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Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix is a masterpiece. Wildly divergent from the book on which it’s based, Flanagan’s show is a brilliant examination of trauma, especially generational trauma, and how people react differently to it. Each of the adult Crain children represent a different method of coping – or in some cases, denial – with trauma. Plus, it’s really creepy and cool and fucked up. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s scary, a word I too rarely use when describing horror films.
So with that under his belt I give Mike Flanagan the benefit of the doubt… even when it comes to Doctor Sleep. In fact, Hill House might be the thing that makes me believe Flanagan is the actual best director for this film.
Trailer after the jump.
Doctor Sleep is Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining and I am not a fan of it. Following a grown-up Danny Torrance, Doctor Sleep has our Redrum boy facing off against a group of RV-driving psychic vampires who hunt down people with the Shining. They’re called The True Knot and their leader is named Rose the Hat. Yes, it’s one of those kinds of Stephen King books.
There’s good stuff in Doctor Sleep. Danny is the titular doctor, although he’s not really a doctor. He works in hospice, and he uses his Shining to help the patients who are slipping out of this world into the next; his ability to know when someone is about to go and shepherd them to the other side has earned him the nickname. Danny is an alcoholic in recovery, attending AA meetings. He’s also what we would call an Adult Child of Alcoholics, a specific branch of the Al-Anon fellowship (Al-Anon being the 12 Step group for people who have alcoholics in their lives), although I don’t recall if the book has him attending meetings for that group.
Where The Shining was very much about Jack’s alcoholism and the way it tore his family apart – informed by King’s own substance abuse issues – Doctor Sleep is about recovery. I read the book before I went into recovery, and probably should give it another shot from my new perspective, but even as an active alcoholic I found the subtextual aspects of Danny’s struggle to be fascinating. The Shining isn’t the alcoholism, by the way – the alcoholism dampens the effects of the Shining, which is a nice metaphor for the way many people drink to take the edge off their almost unbearable emotions. It’s only when he’s sober that Danny can take his skills and use them in empathetic ways.
But then there are the RV vampires. Where The Shining was delightfully contained – Jack’s main enemy was really himself – Doctor Sleep brings in an external threat, and a silly one at that. The True Knot, frankly, sucks, and not just in the vampiric way. What’s more, I think inserting an external threat into a recovery narrative is tricky – Danny’s struggles are really with himself, not with the world. The more we lose our internal battles the more the outside world seems to be our enemy. The reality is that the outside world is what it is – our key to freedom is to change the way we relate to that which we cannot change.
Like I said, I’m interested in rereading Doctor Sleep here, on the newish side of sobriety (King wrote the book with a bunch of years under his belt, Danny is closing in on fifteen years sober in the book, I’m only approaching three years), but even if I don’t like the novel I think Flanagan has a truly insightful perspective on trauma, addiction and pain. As in Hill House there’s a generational aspect to Doctor Sleep – not only is Danny the Adult Child of an Alcoholic, he’s mentoring a young girl who also has the Shining. Her powers, by the way, absolutely dwarf his, and as such he’s concerned that the same drinking and anger that consumed his father and almost consumed him could come for her. This is a thing I think a lot of people in recovery experience – when you become aware of the ways that your sensitivities fed into your problems you become very concerned about other people who remind you of yourself.
More than the subtext of the movie, what I’m really intrigued by is Flanagan’s decision to make this a sequel to the Kubrick film. One of the reasons why King even wrote this book, I think, is because of how much he hates the Kubrick film, and he wanted to reclaim his property. But the Kubrick film IS the Shining – I doubt most people are aware of how King’s novel ended – and so Flanagan really needs to acknowledge it. And Warner Bros of course wants him to acknowledge it – it makes for good marketing.
But there are perils here. Will people be hostile to an attempt to sequelize a movie that is now an avowed classic (despite Kubrick himself being nominated for Worst Director at the Razzies at the time)? Will someone – especially a genre guy like Flanagan – attempting to recreate some of Kubrick’s visuals rub the criticerati the wrong way?
Talking with friends this morning about this subject I was quickly persuaded that many people know The Shining as an aesthetic only; we live in a pop culture moment where aesthetics are valued over content, and this makes sense to me. People will react to the carpet pattern, not to the content of Doctor Sleep – if Flanagan nails the aesthetic on a surface level people will be satisfied.
It looks like he’s nailed it on a surface level, at least in his Overlook recreations, but will that follow for the rest of the film? What we see in the modern day doesn’t look too Kubrickian to me, and I don’t think it should be. I can even make the argument that since Danny isn’t Jack the filmmaking style surrounding Danny should be different. Still, I’m curious how the folks who experience The Shining beyond the carpet pattern will respond to the movie, which besides NOT being Kubrick will be, it seems to me, hampered by a bit of a sodden narrative.
But still! Hope! Flanagan is good. There are the bones of a good story in Doctor Sleep, bones that can be refleshed as Flanagan did with The Haunting of Hill House. And who knows – maybe now I’ll reread Doctor Sleep and have a new perspective. The book has one major thing going for it – I already have it on my Kindle.