The Shining is one of the most iconic films of all time, in horror or any other genre. It is also iconic for how much Stephen King hates it, to the extent that he eventually had to sign a document to the effect that he would no longer publicly excoriate it. But The Shining was only King’s third novel; Doctor Sleep, which would come thirty-six years later, was his 52nd. In 2019, nearly every movie and TV show is based on a Stephen King property, and it is safe to say that he has more clout than he did in 1980. The main thing about King’s The Shining versus Kubrick’s is that they had completely different priorities and, despite their commonalities, they told different stories.
Along comes writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan’s (The Haunting of Hill House) Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, which acts to bridge the gap: it is a sequel to both the book and the film of The Shining. It does well when it sticks to King and flounders a little bit when it comes to Kubrick, but it is a daring film, and more striking than almost any other recent King project this side of TV’s Castle Rock.
39 years after his escape from the Overlook Hotel, Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Robin) is a recovering alcoholic living in the town of Frazier, New Hampshire. When Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran, I Can I Will I Did) is revealed to have a Shine more powerful than Dan has ever experienced, he must act to protect her from a band of psychic vampires called the True Knot lead by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, Men In Black: International), even if that means returning to the place that scarred him.
Doctor Sleep may be a horror film, but McGregor is primed for a character study of the delicate psychological makeup of a man escaping his traumatic childhood, and he opens up a role that was, by design, originally committed to film as reactive. McGregor has possibly never been more personable, and he could carry the movie alone if the rest of the ensemble weren’t so strong. Rebecca Ferguson was born to play villains, and Rose the Hat is no exception. This is a woman who can eat children, wear a hat, and command a death cult with total conviction, thoroughly embodying the role. Ferguson and McGregor come at their parts from opposite directions, but when they meet in the middle Doctor Sleep becomes electric. Curran and Cliff Curtis (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) shore them up as the Frazier Ka-tet, and Carl Lumbly (TV’s Supergirl) is exceptional as Dick Hallorann, but Ferguson and McGregor very firmly have their hands on the wheel.
Doctor Sleep is a remarkably accurate adaptation of its source material, up to a point. It thrills as Flanagan takes us across country on psychic flights shot vertically against the grain, and uses psychic powers in a way that were never a consideration in The Shining. Flanagan has a great sense of atmosphere and stamps the opening sections of the film with his own look and feel. This is a film that takes place across multiple planes of existence, and they are discrete but interlocking. The True Knot, who are more than faintly (and deliberately) ridiculous on the page, seem legitimately threatening on the screen, menacing children and adults alike. Flanagan takes multiple risks; it is not often that you see an Academy Award nominated child actor tortured and murdered on screen, but Doctor Sleep is exactly the movie for that. Everything goes swimmingly until Flanagan is forced to take a detour and grapple with cinematic history.
Given the way that Doctor Sleep is being promoted, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that the third act takes the viewer back to the Overlook Hotel. This is where the film departs dramatically from the source material, and transforms into less of a sequel to Kubrick’s Shining than a tribute. Flanagan’s visual flair is subsumed by Kubrick’s and, like Ready Player One, we are subjected to the deadly lure of nostalgia.
Doctor Sleep is suddenly haunted in a way that it never was before, and scenery from the previous film is painstakingly recreated. There is an undeniable thrill to parts of this new concept, but it is impossible not to feel that the film we’re ending up with has become a chimera, sacrificing the themes that had been so expertly layered into the story for a bombastic finale. Doctor Sleep is at its best when it is not slavish in its tribute to The Shining, so its sacrifices are multiply disappointing, particularly when an entirely new ending is subbed in.
Doctor Sleep was always going to be a tall order, trying to reconcile the worlds of two auteurs whose followers each tend towards very strong opinions. Flanagan has assembled a film of two slightly mismatched parts that try to communicate with each other and can’t quite make it. When Doctor Sleep is, as its poster describes, “Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep”, it hits hard. The parts that reflect a reflection of Kubrick’s potential vision of a future for the Torrance family struggle to make their own mark, and undermine the themes that are supposed to close the loop. Doctor Sleep is 90% of an excellent film, and the rest can be forgiven.
Doctor Sleep opened in Australian cinemas on November 7, 2019.
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis and Carl Lumbly