out that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
4. Heeeere’s Johnny! – axing through the bathroom door

Memorable scenes Carrie:
1. The opening shower scene – Plug it up! Plug it up! Plug it up!
2. Eve was weak!
3. The dropping of the bucket of pig’s blood
4. Carrie crucifies her mother with kitchen utensils.

All of these scenes are memorable, but for me the more memorable and satisfying are the scenes from Carrie because they are so emotionally loaded, not just scenes relying exclusively on primal shock and terror. I wasn’t just scared out of my mind by the end of Carrie, I was overwhelmed with sadness too.

shining frozen

Jack’s frozen corpse after a night  in the hedge maze.

carrie grave

Carrie’s bloody hand reaching up out of the grave.

3. Shock ending
Speaking of shock and terror, as shock endings go Carrie has The Shining beat here as well. Jack running around in the dark in the maze during a blizzard and then the quick shot of him the next morning frozen to death simply can’t compare to Sue Snell’s dreamy walk to Carrie’s graveside and as she places the flowers the bloody hand shooting up out of the ground to grab her by the arm. That’s an ending to make you scream.

According to Stephen King: “When that hand comes out of the grave… Man, I thought I was going to shit in my pants.” Even in his ending, Kubrick can’t resist going for the cerebral, ambiguous final shot of the portrait hanging in the Overlook dated 1921 with Jack smiling in a tux. What the hell? Whatever the itchy questions this raises, what it doesn’t do is stop your heart in stark, cold terror and make you sleep with the light on that night.

In an interview Stephen King goes on to further elaborate about seeing Carrie for the first time and that shock ending:

The first time I saw Carrie with an audience they previewed it about a week and a half before Halloween….The theatre was entirely full of black people. We looked like two little grains of salt in a pepper shaker, and we thought: This audience is just going to rate the hell out of this picture. What are they going to think about a skinny little white girl with her menstrual problems? And that’s the way it started, and then, little by little, they got on her side….These two guys were talking behind us, and we were listening to them, and at the end they’re putting on their coats and getting ready to leave. Suddenly this hand comes up, and these two big guys screamed along with everyone else, and one of them goes, “That’s it! That’s it! She ain’t never gonna be right!” And I knew it was going to be a hit.

Stephen King

Stephen King

He wasn’t wrong. Carrie was a hit and earned both Spacek and Laurie Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading and Supporting Role respectively. It’s been almost thirty years, and I can still watch this movie and be profoundly unsettled by it. Even after repeated viewings, it still has the power to scare me and I jump, no matter what, when that bloody hand comes shooting up out of the grave. Even though my mind is expecting it, my body is a slave to the involuntary startle reflex.

The Shining on the other hand, no longer has the power to really scare me. After repeated viewings, Nicholson’s  exaggerated performance doesn’t hold up. Now it’s as if he’s parodying himself. While I still enjoy it, I can no longer sit through The Shining and forget I’m watching a movie. I watch it for technique now, appreciating Kubrick’s rich cinematic canvas. The Shining is a technically perfect film, but it has no heart. I would argue that De Palma’s Carrie is all heart, an emotional experience that is only enhanced by the director’s imagination and empathy for his subject.

Some final thoughts:
Since my feelings for De Palma’s Carrie are so very strong, I have little to no interest in seeing the impending remake starring Julianne Moore as Mrs. White. When the original performances are that vivid and remarkable, any attempt to catch lightning in a bottle twice is bound to fail miserably. The risk of it coming across as a cheap imitation is too great. It may look more modern and slick, but that doesn’t mean it will be a better movie. So why remake it at all if you can’t improve upon the original? I would feel just as strongly if somebody tried to remake Spielberg’s JAWS. I’m not anti-remake, but I do believe there are certain films that need to be exempt, and Carrie is definitely one of those for me.

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