"That scared the sh** out of me."
**SPOILER WARNING: There are spoilers for Doctor Sleep below**
Several scenes in Doctor Sleep earned a similar reaction from the man sitting next to me at my screening of writer-director Mike Flanagan's inspired horror drama and sequel to The Shining. But the one scene that seemed to have ruined him — and, judging by the gasps and squirms around us, everyone else in the theater — was the murder of young tween baseball prospect, played in a surprise cameo by Jacob Tremblay. Yup, the cute kid from Wonder.
Tight on Tremblay's face, his chin and throat increasingly freckled with arterial spray, we watch the helpless boy scream and writhe and sob as Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) literally carves the fear out of him that she and her roaming tribe of soul suckers crave. It leaks out in a grey, smokey mist that Rose and her clan basically vape off his body as their victim bleeds out, dying slowly and terribly.
Remorseless, as if the tortuous homicide was just a preview, select members of Team Redrum bury the boy with the complacency and routine of a chain gang. Leaving him to rot in an all but abandoned land site, his innocent face frozen mid-scream. The last thing he saw being quasi-immortals hungrily inhaling his death rattles as the rest of his life spilled out and into his shallow grave.
This sequence is arguable scarier — and more messed-up — than anything from either The Shining or any of Flanagan's previous horror outings. Multiply all the jump scares in Haunting of Hill House by the white-knuckling third act of Flanagan's underrated deaf-woman-trapped-in-a-house-by-her-masked killer Hush, and you'll have a vague conception of the octane of nightmare fuel we are dealing with here. And, according to Flanagan's long-time collaborator, producer Trevor Macy, that was the intent.
Macy, who produced Doctor Sleep, explains to SYFY WIRE that Flanagan designed the scene to sell the terror in a very minimalist, less-is-more way. He chose to start tight on Tremblay's face and let the young actor sell the violence of the homicide, which plays out virtually in agonizing real-time with the more gruesome bits largely kept off-screen, per the tone established by Kubrick's original.
"We could show you all the gore, and blood, and things like that, but there's nothing more terrifying than what you picture in your own head," he says. "There's nothing we can do that's scarier than what you can imagine — which, you know, feeds into the themes of the movie."
It's tough to imagine the pitch to get Tremblay and his parents on board with this scene, but it wasn't as hard a sell as you might think — thanks to the filmmakers' long-standing relationship with Jacob from shooting 2016's Before I Wake.
"We stayed in touch and I called his dad and said: 'Good news," Macy recalls, "we want you to do something that'll only take three days. Bad news: Please read the script. And you know, as a parent, let me just apologize to you for sending this in advance.' But they dove right in. They were excited to be there."
They shot the character's death on the actor's birthday — which you'd think would traumatize anyone, especially a child actor.
"Well, it's so funny you say that," Macy says, grinning. "We got him a cake, we filmed the scene on his birthday — and it's cold. Freezing. But the scene, his take — his performance — he literally managed to traumatize video village and everyone it and the other actors — everyone but him — on his first take. We started in close-up, that was his first scene, he did al that and — we were looking at each other like: 'What have we done?!' And a couple of the other actors, they had to step away."
So, what did Tremblay do?
"He gets up, and high-fives everyone and his dad. And he, we're all laughing afterward."
Preserving that moment on film was important to Macy. "I said to please make sure that, when the tape gets sent to the studio [of that take] — so that they don't worry — please include the laughter at the end of it after we called 'Cut.' So they don't think we were actually, you know, hurting the kid."
Try telling that to the poor person who saw Doctor Sleep sitting next to me. On the way to the parking lot after the movie, they were still shaking their heads and "Oh my God-ing" all the way to their car.
Doctor Sleep is now playing in theaters everywhere.