Despite critical pans on its initial release, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining became one of the most acclaimed horror movies of all time. Much to the chagrin of Stephen King, who wrote the novel the film adapts, and who famously hates the movie. In 2013, 36 years later, King published the sequel, Doctor Sleep. Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of the follow up attempts to reconcile the two conflicting sides and, with reverence for both Kubrick and King, mostly succeeds.
Over the past few years, with the likes of The Haunting of Hill House, King adaptation Gerald’s Game, Hush, and more, Flanagan has established himself as one of the leading voices in horror. He may not dazzle with showy technical flourishes, but what he does is craft tense, creeping dread that centers around well-drawn, fully rendered characters with deep emotion and pathos. Some people call his films workmanlike, but that does him a disservice and undervalues his skill and craft. He puts story and people ate the forefront, directing the hell out of each project without calling attention to himself.
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In reality, Doctor Sleep is probably Flanagan’s showiest work to date. But not necessarily in a, “Hey, look at me,” kind of way, more in the way that he apes Kubrick. The film opens with meticulous recreations of scenes from The Shining—we see a young Danny Torrance roaming the halls of the Overlook, the music cues hearken back to the 1980 film, Flanagan and frequent collaborator, cinematographer Michael Fimognari, move the camera in a way that mimics the earlier work. Beyond these scenes, however, the aesthetic moves away from that, settling into Flanagan’s typical, unaffected style. And damn, does the guy like to peel the skin off of hands.
Near the fantastic climax, the film returns to the recreation well and, in my opinion, this strategy pays off more effectively the second time around. While the early scenes lifted from The Shining are spot on in detail and feel—the production reportedly reused only a single shot from the earlier film—they play more like nostalgia baiting, which is part of the intent. The film finds its own footing once we progress past that. It settles into its own characters and narrative, evolving instead of revisiting what came before. By the time the film circles back, we’re invested in the current story, and though it nods to Kubrick’s film, it’s less imitation, more building on what’s there, adding its own spin and personality.
Where Doctor Sleep is best is when it does the same, building on the existing foundation, but still forging its own path. Where The Shining offers one small slice, a glimpse at a sliver of this reality, the follow up expands the world, the rules, and the mythology, offering up the true scope of King’s realm.
We pick up with a grown Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who has become a derelict, a violent drunk, lashing out much like his father, hiding in a bottle to cope with lingering trauma and to keep the voices in his head at bay. As a whole, the film is an allegory for addiction and recovery and the struggles inherent in staying clean and accepting the trials. We knew Dan, as he’s now known, wasn’t the only one with his particular gift, but when he cleans up, he discovers a bond with young Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who has powers similar to his own.
In true Stephen King form, they’re only part of a sprawling saga. We also meet The True Knot, a travelling hippie circus led by the enigmatic Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). With names like Grandpa Flick (Carel Struyken), Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), and Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), they roam the countryside, hunting children with powers, stealing their “steam,” what they call the Shining, in order to stay forever young—they eat screams and drink pain. They’re akin to a Manson-cult of vampires, needing to feed to survive, nomadic addicts always searching to satiate their hunger. When they set their sights on Abra, the conflict truly begins.
Doctor Sleep takes its time to get there, however pace and tempo aren’t consistent issues. Flanagan luxuriates in the characters, especially Danny and Rose, and that pays off in audience investment and narrative weight. There are moments near the end of the second act there the wheels spin, but for the most part, the film flows with a measured, deliberate stride that allows the layers to develop. It’s not for everyone, but it accomplishes what it attempts.
McGregor delivers a solid performance, even if his accent fluctuates from scene to scene. But Ferguson owns every scene she’s in. Rose is weird and magnetic, but also terrifying and monstrous, dedicated to her flock like a de facto mother figure who will cut you if you try to harm them.
Abra’s thread, however, left me cold. Not Abra herself, she’s a wonderful character. No shrinking violet or scared child-in-peril, she’s tough and capable and startlingly cold-blooded at times. But in a movie with so many characters and through lines, one that already clocks in at more than two-and-a-half hours, her narrative gets the short end of the proverbial stick. We see her in school where everyone thinks she’s a freak, we get glimpses of her parents being afraid of her, and a few instances of her abilities. But the film never fleshes out these elements.
Her classmates think she’s weird, but we don’t see any reason why. Her parents are aware, or at least aware-ish, of her powers, but ignore it and keep her at a distance much of the time. There are potentially interesting pieces in play, but the film doesn’t give them room to develop or add nuance, and it leaves the impression there’s much left on the table. Granted, there’s only so much room, but it’s a missed opportunity.
Outside of the allusions to and lifts from Kubrick, Flanagan’s visual style, as already mentioned, is a kind of lack of blatant style. He has a strong eye, and frames Danny’s attic room as a gaping, gothic space, but it’s unobtrusive and understated. The same can’t always be said for the sound design.
There’s often a pulse laid over the action, a heartbeat to drive home the fact that structures and especially places are alive in their own way. It’s an effective flourish, but at times it als becomes oppressive. That’s the obvious goal, to create an immersive soundscape, but it crosses a line into headache-inducing. (In a literal sense, at one point I almost had to leave because every throb created a stabbing pain behind my eye.)
Fans of The Shining, whether Stanley Kubrick’s and Stephen King’s—as well as fans of Mike Flanagan, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ewan McGregor—will find a great deal to celebrate in Doctor Sleep. It can be overwrought at times, and you feel the length in certain spots, but overall it’s an effective, engrossing horror film that adds new texture, depth, and wrinkles to something you already love. [Grade: B]