Doctor Sleep, 2019.
Written and Directed by Mike Flanagan.
Starring Ewan McGregor, Kyliegh Curran, Rebecca Ferguson, Zahn McClarnon, Bruce Greenwood, Carel Struycken, Cliff Curtis, Emily Alyn Lind, Jocelin Donahue, Nicholas Pryor, Carl Lumbly, Chelsea Talmadge, Selena Anduze, Catherine Parker, Roger Dale Floyd, Kk Heim, Kaitlyn McCormick, Molly Jackson, Sadie Heim, Robert Longstreet, Jacob Tremblay, and Alex Essoe.
Years following the events of “The Shining,” a now-adult Dan Torrance meets a young girl with similar powers as his and tries to protect her from a cult known as The True Knot who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.
The climax of Doctor Sleep takes Danny Torrance (now played by Ewan McGregor as an adult working through the trauma from his childhood, as seen in The Shining, struggling with alcohol addiction and seeking a greater purpose in life) back to the Overlook Hotel (not really a spoiler given it’s all over the advertising) with, as to be expected, nostalgia running wild. The difference here is that writer and director Mike Flanagan (the fright maestro is responsible for the Netflix series Haunting of Hill House and one other Stephen King adaptation already in the underappreciated Gerald’s Game), adapting the 2013 book sequel of the same name, is blending that fan service with chills and substance.
For his entire life (now in his 40s), Danny has wanted to understand his father Jack Torrence (an all-time performance from Jack Nicholson back in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece, regardless of whatever Stephen King thinks about it) and step into his shoes, for better or worse. Apparently, the only way to accomplish that is by getting in touch with his inner darkness; boozing it up, hard drugs, barroom brawls, sleeping around with women and subsequently robbing them). That’s one way to do it, but when Danny is slowly walking through the various iconic corridors and rooms of the Overlook Hotel, it elicits a stranglehold of palpable eeriness for us and ablution for him. Just about every modern mainstream horror movie attempts to invoke this same dread from characters unknowingly stumbling through abandoned and dilapidated buildings, usually failing to muster up an intended reaction. Eventually, Danny reaches the vertical hole in the door that remains from the fire ax Jack tried using to murder the family, approaching the door as his father did, and then peering his head into the broken frame just as his father did (eternally searing the haunting image the minds of everyone).
Yes, it makes for a marketable poster, but Doctor Sleep puts a spin on that groan-inducing hollow one-sheet design by wrapping the context up in thematic richness. The core of the film is about conquering alcoholism, literally releasing the demons locked up inside (a subplot that would probably add another hour and throw off the pacing in a lesser, more recent Stephen King adaptation), opening up who you are to the world (Mike Flanagan excels at world-building regarding the telepathically shining abilities), and finding the inner strength to overcome trauma.
That’s somewhat where the good ends; there are a plethora of new character additions here, including a young teenage girl named Abra with phenomenal shining power that Danny communicates with over the years and winds up having to protect. To the credit of Kyliegh Curran, she is a precocious and brave child worth rooting on. The problem is that everything centered on Danny (specifically any segment involving alcohol abuse or resisting its temptation) is more emotionally investing than what boils down to a good and evil battle between those that want to use that shining for good and an occult dubbed The True Knot that want to harvest those gifted with the power for the sake of immortality and living forever without aging.
Rebecca Ferguson is tasked with playing Rose the Hat, the charismatic leader of this cult, clearly having fun terrorizing and feasting upon children (there are a lot of Pennywise parallels here, with pain giving the consumption a more potent taste and kids giving off more power). Some of her prey also make for intriguing cameos (Room‘s Jacob Tremblay is a promising baseball pitcher, which extends on the concept of shiners having heightened intuition for certain activities). Most satisfying is the juxtaposition between these arrogant lunatics that want to live forever (we come to learn that they have been around for thousands of years) and Danny Torrance who employs the shining to help dying hospital patients cross over to the other side peacefully. Also interesting is a mysterious cat that jumps up to the end of the bed near a patient whenever it is their time to fade away.
However, Doctor Sleep is not a horror film for the first two hours of its running time, but rather a supernatural thriller focused on expanding this universe beyond the Overlook Hotel. Mike Flanagan also has a lot of ground to cover, picking things up where they left off with another depiction of a child Danny, also recasting his mother Wendy (Alex Essoe), and moving forward through multiple time periods. Surprisingly, he is able to move through these early beats without much frustration; there is an eight-years later time skip after Danny first comes into telepathic contact with Abra that feels awkward, but the rest of it carries a nice flow which is always nice to hear for an experience that crosses the 2 1/2 hour threshold. Most unexpected is a straight-up shootout against evil, alongside a dazzling sequence involving these characters diving inside each other’s minds for some imaginative battles. At one point, Rebecca Ferguson is floating high into the night sky with the stars as her background, casually moving across the city below, making for outstanding visuals that further cement Doctor Sleep as a winning concoction of genres rather than an all-out exercise in nightmare fuel.
Don’t fret, there are still plenty of scares. Doctor Sleep builds to unnerving horror with the meaning and catharsis. It might lean a little too hard on nostalgia during the final acts (bits and pieces of The Shining updated look fantastic, but are not necessary and service more of a distraction cutting away to that film), but it’s difficult to deny becoming absorbed. The smallest of characters add to the story, even if the whole doesn’t really come together until it reaches the Overlook Hotel. Here is one Stephen King adaptation, horror movie, sequel, and mainstream experience to let roll around in your mind rather than locking it away. Is it as good as The Shining? Hell no; few things are. Doctor Sleep does, however, justify its existence, which is already a massive victory considering the shoes being filled.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com