Saturday, January 17, 2015

Doctor Sleep

What would Stephen King do without dreams? No, I'm not talking about the dreams he personally has when he sleeps, that may or may not influence his writing. I'm talking about the dreams of his characters, the ones that advance the plots of his books and convey important narrative information. There's also the dreams that contain a vague phrase or line of dialogue that's only properly explained later on (probably once King figured out what its importance should be_.

I also wonder, when the dead show up to speak in King's tales, why they're so cryptic and vague instead of explaining exactly everything the living characters need to know. I imagine it's because if they did, the book would be a lot shorter, but I can only imagine how much trouble they'd save everyone if only they were more clear.

I kid Stephen King. I'm a fan, but he does rely on a few convenient storytelling devices too often in his work. Doctor Sleep (2013) contains its shares of dreams and important messages from beyond the grave, and that's to be expected when so many of the characters have psychic and telepathic powers.

A sequel to The Shining, King's third novel, Doctor Sleep picks up, after a couple of scenes, with an adult Dan Torrance, traumatized by his experience at the Overlook Hotel and now an aimless drifter drowning his grief and psychic (or his shining) with booze, the very same weakness the ghosts exploited to drive his father insane. He ends up in the town of Frazier, New Hampshire, gets into AA, and finds a job at a hospice where his psychic abilities help comfort the dying, and he ends up with the nickname "Doctor Sleep."

Dan develops a telepathic bond with a girl named Abra Stone, who was born shortly before Sept. 11, and is now a pre-teen. Her skills far surpass Dan's, and she clues into a group of psychic vampires known as the True Knot. This group, led by a woman known as Rose the Hat, feeds off "steam," the psychic essence of children with the shining, and when the group learns about Abra and Rose decides to go after her, Dan tries to protect her.

Doctor Sleep is a quick read. I enjoyed it and was interested in seeing how it would play out, but I doubt it's going to go down as one of King's better works. The earlier chapters of Dan working to overcome his experiences at the Overlook, coupled with Abra's growing realization and strength of power, work the best. The connect between the two is small initially, limited to a few occasional back and forth messages (Abra somehow writes hers on a chalkboard in Dan's room).

The novel falters with the True Knot Society. Frankly, they're not very scary or interesting, which for a group of (somewhat) immortals who travel the country over hundreds of years kidnapping children and torturing and murdering them so they drain their "steam," that's disappointing. The group travels around in winnebagos and have accumulated fortunes stowed away, but outside of Rose, whom is described by the other characters as the most beautiful woman they've ever seen (who always wears the same top hat at a gravity-defying angle and who gets angry when someone touches it), none really stand out. They have names like Barry the Chink and Snakebite Andie, but the group apparently has dozens of members, and most references to the underlings are fleeting.

Rose goes into fits of rage when things don't go her way, and when she feeds on steam, her mouth opens unnaturally large, showing a single, massive, discolored tooth, but despite all the talk about how you don't want to meet her or cross her, she doesn't come across as very threatening. The only time she is menacing is when Abra sees a projection outside her window in the dark; now that's creepy because it indicated how powerful her mental powers are and how she used to get inside people's heads.

Of course, Abra is a problem herself. I'd didn't find her irritating; she is a nice character, but she's too powerful. I rarely thought she was in any real danger. She uses her powers to stomp a number of the True Knot (I keep wanting to add Society to the end of the group's name for some reason.). The only time she's vulnerable is when she's drug and kidnapped, but even that doesn't last long.

I think what might have worked better would have been to keep the True Knot in the shadows, cut back the number of chapters and passages describing their work, and keep them as this mysterious group. Focus the book on the relationship between Dan and Abra, and let them find out gradually learn there's this evil group out that preys on psychic children.

Even in his afterward in the novel, King said Doctor Sleep was unlikely to be as scary as The Shining, and he's right; it's not. When it focuses on Dan, now grown up from the troubled boy in a haunted hotel, and how he tries to fix his life, the book is a good read. But once the True Knot shows up, the characters and plot get pushed aside for a chase and a showdown with a not particularly compelling evil

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tales from the Darkside: The False Prophet

The first season of Tales from the Darkside had its ups and downs. Some of the episodes were inventive and compelling. Others not so much. Sadly, "The False Prophet" concludes the inaugural season with a whimper.

My main problem was Ronee Blakley. Her character, Cassie Pines, who bases all of her decisions on an astrology machine, is a complete ditz, too stupid to root for and not bad enough to revel in her comeuppance. Plenty of stories depict characters who try to alter their fates based on the words of fortune tellers, but for those stories to work, the characters need to take some kind of action to be compelling. MacBeth, told he will be king, murders the current king. In a Tales from the Crypt episode, Demi Moore marries a man she finds repulsive after learning he will inherit a fortune and die.

Cassie doesn't do much of anything. The whole episode takes place in a diner where she has stopped while on her way to Texas where she is going to find love (per the advice of a fortune teller machine in Iowa), but Horace X, the astrology machine of the diner, tells her not to go. There's also an encounter with a sleazy traveling preacher named Heat Jones (Justin Deas, who probably would have been the more interesting main character) after the diner closes, but Cassie stays inside, alone, continuing to feed quarters into Horace X.

I honestly have clue what's going on this episode, and not far into it, I just stopped caring. I couldn't buy that this woman was so stupid that she'd put so much stock into mechanical fortune tellers, and at the end, when Horace X apparently absorbs her into the machine, I didn't know why. I don't know if she did something to anger it, if it was just using her all along or what. In the end, all I could ask was so what.

Tales from the Darkside: Grandma's Last Wish


There's so much noise and talking and yelling and ringing phones and loud crashes and howls of pain in "Grandma's Last Wish" that I just wanted to scream "Shut up!" The fatal flaw of this episode is that it mistakes noise for hilarity, and by the end, I was just irritated.

The episode is also terribly predictable. A feeble, old woman (Jane Connell), a week away from being sent off to a nursing home by her self-absorbed family, wishes they learn what it's like to feel old and unloved, so the family (mother, father, teenaged daughter) gradually becomes feeble, clumsy, and senile. Mom gets liver spots, Dad keeps forgetting things, and the daughter loses her gymnastic skills. Only Grandma, smiling coyly as all this happens, knows the reason why.

Directed by Warner Shook, another actor who played a zombie in Dawn of the Dead, this all plays out at the level of shrill farce, and it wears thin very quickly. Once it becomes apparent what's happening to the younger family members, the momentum of the narrative grinds to a halt, and we're just waiting for it reach its overdue conclusion.

Like in a lot of episodes, the premise isn't bad, but not much is done with it apart from sketching it in. Grandma feels satisfied once her family becomes old and senile, but there's a lack of drama and tension. The other characters never clue in to what's happening to them, and there's no conflict about it. They don't learn or react to anything, so they remain obnoxious, one-dimensional jerks through and through.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Tales from the Darkside: It All Comes Out in the Wash

Guilt. When someone commits a wrong, if he is an otherwise moral and upstanding person, he will feel bad about it and try to make amends. Depending on the severity of the wrong, it will likely take a lot of time and effort to atone. But what if getting rid of your guilt was as easy as having your clothes laundered? Suppose you have the money and connections so you don't have feel bad when you commit a crime, cheat on your spouse, or ignore your children. What would you do if knew you weren't going to feel bad about doing it?

That's exactly what laundry man Chow Ting (James "David Lo Pan" Wong!) is offering his clients. When you pay for his laundry services, he will literally wash away your sins, and that's exactly why real estate developer Carl Gropper (Vince Edwards), so he can get rid of his guilt. "I'll be able to do anything, anything, without the pangs of conscience." And as soon as he contracts Chow Ting for the service, Gropper's business begins booming

Now, this is a fun idea, and Edwards has a ball as a morally bankrupt sleaze bag. For example, he orders his secretary to send his wife some flowers, and then immediately calls his lawyer and tells him to serve her divorce papers the next day because "today's her birthday, and I'm all heart." Meanwhile, Chow Ting keeps raising his prices for the laundry services to meet the labor demands. But when Gropper violates the rules of his arrangement with Chow Ting, the dirty laundry begins piling up.

Like I said, the idea behind the episode is great - that if you have money, you can buy off your sins and shield yourself from the moral repercussions of your actions - but by the end, I think it could have been explored more. I would have liked to have seen Gropper before he started using the special service. For example, how had his conscience hindered him before he washed away his guilt?  I also think the episode could have had more fun depicting his descent into amorality. Most of the episode takes place in his office with his sins talked about over the phone instead of being shown (although that does illustrate how physically insulated he is from the people who experience the results of his decisions).

Still the more I think about this episode, the more I like it. It's not hard to see Gropper, alone in his office with piles of dirty laundry building up, and not be reminded of a present-day Wall Street CEO holed up in his corporate tower, away from his underpaid, exploited employees, economic recessions caused by his reckless investing, and the gutting of social services to pay for his tax breaks. At least, Gropper had to pay a supernatural agent to get rid of his guilt; these real-life guys don't seem to need that kind of service. Now, that's scary.

Tales from the Darkside: Levitation

How many of us remember seeing something as a kid and loving it, but then returning to it when we're older, we find it's not as impressive as we remember? I can't count how many times I introduced friends to a movie or TV show I loved when I was little, only to slink in shame on the couch while the others sit stone-faced through what I insisted would be awesome.

"Levitation" is an attempt to build a story out of that, and it turns into a be-careful-what-you-wish for lesson. Two college students, Frank and Ernie, go to a rundown carnival because Frank remembers seeing the Great Kharma (Joseph Turkel aka the ghostly bartender from The Shining) and this amazing trick he did.

Kharma, instead, is a has-been, performing the obvious, cheap tricks that wouldn't impress a 4-year-old's birthday party (save for a guillotine trick Alice Cooper would appreciate). Enraged and feeling betrayed, Frank confronts his fallen idol backstage and then resorts to heckling during the next act, desperately trying to get him to perform that trick he remembers. Eventually, Kharma relents and agrees to perform his levitation trick, but he needs a helper.

This another episode directed by John Harrison, and it's OK. There's nothing really special about it, but I've always had a soft spot for stories in which characters meddle with forces they don't comprehend, especially when it's something like magic or the occult. It's not just some game or scheme; it's an entire world you've stumbled upon and are getting a glimpse of, and "Levitation" has some of that atmosphere.

Kharma is a man who dealt with this strange power, and it has cost him in a way that Frank doesn't realize or appreciate. To Frank, this is entertainment on demand, and he feels he deserves to be wowed. Too late does Frank realize the cost of the act, for himself and Kharma. In the end, Frank gets what wants, and it's satisfying to see how helpless he is to stop it.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Tales from the Darkside: If the Shoes Fit...

You know an episode of a horror anthology is in trouble when you find yourself thinking how Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was scarier.

"If the Shoes Fit..." stars Dick Shawn as Bo Gumbs, a southern gubernatorial candidate who treats politics as one big show. He piles on the charm and personality to win over voters while stringently avoiding any conversation of substance, such his stance on any of the issues. So, if he's going to act like a clown, Tales from the Darkside is going to treat him like one. I'm reminded of "The Devil's Advocate" from season two, another (and better) episode in which a character literally becomes what he's been acting like.

The entire episode is spent in Gumbs' hotel room at a campaign stop while he waits to have his suit laundered. The thing is when the bellboy brings it back, Bo says it's the wrong suit, but the bellboy insists it's the correct one. Why, it's a perfect fit. By episode's end, Gumbs has become the clown he's always been, ready to perform for the cheering, laughing masses.

"If the Shoes Fit..." takes literally the idea of politicians as clowns, and considering how many idiots, weirdos, and crazies that have been elected to public office over the years, it's certainly not an irrelevant one. The episode's failing is to do anything particularly horrific with it. Instead reacting with fear and panic that he might be losing his mind, Gumbs (played ably by Shawn in a broad performance) responds with pratfalls and befuddlement, falling down in his big goofy shoes and looking very silly indeed with that massive bow tie.

I wasn't joking when I said Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was scarier than this episode. In Tim Burton's movie, Pee-Wee's nightmare sequence, in which he imagines creepy clowns operating on his beloved bicycle, is freaky and surreal. Here, as he rides off on a little tricycle inside a circus tent, all we're asked to do is laugh at Gumbs as he finally looks the part he's been playing.

Tales from the Darkside: The Madness Room

Mediocre anthology episodes often have a twist that's easy to see a mile away. "The Madness Room" actually manages to contain two obvious surprises in its climactic moments, which is a disappointment because the premise for the episode is fairly interesting.

What if there was a room that drove its occupants mad? Would you be brave enough to to go inside? I'm reminded of the tone of a short story I read in high school about a writer who spends the night in a wax museum and becomes convinced the dummies are alive, especially the one of a notorious murderer (if anyone knows the name of the story, please tell me, and I'd appreciate it. My Google searches have been fruitless.).

Editor's note: An anonymous commentator below reveals the story is called "The Waxwork" and was written by A.M. Burrage. Thank you, dear reader.

If the episode had spent its entire episode in the eponymous room, then "The Madness Room" might have found a way to be tense and paranoid. Alas, the room in question only turns up at the end, following a Scooby Doo-style search through a mansion for it, and even then it only serves as the backdrop for a soap opera love triangle involving a rich old guy (Stuart Whitman), his much younger wife (Therese Pare), and her lover (Nick Benedict).

Spoiler territory here, it turns out the Madness Room is a scheme by the wife and lover to scare the old man into having a fatal heart attack, which he does when the wife, pretending to be under the influence of the Madness Room, fires a gun loaded with blanks at the lover. But then the joke's on them because having followed the directions of the Ouija they used to find the room, the criminal lovebirds drop the room key under a floorboard and our trapped in the room as it burns. Apparently the spirit of the house doesn't approve of their actions. Dum-dum-dum!

Ultimately, "The Madness Room" comes off as a poor-man's Tales from the Crypt, the wicked and the greedy receive their just desserts from a supernatural force. The room itself might have proved creepy had the characters spent a significant period of time inside it. I think the makers of this episode were trying to build a sense of foreboding - i.e. what's going to happen we finally get inside this so-called Madness Room - but the payoff is weak. Not an outright awful episode but a pedestrian one.