There's a plane, an island where your fantasies can come through, but where's Mr Roarke and Tattoo? Oh, hang on... Welcome to the world of the new Blumhouse Production, from director Jeff Wadlow (Truth or Dare) starring Lucy Hale, Portia Doubleday, Michael Pena and Maggie Q.
In 1996, director Richard Stanley appeared to be on the edge of much-deserved mainstream success. After attaining a niche audience of fans with Hardware (1990) and Dust Devil (1992), Stanley booked his dream job: directing a big budget version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. What occurred during that shoot is far too complex to get into in any detail – and in fact forms the basis of the fascinating documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) – but the short version is: Stanley got royally screwed by a number of factors and eventually fired from the production. After that bracing experience, Stanley stayed away from Hollywood in a kind of self-imposed artistic exile. However, 23 years after Moreau, Richard Stanley returns with an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s TheColor Out of Space, and the result is a solid addition to Lovecraftian cinema.
Color Out of Space focuses on the Gardner family, comprising dad Nathan (Nicolas Cage), mum Theresa (Joely Richardson), stoner son Benny (Brendan Meyer), witchy goth daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) and youngest Jack (Julian Hilliard). The family are pleasant, if slightly dysfunctional, but after a meteorite crashes in their backyard things begin to change in strange and alarming ways…
The Color Out of Space is a wonderful short story by Lovecraft, and possibly the tale of his most easily achieved on-screen thanks to its relative simplicity when compared to the likes of The Call of Cthulhu or At the Mountains of Madness. Stanley clearly understands he’s working with a limited budget here and shoots the gloopy horrors in the dark, or edits around them so we only get glimpses of the pink hued chaos, which is smart. The cast also acquit themselves well, with Madeleine Arthur and Brendan Meyer doing great work here, although some may find Nicolas Cage… a bit much.
Cage is a fascinating screen presence – and probably a big selling point for this flick, after all “Cage meets Lovecraft” is a fantastic elevator pitch – but his wild mood swings and inconsistent characterisation tends to be a distraction during the mood-building sections of the film. Don’t get us wrong, Nic Cage bellowing about alpacas or punching a car is objectively awesome, but it sometimes feels like an odd fit.
Happily, Richard Stanley hasn’t lost his touch, and Color Out of Space is filled with nice little touches and hallucinatory flourishes, with a couple of sequences being genuinely disturbing and trippy in the extreme. The pace is slow, but builds to an exciting climax, and while Cage’s wild-eyed bull fuckery can be a little trying at first, he’s completely at home in the third act.
Color Out of Space is a well-made, mostly effective slice of cosmic horror cinema, not to mention the welcome return of a director with a fascinating eye, and is well worth a look for genre fans in the mood for something a little different.
There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about director Stanley Kubrick and author Stephen King discussing the possibility of ghosts and an afterlife during the adaptation of The Shining. Kubrick opined, “anything that says there’s anything after death is ultimately an optimistic story.” King countered with, “what about Hell?” After a long pause filled with stony silence, Kubrick intoned, “I do not believe in Hell.” This schism of personality, of intellect versus faith, is perhaps the reason why The Shining book and movie are so very different, and why King hates Kubrick’s 1980 version, despite it being so iconic and beloved. This is all a rather roundabout way to discuss Doctor Sleep, both King’s 2013 sequel to his own 1977 book, and the 2019 adaptation by director Mike Flanagan.
The best way to view Doctor Sleep (book and movie) is less as a direct sequel and more as a spiritual continuation of The Shining. Because although the story’s protagonist is a grown up version of Danny Torrance, the tale told is a very different one. If we’re going to be blunt, the book was a disappointment to many. Even the most ardent of King fans had to admit this follow-up was an awkward continuation of a masterpiece perhaps better left alone. But here’s the twist, despite the patchy source material, and the inherently risky nature of sequalising a masterpiece, Doctor Sleep is a bloody cracker of a film.
Doctor Sleep reintroduces us to Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) aka the kid from The Shining who, haunted by the literal and figurative ghosts of his past, has become an alcoholic middle aged man. After hitting rock bottom he decides to quit the grog once and for all, and settles in a small New Hampshire town, working at a local hospice and helping patients ease into death. Elsewhere, a beautiful but deranged woman, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) leads a group of malevolent cultists around America, feeding on children who possess psychic powers aka “the shine”. And elsewhere still, a young child named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) is just coming into her own shining powers, and wonders if she’s alone in the world. The way these plot strands come together is what makes up the bulk of Doctor Sleep, and in lesser hands it could have been goofy, or worse, a slog. Happily, Mike Flanagan knows how to shoot King, having done a stellar job on the “unfilmable” Gerald’s Game in 2017, and imbues the proceedings with a slowburn intensity and pervasive sense of unease.
Ewan McGregor is wonderfully lowkey and believably damaged as Dan, and Kyliegh Curran acquits herself well also, however this film absolutely belongs to Rebecca Ferguson. Rose the Hat is a fascinating, layered villain as she commands a group of immortality-seeking psychic vampires, who aesthetically owe a debt to Kathryn Bigelow’s criminally underrated Near Dark (1987). Never vamping too hard or going over the top, Ferguson makes you actually care for Rose and her little family of fiends, which makes it all the more shocking when – in easily the film’s most disturbing sequence – they brutally murder a young boy and gleefully eat his screams.
Story-wise the film follows the book pretty closely until it radically changes the third act, and instead uses Kubrick’s film as canon in ways we won’t spoil, and it’s a change for the better overall. It’s a curious one, though, and obsessive fans of Stanley’s 1980 masterpiece may balk at some of the imagery used, but it’s undeniably effective. At 153 minutes, Doctor Sleep is certainly long, but it never drags and the plot is constantly moving forward in curious but interesting ways.
Ultimately, Doctor Sleep is a strange and wonderful beast. Based on a divisive book, that itself was a sequel to an unmitigated masterpiece, and using iconography from a cinema classic, it somehow manages to be better than its literary source material, and a mostly fitting tribute to the film that still looms large almost 40 years after its release. But even ignoring historical and artistic context, Doctor Sleep is simply a bloody good film, showcasing superb performances, excellent direction from Flanno and a score that drips with hallucinatory menace. Even in a market crowded with decent-to-excellent Stephen King adaptations, Doctor Sleep stands tall as one of the best, and is an engaging, original supernatural horror/thriller in its own right. For even casual fans of The Shining (book or movie), or quality horror in general, this is absolutely one you won’t want to Overlook.