The Dark Tower trailer decoded: Stephen King Easter eggs and mysteries explained
With cameos by the hotel from 'The Shining' and Pennywise from 'It'
“There are other worlds than these …”
That’s an important line from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and it sets the unfamiliar up with everything they need to know: Our world is one of many. Some aren’t as fortunate.
The new trailer for The Dark Tower film has dropped, and it has heavy lifting to do. This otherworldly genre-bender (and blender) of a story defies easy explanation. It’s the story of Roland, (played by Idris Elba) the last of the knight-like gunslingers from a place called Mid-World, where the apocalypse has already come and gone.
It’s also the story of The Man in Black, played by Matthew McConaughey, a semi-immortal practitioner of dark arts and a trans-dimensional anarchist who goes from world to world sowing destruction. There’s more to him than that, but this is a start.
Finally, it’s the story of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a boy from our world, our time, who harbors the power to reach — or destroy — this mythic tower that stands as the hub, the nexus point, for all the worlds beyond.
That’s the upshot for the uninitiated. But there’s a lot more embedded in this trailer to unpack.
Director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel is one of Uncle Steve’s “constant readers” — so he has included a few nods to both The Shining and It…
Let’s venture forth into Mid-World and take a scene-by-scene study of The Dark Tower:
“For thousands of generations, the gunslingers were knights. Sworn to protect us from the coming of the dark …” So intones Elba’s Roland Deschain, but the first glimpse of this world shows a sprawling edifice — a futuristic castle – gone to ruin. The dark has come. It did not leave peacefully.
After a flash vision of Roland, The Man in Black, and something monstrous, we see our young hero, Jake Chambers, awaken in his bed in New York City. The room is shaking. In the story, these earthquakes are puzzling scientists and city managers. They shouldn’t be happening. What our world is detecting are reverberations from another realm — The Man in Black’s efforts to collapse the tower, and all its worlds, into one hellscape.
Jake draws to get the visions out of his head. Here we see his wall, covered with illustrations of the tower — obviously — and the ominous Man in Black, as well as the gunslinger. But see those other figures, smaller ones, strapped to chairs? In King’s books, those are “Breakers,” people with powerful psychic abilities who can be harnessed to attack the cosmic beams that keep the tower standing.
While Jake is talking to his psychiatrist about these disturbing “dreams,” another quake rattles the city. We catch a glimpse of this shelf rattling. This is Arcel’s first tip-of-the-hat to Stephen King’s other worlds — the image in the frame is the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. Also interesting is the statue beside it, a sculpture of a being blowing a horn.
(Spoiler alert: in King’s books there is something called The Horn of Eld, which signifies that life repeats, fate is a wheel, and it keeps returning to the same place again. This story has played out before, perhaps a bit differently this time.)
There’s a lot more to explore. Let’s step a little deeper …
Here’s where worlds start to collide.
Jake’s visions lead him to an abandoned home in the New York area. This home is known as “Dutch Hill,” but it’s not at all what it appears to be.
This is not actually a house at all, but a guardian demon — something that stands watch over a portal between worlds that is part magic, part technology. Before Jake can venture through, he will have to battle a dilapidated old “house” that comes alive and tries to devour him.
But Jake’s power to “shine” serves him well, defeating this watcher and revealing the passage through time and space to another world — Mid-World, to be precise.
He awakens in the desert. A field of gravel. A near wasteland, perhaps.
But this is where we get our proof that Mid-World is not Earth from the future, or some variation on the past. In its sky floats two moons. We aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Jake immediately runs afoul of one of this strange realm’s dangerous inhabitants: Roland.
But Roland is no stranger to him. Jake has seen him before, in dreams, in visions. And he has the receipts to prove it.
Roland isn’t the trusting type, but maybe he has caught a glimpse of this boy before, too. (If you think of the Horn of Eld, they may have crossed paths with each other countless ways, in different times.) In King’s books, there’s something called “Ka,” which means fate. And “ka-tet” is the group of people who share it with you.
Roland holsters his revolver and takes on care of this young visitor.
Now, on to our first look at the tower itself …
We glimpse the tower about three times in this trailer, never in its entirety, but always in a state of destruction.
All around it radiate the blueish “beams,” which thread through the various worlds like ribbons from a maypole. Shatter them, and you can collapse the tower.
Here you see one of the beams as it passes through our world over the New York skyline, a bolt of blue against a stormy sky.
But how many times can this tower take a hit? Are we seeing visions of its possible fall, or its actual destruction? (Seems like they wouldn’t want to give that away in a trailer.)
Here we see a blast of red energy rising into the night sky and colliding with one of the beams. This would be “the shine,” harnessed by The Man in Black from his captive “breakers” and directed at those maypole threads to damage this ethereal structure that no one can quite reach.
Why does The Man in Black want to bring this thing crashing down?
Fantastic question. Let’s get into that …
The Man in Black may be “worse” than the devil, in Roland’s words, but he is a servant of a being known as the Crimson King. Here, in what appears to be the Dutch Hill house, McConaughey’s sorcerer lovingly runs his hand along some graffiti that reads: “All Hail the Crimson King!”
In Stephen King’s books, the Crimson King was the ultimate evil — a being who was imprisoned within the tower. So, naturally, if you bring down the prison walls, the prisoner is freed. And the Crimson King has many followers, most of them inhuman. Literally — vampires, demons, mutants, fiends of all types.
In the film, gruesome beings known as Taheen disguise themselves in our world as everyday people, with a tell-tale seam running down the side of their face and neck from the masks. We don’t get a clear explanation for who these creatures are, clamoring through the rocky terrain of Mid-World, but they may be the Taheen in their natural form.
Here are Taheen in human guises, defending their home turf — a hive of scum and villainy known as “The Dixie Pig,” which is sort of like an embassy, or a way station, in New York for travelers from other worlds. Mostly sinister beings. Bloodthirsty types.
They love our weapons of war.
But what about another reference to an iconic King monster? Let’s check out the trailer’s homage to Pennywise the Dancing Clown from It…
Consider this a postcard from a gone world.
Jake stumbles through the woods and finds the ruins of an amusement park, but the giant collapsed sign reads “Pennywise House of …”
You can even make out a hand jutting from the dirt, still clutching a bunch of balloons, and the hat from the statue rises from the stream, meaning the face of Pennywise is just below the surface. Just how he likes it.
Where is this sentinel?
Our world? Mid-World? Another place entirely? Although these places are all separate sometimes they bleed into each other. For instance, King’s novels get a little meta, suggesting that all the author’s novels are merely different planes of existence within the tower. That means the plague-ravaged world of The Stand can exist beside It, or The Shining, or any of the other realms without ever intersecting.
The difference is, in the novels they could all be linked. But in the movies … uh, film rights are a taller barrier than anything that protects the tower. Allusions are all you are likely to get. But Arcel promises to expect a lot of them in the margins.
The Man in Black is a perfect example of this.
He goes by many names, including Walter — for those on a first-name basis with absolute evil. But one of those names in King’s books was Randall Flagg, the demonic antagonist who rallies the deplorables of our world (who survive the plague) in The Stand.
Not only did Flagg/Walter/The Man in Black venture into Earth’s level of the tower to enjoy the death, degradation, and chaos of the Captain Tripps super-flu in The Stand, but he has a long, long history with Roland Deschain…
The Man in Black’s history goes back very far, but he hasn’t been anything close to human for a long time. He’s extremely powerful, but not as strong as the Crimson King. Think of him as Darth Vader to the Crimson King’s Emperor.
McConaughey told EW that The Man in Black is basically bored. Not much can kill him, but not much excites him anymore. He wants to bring down the tower and free his master, but progress on that front has been stymied. Jake may be the key to finally making that happen.
But his history also weaves back to the gunslinger’s youth. The character mentions killing everyone who has ever walk alongside Roland. The gunslinger is in a state of perpetual grief over this, but the trailer gives us a single look at a younger gunslinger, before all that.
This flashback moment comes as Roland is talking to Jake about focusing his spirit, and “remembering the face of his father,” which is a term in King’s books for remembering your history, your heritage, and how you were taught. It’s a little on-the-nose, but we also get a look at Roland’s father, played by Dennis Haysbert.
This could be a hint of what’s to come from the TV spin-off version of The Dark Tower that’s in the works. It would focus on Roland’s youth, recasting the Idris Elba role with a teen actor, or someone in his early 20s. But since MRC, Imagine Entertainment, and Sony Pictures are planning the series in tandem with the film, it makes sense that they would cast Haysbert as the king — Steven Deschain.
There are a few other cast revelations from the trailer …
As Roland is making a solemn pledge to Jake to kill The Man in Black, we catch a glimpse of the boy being hugged by his mother, played by Vikings actress Katheryn Winnick.
It’s a safe wager that no good comes to her.
The trailer also presents something else that seems to be trying to embrace Jake, a shifting cloud of scarlet (crimson?) that blossoms suddenly in front of the boy and draws the attention of the gunslinger. This could be a number of different entities, including a succubus that Roland saves the boy from in the first novel. More likely, this is a “thinny,” a place in the fabric of reality that has literally worn thin. It emits a high-pitch song, like the Sirens of myth, and lures people into itself like a venus fly trap.
The trailer doesn’t shy away from the issue of gun violence in America: When Roland asks Jake, “Do they have guns … and bullets … in your world?” the boy dryly replies: “You’re going to like Earth. A lot.” In Roland’s old kingdom, a gunslinger trained relentlessly for the responsibility of carrying irons and fire lead. Here … there aren’t as many questions asked.
There’s also something magical about Roland’s pistols and his ability to wage war — he can fill his chambers with uncanny ease, literally dropping bullets, or whisking his open-cylinders through the air, to reload ammunition.
The final sequence is set in the village of the Manni, a sect of people who still remember the old magic (and the old technology.) They’re spiritualist mechanics — zen and the art of portal maintenance — who know ways to pass from Mid-World back to keystone Earth. Behind Roland is one of the villagers, played by Claudia Kim (Avengers: Age of Ultron.)
When Jake is seized by the Taheen (or whatever this thing is), the wounded Roland takes a breath, allows a drop of blood to fall, isolates the sounds around him, and fires without looking. Not that looking would matter — the bullet cuts through a wall, a laundry line, and some rosemary before striking the creature in the desert.
“I do not aim with my hand. He who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father,” Roland says. “I aim with my eye.”
He goes on: “I do not shoot with my hand. I shoot with my mind.”
And finally: “I do not kill with my gun … I kill with my heart.”
The Dark Tower