“When I Was A Kid, There Was A Place, A Dark Place. They Closed It Down, And Let It Rot. But The Things That Live There, They Come Back…”
With Hollywood at a particular period in cinematic history where every single word written by the steady hand of Stephen King is set for some form of live action adaptation, with the release of Pet Sematary and It: Chapter Two alone this year resulting in very successful box office returns, the release of Doctor Sleep this week reminds that the best King adaptation in the form of Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, The Shining, has yet to be truly tested even after nearly forty years. With King’s original novel undoubtedly one of his most iconic and well regarded by literary readers, the fear of any sequel to the tale of the Torrance’s and the Overlook Hotel were first raised when Doctor Sleep was published in 2013, and whilst King’s novel passed the time nicely during my university years with some interesting ideas and charming call backs to its’ predecessor, the narrative never held the same sense of supernatural wonder that the 1977 original novel had in spades. Cue the big screen adaptation therefore, one directed by the overly impressive skills of horror aficionado, Mike Flanagan, the mind behind both Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House series and of course, Stephen King’s own, Gerald’s Game, and what we have is a movie which succeeds in paying both homage to Kubrick’s classic horror and staying as faithful to the novel of Doctor Sleep as humanly practicable, a decision which ultimately simultaneously both hinders and supports Flanagan’s latest big screen project.
With Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining only carrying a slight sense of faithfulness to the source material in the first place, Flanagan’s movie directly follows events which take place in the 1980 horror classic after a decision was made that most people heading into Doctor Sleep would have probably seen Kubrick’s portrayal of events rather than read the original text, and with a central narrative which follows a now alcoholic and middle-aged Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) and his discovery of both others who “shine” and Rebecca Ferguson’s (Mission Impossible: Fallout) band of vampire-esque killers who feed off the “steam” of those inflicted with the power of the shining, Flanagan’s movie for those who would not have read the novel is a substantial diversion from the confines of the Overlook Hotel. Blending mystery, scenes of downright horrific violence and a really beautiful genre aesthetic, Doctor Sleep does have elements of real intrigue, even for someone who has read the source material, but at a staggering two and a half hours, the movie doesn’t half drag at times, particularly when we are exposed to utterly blasphemic reconstructions of scenes from Kubrick’s original movie and a tendency to focus on particular characters who suffer from a unhealthy balance of being both uninteresting and underwritten. The Shining it is not, but as a direct adaptation of a middling King novel, Flanagan’s movie is good enough but fails to ignite the sense of haunting wonder its’ predecessor continues to evoke even after nearly forty years.
Overall Score: 6/10
“Something Happens When You Leave This Town. The Farther Away, The Hazier It All Gets. But Me, I Never Left. I Remember All Of It…”
With It surprising both critics and audiences alike back in 2017 as it proudly declared itself as not just one of the best films of the year but undoubtedly one of the best Stephen King cinematic adaptations of all time, this week finally brings with it the release of Chapter Two, the hotly anticipated concluding tale of the battle between Pennywise the Dancing Clown and The Losers’ Club, one set twenty seven years after the events of the previous film as we see our returning heroes return to the town of Derry in order to face the fearful figure which has haunted them throughout their individual lives. Directed by the returning Andy Muschietti, Chapter Two continues the Argentine’s dedicated affection for the original King novel as he brings to the big screen a three hour long, horror adventure epic which, in a similar fashion to the original source material, is thrilling, well orchestrated and thunderously entertaining, but a film which also annoyingly suffers drastically from an overlong and poorly managed runtime, bloated pacing issues and an over reliance on very repetitive set pieces, factors of which at times puts shivers down your spine in completely the wrong way as you cry out for a cold-hearted editor to cut away the deadwood in order to create a film which would have proudly stood head to head with the 2017 original but instead, is clearly the inferior chapter of the two.
With Chapter Two of course set twenty seven years after the events of the first film, the opening movement of the movie takes time to re-introduce the adult form of our beloved Losers, most of whom have managed to move away from the confines of Derry and into successful lives elsewhere until they are quickly brought back to their homeland by Isaiah Mustafa’s Mike Hanlon, the only remaining member of the pack still residing in Derry, who quickly realises that the threat of Bill Skarsgård’s ominous Pennywise has once again returned. With the reunion party out of the way and memories of their childhood slowly rising back to the surface, the narrative then sees each of the Losers each attempt to fully remember the reason for their return, a clever plot device which allows the story to weave in and out of time shifts as we dive deeper into the lives of the Losers younger selves and further chance encounters with our beloved baby-headed primary antagonist, a strangely similar device to that seen within Avengers: Endgame whereby time travel was utilised in order for individual characters to revisit iconic sequences in an almost victory-lap appraisal of the events which have come before it. Whilst this most definitely worked within Endgame thanks to a buildup of characterisation over twenty films, the same cannot be said for Chapter Two, as the individual set pieces soon become incredibly repetitive, resulting in a sense of unease not caused by horror but by a willingness for the narrative to actually get on with it, particularly when most of the scenes do seem direct re-treads of those seen within the first film, but even with that in mind, certain set pieces do evoke a chilling sense of knowingly ridiculous, overblown horror, particularly one scene lifted straight from the novel in which Jessica Chastain’s (Zero Dark Thirty) Beverly Marsh takes a haunting trip back to her childhood home address.
With the original King novel itself suffering from a sense that certain aspects within the story go so out there in terms of the sublime ridiculousness that to transfer them onto the big screen would be nigh-on impossible, the first part of Muschietti’s vision did well to bend particular set pieces in order to cater to a more mainstream audience with alarming success, and as Chapter Two finally arrives at its’ final act, all memories of the cringey, low budget depiction of Pennywise’s true form from the 1990 television miniseries are completely expelled thanks to a final confrontation which is probably the best big screen depiction of the source material as you possibly could get. As per the overall sensibility of the film, the final act manages to blend supernatural horror elements with laugh out loud moments of comedy, where although not every pun manages to quite stick the landing, carries on the coming-of-age feel which the first chapter clearly evoked so well, as we see the Losers continue the charming character conversations and witty banter shared all the way through the first film and now almost effortlessly once again as they reunite as adults. With Chastain, James McAvoy (Dark Phoenix) and Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live) the clear standout performers, with Chastain particularly being well and truly put through the wringer thanks to THAT bathroom scene alone which evoked the look of Shauna Macdonald in The Descent, and a sheer fondness for the central characters, Chapter Two works excellently as a two hour horror adventure, but thanks to an unholy decision to add on an extra hour just for the memories, Muschietti’s approach to King’s novel is undoubtedly the best adaptation fans could have hoped for thanks to characters and a Pennywise for the ages, but as a standalone picture by itself, Chapter Two is baggy, but is still very, very good.
Overall Score: 7/10
“Sometimes Dead Is Better…”
Acting as the most recent entry into the Stephen King revival era which has been embraced gleefully both on the big screen and the small thanks to the success of the likes of It, Mr. Mercedes and Netflix’s Gerald’s Game, Pet Sematary is the latest contemporary adaptation of one of the American writer’s most well-known novels from 1983, acting as a completely fresh adaptation after the rather lukewarm reception given to the 1989 and original film version which on retrospect, hasn’t exactly aged at all well. Directed by the film-making duo of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, whose previous work includes the little-seen horror flick, Starry Eyes, as well as credits on the television version of Scream, Pet Sematary sees Jason Clarke (First Man) as Louis Creed, a well-respected and straight-thinking university doctor who after moving his family to a remote woodland house on the outskirts of Ludlow, Maine, soon begins to experience a wide range of supernatural and nightmarish encounters, all of which seem to stem from the discovery of the local titular graveyard, a particularly powerful area which seems to be much much more than a quaint location for the local deceased bunny rabbit.
With King’s original novel undeniably one of his most nihilistic and terrifying tales to date, Kölsch and Widmyer’s movie does impressively manage to transfer the overarching sense of dread onto the big screen for pretty much the majority of the film’s one hundred minute run-time, and with the added boost of a particularly haunting musical score from horror auteur, Christopher Young (Hellraiser, Sinister) and enough creepy fog and pitch black cinematography to make David Fincher’s Seven look like something from CBeebies, it’s fair to say that in terms of atmospheric setting, Pet Sematary circa 2018 doesn’t just tick the box for the horror genre, it absolutely smothers it. With a superbly crafted cast which features a quartet of impressive performances including John Lithgow (Dexter) as the wise and elderly neighbour, Jud Crandall, and Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) as Louis’ wife, Rachel Creed, the movie also benefits from the decision made by both screenwriters, Jeff Buhler and Matt Greenberg, to alter the central death at the heart of the story, a bold choice which is understandable in the way it makes complete cinematic sense whilst offering the chance for young Jeté Laurence to absolute oodles of fun with her role as the Creed’s young daughter. Whilst some differences to the novel do feel slightly jarring, including a shock-tastic ending which doesn’t carry the same impact as the book’s own conclusion, and the lack of real depth ultimately resulting in the film nowhere near as rewarding as the book, Pet Sematary doesn’t hold back on the sheer nastiness of the source material, and with a heavy dedication to King’s own written word, is a movie which is up there with the much better examples of what a Stephen King adaptation should ultimately look like.
Overall Score: 7/10
“Everyone In This Town Has Some Sin Or Regret. Some Cage Of His Own Making…”
For the majority of television series, the real discussion regarding a show’s particular merits generally land on the effectiveness of the book-ending episodes, with scrutiny more than most applied to both the opening and concluding chapters, particularly the latter with criticism always leaning towards whether the respective end of a series bows out in a well balanced and universally accepted manner or crashes and burns under the weight of the hours of storytelling which have come before it (see Dexter for such an example). In the case of Castle Rock, Hulu’s debut series was undoubtedly a refreshingly interesting, albeit flawed, genre bending haunted house of a series which attempted to pay respect to the mind of horror’s most influential contemporary writer whilst offering a glance into a town riddled with nightmares and head scratching mystery. When it came to the show’s concluding hour therefore, there was no doubt that theory after theory regarding the potential resolution of the main plot thread involving Bill Skarsgård’s The Kid was always going to be one which divided audiences, and whilst Castle Rock finished on a familiarly atmospheric and creepy note with a lot to admire, “Romans” still managed to feel ever so slightly underwhelming considering the potential that was in line to be grasped.
Picking up on events directly after episode eight, with the previous episode entirely dedicated to revealing The Kid’s true nature as Henry Deaver mark one, or maybe not as we’ll discuss later, Castle Rock’s final chapter focused on Deaver one’s willingness to return back to his own reality with the aid of Deaver mark two, whose reluctance to abide is shifted as we see through his eyes potentially more truth to Warden Lacy’s opinion regarding mark one’s closeness to evil. With the town of Castle Rock crumbling by the hour thanks to shocking character deaths, the rising sound of paranoia and a particularly violent prison escape, all plot threads seemingly accumulate as we follow both Deaver’s into the heart of the woods where Deaver mark one’s faint flicker of embedded evil seems to manifest in the show’s most terrifying jump cut throughout the entire series, and whilst many thought, myself included, that the show would inevitably veer towards a more Hollywood style resolution with Deaver one safely reunited with his true reality, what a kick in the teeth we were left with as the circle closed on seeing Deaver one once again held captive within the heart of Shawshank, this time watched closely by his alternate counterpart whose belief in his prisoner’s evil is enough to warrant a lifetime of sin. Ultimately, Deaver’s decision may not be the most humane or rewarding from the perspective of the audience but hey, throughout the series we have been warned of Castle Rock’s underlying seediness, and with a post credits sequence which suggests further exploration into the mythos and mind of Stephen King, Castle Rock‘s debut series was a brooding, bewildering and maddening slice of horror which can only get better with time.
Overall Episode Score: 8/10
Overall Series Score: 7.7/10
“God Turned His Back On This Place. Abandoned Us…”
As stated within previous reviews of Hulu’s latest success story, the fact that Castle Rock has been proclaimed as an “anthology” series by its’ creators in the vein of American Horror Story or True Detective, means that loose ends and unresolved mysteries aren’t exactly on the menu once the drama ultimately concludes in the very near future. Thankfully, Castle Rock’s penultimate episode just happened to be a twisting, mind-bending and thoroughly enjoyable chapter which put to bed the mystery of Bill Skarsgård’s, The Kid, whilst shining a ray of optimism heading into the show’s highly anticipated climax next week in which further unresolved plot threads are bound to be tied up in one way or another. With the previous episode fading to black after leaving the audience safe with the knowledge that The Kid and Molly seem to share more in common than meets the eye, “Henry Deaver” decided to dedicate the entire episode to Skarsgård’s character in order to develop such a notion as we came to realise The Kid’s true nature and place within the town of Castle Rock and the way in which his presence may indeed be key to the evil which has spread across the town since his arrival.
With an ominous opening speech featuring the familiar line; “people say it wasn’t me, it was this place” and further evidence of the seedy history of Castle Rock, the action swiftly moves onto the chance to witness the transformation of Skarsgård’s alternate Henry Deaver from a universe in which he seemingly survived childbirth and became an advocate for Alzheimer’s treatment and saving cute cats, to the enslaved victim of one man’s religious beliefs as he crosses over into “our” dimension in which the young Henry Deaver’s disappearance is finally explained. Considering the resolution of the show’s central mystery ultimately landed well and truly on the crazier side of things, kudos must go to the screenplay, with the episode’s handling of the reveals managing to explain particular plot threads rather well without ever becoming too much or too confusing whilst leaving a heavy amount of the load for the audience to ultimately figure out for themselves. With Skarsgård on absolutely gripping form as the episode’s lead and some wacky psychedelic imagery and cinematography, Castle Rock once again proved that when the show is at its’ most subversive and bizarre it’s undoubtedly at its’ best, and whilst certain questions do remain unanswered heading into the finale in the coming days, if the show can be wrapped in a similar fashion to the storytelling in its’ penultimate episode, everything should be swell.
Overall Episode Score: 8/10
“The Human Mind Is Expressly Designed To Forget Much Of Its’ Past Suffering…”
With Castle Rock hitting top stride last week with undoubtedly the best episode of the series so far, an extended hour’s worth of television which by the time the series ends will more than likely still remain top of the tree due to the sheer excellence expelled from both its’ storytelling and construction, “Past Perfect”, the eight episode of the series, reverts back to much more of the classic Castle Rock feel this week, adding more development to particular plot points whilst dialling up the hysterical sensibility canvassing the titular town which resulted in a variety of violent conclusions. With the re-introduction of the two new members of the town after their short appearance earlier on in the series when they are seen being sold the renowned “murder house” by Molly, the episode begins in familiarly wacky fashion by showing the turbulent relationship between Mark Harelik’s Gordon and Lauren Bowles’ Lilith, a rocky marriage dented by Lilith’s unfaithful indiscretion but one still on track as they declare themselves the new owners of Castle Rock’s B and B which the two are dedicated to design around the many historical deaths which have occurred within the town throughout the ages.
With an opening segment featuring an abundance of bloody murder which clearly evoked the shot of the dead twins from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the inclusion of Gordon reeked heavily of Psycho’s Norman Bates and with the added touch of a selection of axes and spooky mannequins, Castle Rock’s B and B seemed to be the main place for strict avoidance. With Molly’s predictable rescue of Henry resulting in yet more death from her part in the name of the man she clearly loves, Henry’s discovery of the now deceased Alan Pangborn resulted in The Kid being blamed for his murder even after an enlightening conversation with the local Police in which Henry was reminded of his school-time nickname of the “Black Death”, a title relatively apt considering the timeline of events which have occurred since Henry’s return to Castle Rock. With Skarsgård once again stealing the show, his IT related reference regarding his twenty seven year wait for Henry still remains overly ambiguous even when his refusal to age, as evidenced by the huge collection of eerie paintings within the B and B, points heavily towards the supernatural, and with a final, overly ripe five minutes in which Molly’s secrets were unveiled and Jackie Torrance’s hereditary knack for using an axe made total sense, “Past Perfect” was a mad yet enjoyable Castle Rock chapter.
Overall Episode Score: 7/10
“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves…”
Continuing on from the double dose of cliffhangers which concluded last week’s return to form, Castle Rock utilises an hour length episode this week to expand and develop Sissy Spacek’s Ruth Deaver, a character whose shadowy spectrum within the background of events so far comes full circle as we come to understand the true nature of her mental infliction which the likes of Alan and Henry have come to deduce as a simply case of Alzheimer’s, but one which instead lends itself more into the paranormal and surreal, with particular previous character behaviours within the series all becoming increasingly clear. With “The Queen” undoubtedly the most impressive episode of the series so far in terms of its’ beautiful storytelling, sharp pacing and heartbreaking twists and turns, this week’s episode was also the most King-esque to be offered up so far, an hours worth of paranormal imagery overshadowed by a haunting, creeping tone and a brooding, ominous soundtrack which clearly echoed a wide range of previous King related projects in which the series has taken heed from.
With Ruth’s ability to travel through the vortex of time itself made abundantly clear, resulting in last week’s strangely odd conversation regarding the importance of the missing chess pieces within her house now making total sense, the hour we spend watching Ruth as she traverses the echoes of her past memories is truly beautiful to behold, with the chance to add a deeper layer of characterisation to the likes of Deaver’s over-bearing and unstable religious father figure brilliantly orchestrated, whilst in the present, the true nature of The Kid seems to unravel itself with a heartbreaking resolution as Ruth attempts to rid herself of her reincarnated demons. With nods to The Shining in which we see Ruth battle through a very Gold Room-esque party full to the rafters with echoes of the dead, and an absolutely stunning use of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” as seen in the likes of the equally beautiful Arrival, “The Queen” was a powerfully emotive and undenaibly creepy addition into a series which continues to impress the more it goes on, an episode which bears similarities to “Kiksuya” from Westworld by showing that even when taking the time to focus strictly on one character, such storytelling can be a real beautiful thing to behold.
Overall Episode Score: 9/10
“I Was There, In The Woods The Night You Disappeared…”
With the major news this week regarding Castle Rock being that the overwhelming success from critics and audiences alike have resulted in a second season being rightly ordered by Hulu, the jury remains out on how exactly all of the many as of yet, unsolved mysteries within the series so far will play out to a conclusion this year or will instead seep into the next batch of episodes set to come in twelve months time. Thankfully, “Filter”, the sixth chapter of the series, goes a long way in attempting to break down particular narrative arcs with a bit more push in comparison to last week’s slow-burning episode, with a flashier pace and a stand-out musical accompaniment resulting in one of the better episodes of the series so far, one boosted by yet another great central performance from André Holland as his character begins to understand the oddity of his ambiguous past and the origin of the strange, ringing sensation which was picked up on out of the blue during last week’s episode, whilst attempting to rekindle his distant relationship with son, Wendell Deaver, as portrayed by Chosen Jacobs, a young actor famous of course for his portrayal of Mike Hanlon in last year’s It.
With most of the action focusing heavily on Deaver’s own discovery into his murky and absent memories of youth, particularly in regards to his wanderings into the forest with his adopted father, the discovery of two previous associates of Deaver Sr. results in a surrealist, dream-like epiphany in an attempt to understand the “voice of God” which has supposedly manifested itself within the ringing sensation Henry has been plagued with since a child. With the twirling mix of forestry and incidental piano-based musical cues which wouldn’t be astray upon the musical desk of Angelo Badalamenti, Castle Rock does seem to bear more than a fleeting resemblance to Twin Peaks the more it goes on, particularly when Sissy Spacek’s Ruth is essentially a contemporary incarnation of Grace Zabriskie’s mourning Sarah Palmer, and with the added straight-faced horror elements including the recurring masked spectres haunting Molly’s subconscious and The Kid’s continual presence within the Deaver household, the show is best when it mixes the supernatural with the sublime. Concluding with arguably the biggest cliffhanger yet, “Filter” offered a vast improvement on last week’s chapter with thrilling developments, better pacing and a sudden switch into surrealism which put the series back on track.
Overall Episode Score: 8/10
“I Guess Everyone Thinks They Grow Up In The Worst Place On Earth…”
With the concluding act of last week’s episode of Castle Rock undoubtedly the best part of the series so far, a startling five minutes or so which expertly blended the dulcet, lucid tones of Roy Orbison with a genuinely unsettling murder spree conducted by Shawshank prison guard, Boyd, a character whose early demise seems to begun a sequence of events which flows into the mid-way mark of the series this week in an episode which puts Skarsgård’s “The Kid” slap-bang in the centre of ominous in-comings after he is released into the wilderness of the titular town. Whilst “Harvest” is undoubtedly the weakest episode of the series so far, with its’ slower pacing and lack of real plot movement dragging the quality of the storytelling down a couple of notches in comparison to the first four hours of the show, the halfway mark of the series is also strangely the most important, a forty five minutes which seems to continue balancing historic exposition with contemporary action without ever becoming too convoluted in a sub-Westworld sensibility and one which continues the noble art of finishing on a conclusion which leaves you gripped and ready for more.
With the release of “The Kid” the real talking point of the episode, his psychiatric evaluation and sudden care change into the hands of Molly is paralleled with the ever-growing and literal oncoming storm of wildfire, a supposedly natural phenomenon set to embrace the town of Castle Rock after already taking lives elsewhere, one which seems to ominously foreshadow events yet to come. With the orange glow of the fire raging in the distance as the episode unfolds, kudos indeed goes to cinematographer’s Richard Rutkowski and Jeff Greeley, particularly with a brilliantly executed shot in which “The Kid” overlooks Castle Rock as the screams of its’ residents intersect with the sombre, Blade Runner 2049-esque backdrop which unfolds in the distance. With Easter Egg of the week undoubtedly handed to Jackie Torrance during her discussion regarding a familial connection to one axe-wielding lunatic, it’s a shame therefore that “Harvest” is an episode which just didn’t seem to flow as freely as the rest of the series has done so far, but with the second act of the series on its’ way, Castle Rock now has to show whether it is a series which ultimately lives up to expectation or indeed falls under the heavy weight of eager King fans who already have their steely knives sharpened.
Overall Episode Score: 6/10
“There Is A Lot Of History In This Town. Not All Of It Is Good”
With the previous episode of Castle Rock dedicated primarily to the development of Molly Strand and her key involvement in the death of Henry Deaver’s father, it seemed wholly necessary that “The Box” would once again revert back to Deaver himself for a forty-five minute episode which included mysterious discoveries, a superb jukebox soundtrack and a concluding set piece which provided evidence for when the show is at its’ best, Castle Rock can be a harrowing and powerful work of horror. Beginning with the haunting nightmares of Deaver and his flickering memories of youthful captivity being presented in a superb retro-style sensibility, the eerie wailing of the voice of Tom Waits pierces the mood of the episode to perfection as Deaver’s willingness to return home begins to take a toll on Chris Coy’s Boyd, the Shawshank whistle-blower regarding the discovery of “The Kid” whose psychological toll regarding the treatment of the many prisoners inside begins to showcase itself early on as we see his character begin to crack under the pressure of seemingly being the only guiding light within the metaphorical hell-house which is Castle Rock’s local prison facility.
With Bill Skarsgård finally having a bit more to do than just stare idly at the camera this time out, his characters’ reaction to threats made by the Shawshank lawyer-type figure resulted in a ferociously unsettling reminder of not only Skarsgård’s freakishly tall body structure but the fact that amidst the unjust incarceration and unfair treatment. there is still something undeniably evil surrounding his character, even if as of yet, the evidence hasn’t surfaced to back up such a claim. With Deaver more adamant than ever to understand they grey area surrounding his disappearance, his discovery of an a-typical murder house reminded everyone that newspaper reels are still the best cinematic form of historical exposition, even if it was more fun to see if any Stephen King-laden Easter Eggs popped up in the many articles which were examined. With the episode mulling towards a sense that it fell justly into the realm of “solid, just not spectacular” with five minutes remaining, how timely it was therefore for a concluding set piece which immediately evoked the murderous rampage in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here this year, albeit set to the brilliant backdrop of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, a scene which was admired with a gaping dropped jaw and a resounding sense that now Castle Rock is halfway through its’ stay, the real action begins now.