Doctor Sleep 2019 ****

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‘When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the shining,’ says Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of the novel by Stephen King. It’s a fair point; I saw The Shining when I was 12, and was chilled, filled with dread, hugely impressed, but also genuinely didn’t quite understand what I’d just seen. Stanley Kubrick’s film has since been much discussed and dissected, with many fanboy and conspiracy theories about the possible meanings, and that elusiveness it a key part of the haunting appeal. The biggest problem Doctor Sleep has is that, by positioning The Shining as part of a larger story, the meanings are nailed down and the sense of mystery is palpably reduced.

That said, Doctor Sleep is probably the best adaptation of King’s work since 1980, and a lot more faithful to the letter of his writing. Young Danny is seen getting advice from Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) about how to put his demons to rest, imagining a series of boxes into which his fears are captured and forgotten. But Danny has demons of his own, and his battle with alcohol mirrors that of his father Jack. Danny starts life in a new town, but his ‘shining’ creates a connection to Abra, a young girl with a similar gift. Meanwhile, a new plotline details the antics of Four Non Blondes-influenced vampire Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) whose crew require the ‘steam’ of innocent young victims to survive. Rose has designs on Abra, and Danny is torn between his fears of his past and his desire to help the young girl.

Flanagan is something of a whiz with post-modern horror; his Ouija: Origins of Evil showed he could take rote characters and plot elements and fashion something fresh and memorable from them. And his Haunting of Hill House tv show brilliantly used the original Shirley Jackson novel as a base for a much more expansive but spiritually connected story. He was the perfect choice for the film, and does well to create a work that’s faithful both to King and Kubrick; fans of The Shining in all its incarnations will know that Halloran’s fate differs in the film to the book, but Flanagan cleverly fudges whether the character is alive or dead as the story starts. He clearly enjoys working in the Stephen King meta-verse, and Doctor Sleep also links ingeniously with many of King’s preoccupations.

Kubrick famously cut many of the supernatural elements from King’s novel, and created something suggestive, grim and foreboding. Flanagan and King have repurposed many of the familiar elements as part of a new and very different story, one that riffs neatly on the original property while going off in a fresh direction. McGregor gives probably the best performance of his career as Danny, wrestling with his demons in some depth, while Ferguson is a slippery foe in Rose. Doctor Sleep can’t aspire to be the game-changer that Kubrick’s The Shining was, but it’s a styling, entertaining sequel that thrills and chills on route to a satisfying finale that brings back the many demons of the bad place for one more chilling go-round.

 

Zombi Child 2019 ****

 

If you’re only going to see one film about black magic in a girls’ school, then you’d probably be best to skip the Suspiria remake and head straight for Zombi Child, a remarkably poetic yet properly horrific film from Bertrand Borello, whose Nocturama has become a cult item; he’s likely to increase his considerable reputation with this hard-to-categorise, highly original film.

The presence of real-life historian Patrick Boucheron, seen delivering a lecture on French history and specifically on the meaning of the revolution, is an early tip-off that Zombi Child is not one for the casual viewer. The history lesson is at a posh girls school, where the pupils include Fanny (Louise Labeque), who strikes up a friendship with and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) over a mutual love of Stephen King’s writing. Mélissa has a story to tell, shared with the audience in a counter-narrative about the death of her uncle Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) who died in Haiti circa 1962 only to be reanimated as a zombie. Mélissa has a certain discomfort mixed with respect in terms of her own family history, but Fanny is keen to explore, leading to a climax that revitalises familiar horror tropes due to the careful work that’s led to that point.

Jump-scares, cap-doffing, in-jokes and such conventional horror-movie moves are entirely absent here; Zombi Child plays so hard and straight with the material that it’ll work for the art-house crowd in particular. But there’s enough frisson in the activities of Fanny’s aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) to draw a sophisticated crowd; the modish pop-culture references to Rhianna help keep Borello’s vision fresh.

The weight of the past, and of French colonialism in particular, loom large over Zombi Child, a horror film of rare intelligence and wit; the final scenes are frightening, but also satisfying, and the long wait for the pay-off is more than worthwhile. Screened at Cannes in 2019, it’s a smart pick-up for MUBI, who have this exculsively on their books from the 18th of Oct 2019.

https://mubi.com/films/zombi-child

Hellboy 2018 ***

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The knives were out for Neil Marshall’s reboot, rehash, re-imagining of the comic book property Hellboy, which crashed and burned at the box office with barely a whiff of brimstone or sulphur. And yet, it’s not by any means as bad as might have been expected, with some flashes of wit in the script, some huge visuals and a decent centre in Stranger Things’s David Harbour. Having an enormous face seems to be the requisite for getting cast in this role, and while Harbour’s countenance is undeniably huge, it’s not quite of the ironing board dimensions of Ron Perlman. Harbour seems a little lost under the latex and make-up, but still makes a fist of Hellboy’s laconic attitude, with Ian McShane having some fun as his dad. The story, about secret societies, Nazis, sorceresses and the usual Hellboy elements is familiar, although Milla Jovovich is a memorable villainess. Truth be told, this isn’t much better or worse that the two Guillermo del Toro versions, which were no great shakes either; for Marshall, who musters a certain vulgarity as well as some big action scenes, it’s a setback perhaps, but one that suggests he’s got what it takes to deliver a great action film one day.

Penda’s Fen 1974 *****

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An untypical entry from Alan Clarke, this BBC Play for Today has developed a cult following and a BFI re-release. Written by David Rudkin, Penda’s Fen is as deliberately obscure as the title; Spencer Banks plays Stephen, a young boy wrestling with homosexual urges, but also struggling to understand the community around him at his Woostershire home. Elements include the appearances of supernatural creatures, conversations with composer Edward Elgar, potentially lethal environmental and pollution issues, and a religious father whose beliefs are not those of a conventional minister. Penda’s Fen is a mystical coming of age drama which looks beyond Christianity and attempts to find something else in the dreams of Albion of an English teenager. It’s hypnotic, doesn’t bother to explain itself and expects the audience to do the heavy lifting; it’s a unique slice of UK television history and as an insight into the kind of high quality  casually dropped into 1970’s tv schedules, a terrific primer in the lost art of drama.

Hereditary 2018 ****

Ari Aster made a big name for himself with his debut feature Hereditary, a sombre horror flick which manages to create it’s own scary ecosystem, despite a few clichéd speed-bumps along the way. Toni Collette gives a full-on performance as Annie, a mother who struggles to control her two kids in the wake of her own mother’s death.  Charlie (Millie Shapiro) is a young girl with strange obsessions, and prone to making a strange clicking noise with her mouth. Her brother Peter (Alex Wolff) is a frustrated stoner, and unwisely agrees to take Charlie to a party where he’s hoping to make out with a girl. Things go badly awry, and Annie begins to sense that Peter may have been possessed in some way. The worst part of any horror movie is when the old books with pictures of demons and rules about how to deal with them; Hereditary keeps this kind of hokum to a minimum, and manages to create an atmosphere of pure dread, with Annie’s uncanny evocations of scenes in miniature cleverly used to throw visual curveballs at the audience. There’s some startling and occasionally sickening visuals on the way to an intense finals; Hereditary might tick all the boxes in terms of clichés, but the silliness is only visible once this nerve-jangling film is over.

Truly Madly Deeply 1990 ****

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Writer/director Anthony Minghella made the jump to Hollywood with the sensitive and charming BBC drama, a British version of Ghost with less sentiment and more depth. Juliet Stevenson plays Nina, who finds herself lost in her rat-infested London house after the death of her soul-mate Jamie (Alan Rickman). Jamie returns to haunt her, but not in a sinister way; they enjoy music (Bach), share jokes, and he gradually moves back in, frequenting the sofa to watch old movies with his undead friends.  Nina is initially delighted, but comes to realise that much as she loves Jamie, she has to move on and allow his memory to rest.  Truly Madly Deeply is a very British affair, beautifully played and with something fresh and moving to say about the bereavement process.

The Eyes of Laura Mars 1978 ***

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A pre-Empire Strikes Back Irvin Kershner directs this American giallo from a script by John Carpenter, amongst others, with Faye Dunaway as a model who discovers she has the power of remote vision. She’s able to see the actions of a serial killer as he makes them, and so inadvertently draws herself to his attention when the police fail to take her claims seriously. There’s early roles for Raul Julia and Tommy Lee Jones, plus uber-glam fashion sequences featuring contributions for star photographer Helmut Newton. Eves of Laura Mars doesn’t quite gel as a thriller, but it’s stuffed with period detail and evokes the edge of the late 1970’s NYC fashion scene in style.