Now, it goes without saying that I love Stephen King. It’s undeniable that he is a genius, redefining how we view and experience fear repeatedly. One thing I remember from my youth during a holiday in Devon is that upon reading The Shining for the first time, how deeply I felt the rage and turmoil of a 40-something-year-old man suffering from the fear of maybe losing control and killing his family. Imagine me, being only eight and reading that, and then feeling such an intense connection to the book. How often can you read a book that does that to you? I felt the anger and frustration of Jack Torrence before I’d even really figured out what the actual world was all about.
The man is a wizard.
The film adaptations of some of his more ferocious tales – The Shining and IT – created a whole new generation of fear, terrifying audiences with clever visual elements. They even created some of the more notable cultural movements (Anyone else name their period ‘The Shining’ after watching the hallway of blood scene? No? Anyone?!).
But, something that both Kubrick and Muschietti do so well with The Shining and IT is creating that fear of the unknown, the deathly supernatural force that seems impossible to defeat. The audience themselves are locked in their seats, biting their nails terrified of a clown who can manifest into any and all of our fears, or an axe-wielding alcoholic with cabin fever and ‘that’ women in the bath in Room 237.
There are many reasons why you can call these films great. The sweeping score that makes you sweat behind the knees. The gorgeous cinematography that leaves you slack-jawed in awe. The production design. The list can go on. But maybe it is that fear of the unknown that makes the payoff all the stronger.
And this is the problem I have with the sequels Doctor Sleep and IT: Chapter 2.
At the beginning you feel that excitement that you are once again going to be terrified to your very core and relieve any nostalgia you can relate to that. But, for the most part, sequels are never as good as the original.
Let’s start with ‘Doctor Sleep’, notably classed as a ‘flawed hybrid’, taking King’s story and placing it within Kubrick’s original furniture. I was pretty jazzed to see The Overlook Hotel back in its former glory, right down to that brilliant carpet. But as much as I loved seeing Ewan McGregor take the reins of Danny Torrence, sadly and slowly turning into his father down the avenue of alcoholism and later wielding the axe himself down the halls of the hotel, I left the cinema feeling cheated. What exactly had I just watched? Who was the character I was supposed to root for? Was it Danny and his struggle to get away from his past? Or was it Abra, whose ability to ‘shine’ surpassed most.
I struggled a lot with what was the original story we were meant to follow. I later realised that Danny’s purpose was to protect Abra from the semi-immortal Vampiric cult ‘True Knot’ led by Rose the Hat, achieving a full circle in emotional, pseudo parental identity, once again stepping into his father’s footsteps, but this time doing what he could never achieve. But it led me to think, why is it that whenever King diverts into an in-depth study of the wider universe within the story, that it always falls short. The power of ‘The Shining’ is a fusion of telepathy and clairvoyance, merely acting as a platform for the ghosts and ghouls plaguing the young Danny. By sprinkling parts of it throughout the film, it elevates the fear, introducing it as more of a ‘Deus Ex Machina’ than the thing to be scared of. But with Doctor Sleep, whilst it has terrifying moments, by making the narrative themes the forefront of the story, it doesn’t seem that scary anymore. You’re taken away from the fear you felt as Wendy ran through the hotel in terror swinging a baseball bat, instead you kinda just want to punch Rose the Hat.
It all boils down to the age-old advice of ‘know your enemy’. Once you gather information on your foe, it becomes easier to defeat and therefore, the very thing you’re scared of, becomes weaker.
Take IT: Chapter 2. It takes place 27 years after the Loser’s Club first interaction with Pennywise, a hair-raising, tortuous clown. The main crux of them defeating It the second time around was down to Mike’s exploration into Pennywise and the surrounding mythology and then the group banding together to perform the ‘Ritual of Chud’. Now, once you know how to defeat a foe, you are now stronger, and it doesn’t scare you anymore. Which disappoints me because it strips away what I loved about the original films. Not knowing what’s attacking you and not being able to see a way out draws you in and traps you, making you unable to escape and allows you to experience all the different layers of terror. It’s always slightly disappointing when it’s resolved and the bad guy is defeated – well, even Stephen King himself admits he’s no good at endings.
Maybe the payoff would have been better if Pennywise wasn’t defeated, and the Losers Club succumb to all of their past trauma that they are trying to fight off and Pennywise remains free to continue the ritualistic feeding cycle. It would certainly solidify him as an all-powerful being. But people enjoy happy endings too much, especially in horror. After all that panic, you need the warm embrace of the good guys prevailing.
I think a lot about when Pennywise is stripped back to a man with a painted face. Does laying your demons bare still make it as scary? Or show vulnerability? Maybe offering the fact that it isn’t just supernatural forces that can scare you, it can be very real, more human things as well. Does having Pennywise more featured in this film numb the effect he had in the original? One thing I enjoyed so much about the first adaptation was how much I resonated with the kid’s fears. I felt like a child along with them.
It’s very difficult to relate to Jessica Chastain, believe me.
But, maybe the point of these two sequels isn’t just about that. Take King’s own position in life. Between writing ‘The Shining’ and ‘Doctor Sleep’ he was “different than the well-meaning alcoholic,” meaning the message should and has to be different. Both films show the exploration of flawed heroes, cursed to follow in their parent’s footsteps like with Danny, or enter into equally abusive relationships that they experienced from their parents, like with Eddie and Beverly. What these sequels show is how important growth is and the separation from what scared you when you were younger, much like Stephen King’s own growth and distance from alcoholism. The sequels identify the crippling trauma still faced in adulthood, and the conscious choice to either beat it, or succumb to it. It’s a more raw representation of fear, stepping away from things that go bump in the night, and facing your fears head-on in the cold light of day. We’re all scared of becoming our parents in some way or another, and our fear changes and grows along with us.
Sure, the sequels don’t end with you feeling like you can’t really move from your seat for a bit, and I certainly lacked the gut-wrenching dread like I did with the first films. But, what the sequels do represent, is the opportunity to gain a different type of closure, each presenting a form of emotional payout, not everything is resolved, but enough to show a very humanitarian end. We all have flaws and trauma that we try and lock away in a box as we get older. What theses sequels do well is the exploration into PTSD and the many forms it takes. But I think, they do fail once further mythology is explained, because it dampens the original effect these films had over us as horrors.
I mean, if you introduce a god-like turtle who spat out the earth due to a tummy ache into the mix, all logic just flies out of the window
Article contributed by Georgie Plant. Find her @aclockworkplant or on her website www.georgieplantfilms.co.uk