While Doctor Sleep didn’t smash any box office records, I am still in shock that it didn’t. Mike Flanagan is still riding the wave of The Haunting of Hill House fame; the fact that the studio didn’t capitalize on that is confusing, to say the least. Haunting opened up horror to people who don’t normally watch horror, and I feel that there was a huge chunk of the market that wasn’t aware of this movie when it was released.
Oddly enough, that extended a little to the book crowd as well. I remember recommending this book to customers who said they liked Stephen King, and many of them weren’t aware that there was a sequel to the shining, even a couple of years after release. Much like his wonderful and heartbreaking Bag of Bones, it seems to have flown under the radar of even some of his more faithful readers.
Doctor Sleep, for those who don’t know, is the sequel to The Shining. It is a much more introspective piece than its successor, and Flanagan did a great job of incorporating source material from both the original film and the book, which is not an easy feat. The film follows little Danny Torrance, all grown up, played by Ewan McGregor. Danny is still seeing ghosts and trying his best not to. In an effort to block out the noise, Danny has turned to drugs and alcohol, becoming that other monster that he’d hoped he wouldn’t: his alcoholic father, Jack.
Danny has his rock-bottom moment, and decides that he needs a fresh start. He hops the first bus he can find and ends up in a small town. A local handyman takes him under his wing, and becomes his sponsor and friend. He has made his piece with the Shining, using it to help people cross over in the nursing home that he is working in. He also seems to have made a psychic penpal, a child named Abra (Kyleigh Curran) who also has the Shining. All seems to be looking way, way up for Danny Torrance.
That is, until Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) comes into the picture.
Rose is a Stephen King monster similar to Pennywise, a psychic vampire of sorts. She moves around the country with her merry band of followers, who call themselves the True Knot. From the outside, they seem harmless (definitely more subtle that the sewer dwelling clown). They are very much innocent looking flower children. They travel in a group of RVs, appearing very laid back, talking and laughing around the campfire at night. Their survival depends on looking safe; otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to lure children to them. Not just any children. They trap children with the Shining, and torture them to death, eating the emotion and magic, or “steam” as they call it, in order to survive.
What Rebecca Ferguson has so well-crafted in Rose is the fact that she considers herself a mother. She is there to protect and care for her followers, who have become her family. Magic in the world is becoming more and more scarce, and she is not going to let her brood starve to death. She shares what she gets, and makes decisions based on the greater good and their wellbeing. Even as things begin to look dire for her and her followers, they trust her and believe in her. Even her loyal sidekick, who knows more about the growing urgency of their situation, is willing to follow her no matter the path, because he trusts her unconditionally.
What Ferguson sells is the horrifying ability of Rose to turn on a dime. Once she has her prey trapped, she no longer needs to pretend. This was seen in awful clarity during a scene in which a boy is captured by the Knot and murdered. The tearful boy (Jacob Tremblay), looks her in the eye, crying, and asks, “Are you going to hurt me?” She smiles, but it is not the same reassuring smile that she has given children to make them follow her. It’s not even sad. It’s a blunt fact that tells him what he knows before she even says it…she IS going to kill him, and it is going to hurt. As tensions between the starving True Knot and our heroes grow, Rose becomes more and more unable to hide her emotions. As the movie nears its climax, the audience is dreading that inevitable moment when we see Rose fully enraged and unleashed with nothing to lose.
What I really enjoyed about Rose is that her character manages to keep the viewer invested in both sides of the plot. Because Rose cares about the people that she surrounds herself with, the viewer is also interested in what happens to them. What makes this aspect different than the morally grey villains that have become more popular over the years is that she is not morally grey. We are invested in the story, and we care to see how her story will end, but we are definitely not meant to sympathize at all with the monster who eats children. We are solidly rooting for Danny and Abra, but we are not as focused on how they will defeat the bad guy. Part of it is that the audience is not entirely convinced that Danny will succeed. Rebecca Ferguson’s performance as the powerful snake in the grass is just that convincing. The other part is that as the audience becomes invested in the story of the True Knot, we want more; we want to see their journey to their ending, not just how the good guys are going to take them out.
Doctor Sleep is very much a human story, and in Rose the Hat the audience sees the human side of evil. Just because Rose is a horrible villain (truly horrible), it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t deal with those same human emotions. She has love for her people, she experiences grief and rage and helplessness, just like anyone. And while we do not sympathize with her, we understand her. She is not a mindless eating machine. She is smart, and she is calculating, a deadly combination when desperation is added into the mix. Rebecca Ferguson delivers a layered performance that adds real depth to what have easily become a cartoonish villain.
If you are in the unfortunate group who has yet to see Doctor Sleep, please go out and do it now. You can join me in being irritated when people appreciate its greatness ten years from now.
****The other great performance in this film is Kyleigh Curran. I sat down to write this post about the women in Doctor Sleep, but it turns out that I could rave about them all night. So, Kyleigh Curran’s Abra will get her very own post next week. Stay tuned!****