The Stephen King film curse: will both 'It Chapter Two' and 'Doctor Sleep' be stone-cold classics?

Could this be the year Stephen King finally gets a double-bill deserving of his name? With two new films incoming, Mark Dinning says yes (knock on wood)

'It Chapter Two' will be released in the UAE next week.
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It is no secret that movie adaptations of Stephen King novels can run the gamut from masterpiece to faceplant. It is a state of affairs only magnified when more than one is released in a calendar year.

Consider the evidence: in 1983, King fans were treated to one of the greatest, most overlooked adaptations of his work, with David Cronenberg's expertly crafted, Christopher Walken-starring psychic chiller The Dead Zone. That same year, they also got the two daft ones about the killer car (Christine) and an angry St Bernard (Cujo).

The year 1990 brought with it Kathy Bates's Oscar-winning turn in Misery, and Graveyard Shift, the giant-rat farrago with a 13 per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes that should consider itself lucky to have hit double figures.

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In 2007, Frank Darabont smashed his Stephen King hat trick, following up The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile with The Mist, the supermarket-set creature-feature that has maybe the most brilliantly miserable ending ever. Also that year? John Cusack having an actual fight with his hotel room fridge (Google it) in 1408.

We could go on, but would be remiss if we didn't mention the magnum opus of opposing ends of the Stephen King spectrum: 1986's simultaneous zenith and nadir of Stand By Me and Maximum Overdrive. The former was Rob Reiner's gorgeous poem to the loss of innocence – the latter, a King-directed car crash in which Emilio Estevez, with a face like his agent is getting fired in the morning, has to rescue a woman from a homicidal electric carving knife.

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THE MIST (STEPHEN KING'S THE MIST) de Frank Darabont 2007 USA
d'apres le roman de Stephen King

But – and only whisper this – is the curse finally about to be broken? The signs look ominously good. Two years after delivering the biggest box office ever for a horror film (his It scooping $700 million [Dh2.5bn] worldwide), Andy Muschietti returns next week with It Chapter Two – the most-anticipated horror sequel in decades. Next month, Mike Flanagan's adaptation of Doctor Sleep – King's follow-up novel to The Shining, written 36 years later – hits cinemas, too.

Now, we've been here as recently as 2017, Muschietti's masterful It a ray of balloon-red light through the gloom of Nikolaj Arcel's clodhopping adaptation of The Dark Tower, both released within a month of each other. But this time, it feels different somehow. This time, given 2019's already solid start in the King-adaptation camp – April's creepy, insidious improvement on 1989's gaudy Pet Sematary – Pennywise's revenge and a return to The Overlook hotel might just be the classic double-bill that King fans have been baying for, for four decades and counting.

Both movies have more in common than just King's DNA. Both are sequels to classic King adaptations. Both are directed by proven talents – Muschietti, the man behind Mama; and Flanagan, known for Oculus, TV series The Haunting Of Hill House and his excellent previous King adaptation, Gerald's Game. Most interestingly, both are also adult versions of two of King's most legendary kid creations: It's beloved Losers' Club and The Shining's Danny Torrance.

When we last saw Danny, he was six years old and played by Danny Lloyd. The boy found out he'd landed the part at his fifth birthday party, but the shoot – scheduled for a rather optimistic 17 weeks – dragged on for nearly a year, thanks to director Stanley Kubrick's exacting perfectionism (notoriously, he made Shelley Duvall perform Wendy's axe scene an insanity-inducing 127 times).

The real-life Danny gave up acting soon after and grew up to be a biology teacher and a father of four children who still rib him about his bowl haircut in the movie (Lloyd also looks back fondly on eating peanut butter sandwiches on the set with Louise and Lisa Burns, the twins who played the Grady sisters).

In Doctor Sleep, Danny has grown up into Ewan McGregor and is now a middle-aged man, haunted (not surprisingly) by his past. Addicted to whatever he can get his hands on to dull the horrifying visions his ability to "shine" still brings him, he's on a downward spiral. So, when he receives a vision on his wall – an echo of the "REDRUM" he famously once drew – that has been sent to him by an endangered young psychic girl called Abra Stone, he finally sees a chance at redemption.

'Doctor Sleep', starring Ewan McGregor, is based on the sequel to Stephen King's 1977 novel 'The Shining'. Jessica Miglio

The novel, to be fair, isn't all that – by King's standards a routine thriller in which Abra and Danny are pursued by the True Knot, a nomadic bunch of sort-of vampires who feed off psychic essence that they call "steam". But this movie has two key cards up its blood-drenched sleeve. The first is terrifying King creation Rose the Hat, the nightmarish leader of the True Knot played with suitable menace by Rebecca Ferguson. The second is Flanagan himself, the director seemingly having done what King seemed so reluctant to in the novel: return to the demonic Overlook hotel. The novel offers fleeting psychic glimpses into it. For the movie, Flanagan has recreated most of The Shining's original iconography "from scratch" (the only sequence he didn't dare try to reproduce was Kubrick's tidal wave of blood from the hotel's lifts). In other words, yes – that tricycle is back. So are the twins. So is that old woman in room 237. King fans expect great things. Well, they might.

While McGregor as Danny is an inspired slice of casting, it's got nothing on It Chapter Two. With the sequel taking place 27 years after the first movie – always the length of time between evil clown Pennywise's centuries-old assaults on the town of Derry – Muschietti's first task was finding the adult versions of his original young leads. With both versions of the characters appearing in Chapter Two – think of it as the horror equivalent of the time-jumping The Godfather: Part II – this time we have Bill played by both Jaeden Martell and James McAvoy; Beverly by Sophia Lillis and Jessica Chastain; Ben by Jeremy Ray Taylor and Jay Ryan; Richie by Finn Wolfhard and Bill Hader; Eddie by Jack Dylan Grazer and James Ransone; Mike by Chosen Jacobs and Isaiah Mustafa; and Stan by Wyatt Oleff and Andy Bean. The similarities are frankly uncanny.

Casting aside, early word says all the performances are spectacular, with particular praise being aimed at Hader, and critics marvelling at what a leap in quality Muschietti's take is over the clunky 1990 TV mini-series. Crucially, many have also singled it out for its outrageous levels of gore. "My special effects department told me it's the most blood that has ever been used in a movie," Muschietti told Total Film recently. "They measured the amount and it was a few gallons more than The Shining!"

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All of which bodes increasingly well for the return of Pennywise and the unfortunate fools who have come back to confront him one final time. But, while they might be older and stronger, so too is the evil entity thirsty for revenge, who will finally be revealed in all his true, gory glory this time out.

"Pennywise has changed," the actor who plays him, Bill Skarsgard, also told Total Film. "At the end of the first movie, he felt fear for the first time. Now, he is obsessed with repaying that fear back, and he's going to do it hard."

Or, as Muschietti said after a recent preview screening in Hollywood: "The first movie was about the loss of innocence. This [one] is about the traumas we carry along as adults that were generated in childhood." Maybe, just maybe, the generations traumatised by King at his very best and worst are finally about to lay one of those ghosts to rest. Maybe, after all these years, we'll get two stone-cold classics in one…

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