In an era where the definition of “classic” is debated by different factions to a point of meaninglessness, it is hard to think of a film more unanimously awarded the title than Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece The Shining. A pop culture icon in almost every sense, The Shining is most people’s first choice when told to think of a horror movie, thanks to its creepy imagery, excessive performances, and its story of people going mad when forced into isolation. In fact, possibly the only person to dislike the adaptation of Stephen King’s famous novel is, ironically, King himself. King so hated the film’s portrayal of his troubled, but sympathetic characters that he wrote a sequel to the novel in 2013, titled Doctor Sleep, just to rewrite the legacy. When the film was optioned a few years ago for a film adaptation, King wanted a director who was capable of honoring the 1980 classic, but would also adhere to his own set of rules and themes – thus the hiring of rising horror legend and Haunting of Hill House scribe Mike Flanagan. The end result is as messy as its inception. For while the film has some interesting ideas and imagery, it is clear that there are too many cooks in the oven between Kubrick, Flanagan, and King to make for a visionary achievement like its predecessor.
After escaping the Overlook Hotel in 1980, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) lives a hard life. While the ghost of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) teaches him how to trap the ghosts of the Overlook inside the boxes of his Shining (his telekinetic abilities, for those who don’t remember what the phrase actually means), the trauma he endured at the hands of the ghosts and his own father have left him terrified, as well as an alcoholic like his father before him. He eventually finds solace working at a hospice center, helping those preparing to die and using his abilities to comfort them as they pass on. However, despite his attempts to put the past behind him, he is forced to reconnect with his trauma when Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl gifted with The Shining who has mentally reached out to Dan throughout the years, discovers the True Knot, a group of quasi-vampires who travel throughout the U.S. brutally murdering those who Shine and feasting upon their souls. Pursued by the True Knot and their leader, Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), Dan and Abra must find a place where they will be safe from this new source of evil – even if it means confronting an evil from the past, that wants them to stay with them forever…and ever…and ever…and ever…
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the film is that, at the end of the day, it just doesn’t mean anything. Thematically speaking, Doctor Sleep just feels light throughout. While the original touched on something feral, tackling the darkness inside humanity, toxic masculinity, isolation, and the cyclical nature of violence, Doctor Sleep just deals with…magic? There’s really nothing to Sleep’s story that elevates the material beyond a stereotypical supernatural thriller. Occasionally, the film hints at the effects of alcoholism or the realities of child abuse, but outside of these allusions, the film refuses to perform a deep dive into the material. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a film choosing to forego depth in its filmmaking – lots of films are great because they embrace escapist thrills over emotional heft. However, what’s frustrating here is that not only is the film automatically granted this responsibility by virtue of its predecessor, but the material has emotional weight built into its very premise. From the get-go, we are aware of Danny’s current battles with alcoholism, as we see him stumbling between fights, booze, drugs, and flings. It’s clear to anyone who has read The Shining or seen the film that Danny is continuing the traits that corrupted and killed his father Jack, and yet the film barely cares about this connection. It chooses not to mention or explore Jack’s alcoholism until the halfway point, and what’s more, it makes Dan fully sober from the first act. In fact, once he gets on the wagon, alcohol does not play a factor in his life from the remainder of the runtime. The only commentary the film offers on this subject is that by actively avoiding drinking, Dan manages to maintain his goodness, unlike his father (a notion later ignored, but I digress). By choosing to punt on thematic substance, Doctor Sleep loses much of the momentum and strength that made the saga so intriguing.
Also frustrating about the filmmaking is the sense of obviousness around the whole ordeal. While King novels and adaptations have always possessed a certain air of blatancy, they usually contain enough surprises and suspension of expectations to shock and entertain. Doctor Sleep is a film with the message “the world will eat you alive” where the villains literally try to eat people alive. It is the type of film where we are forced to listen to long monologues to explain things we have already deciphered for ourselves. When we meet young Bradley Trevor (Jacob Tremblay), a tween baseball player who shines, we are subjected to an entire monologue where a grown man in the stands declares, “It’s like this kid can read the pitcher’s mind! One of these days, someone’s gonna catch wind of Brad there.” Not only does this telephone the already-obvious notion that Brad shines, it also instantly marks him for death – as represented in showing a 12-year-old boy with the face of an angel walking along an abandoned Iowa cornfield, as if any parent would allow this to happen. And in the worst case of obvious storytelling, the film shows the characters recoiling from the smell of death, before forcing the audience to listen to an extended monologue about death and its stench. The film had already established what this smell was through context clues – we don’t need characters to wax poetic about something we already know.
It’s hard to tell where this predictability and obtuse storytelling comes from. I’m tempted to blame Flanagan, but there are so many Kingisms that I don’t think the blame can rest wholly at their feet. While King is a master storyteller on the page, a lot of his more whimsical ideas don’t exactly translate to the screen. Some ideas just lack follow-through, such as the notion that souls leave the body in puffs of smoke, but only sometimes. Other ideas work in book form, but not on film – for example, naming your protagonist who likes magic and is magic “Abra.” And other ideas emphasize King’s worst “Old Man Screams At Cloud” traits; while it is interesting commentary that the world of 2019 consists of less shiners, the entire subplot is explained away as “a side affect of those pesky cell phones and Netflix accounts.” Ok Boomer. And then there are examples of his laziest, most extreme traits. For example, King lovers are treated to Beloved Author #24684913 – although I guess he’s a black author this time. And in case you are curious if King has improved at writing female characters, take a gander at Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), a True Knot member who wants to remain a fifteen-year-old girl forever, uses her abilities of hypnosis to seduce pedophiles and murder them, and is weirdly sexualized but never overtly that uses every scene to scream at the top of her lungs “A MAN WROTE MY ENTIRE PLOT!” King is a talented writer and visionary storyteller, but like his contemporaries (Sorkin, Tarantino, etc.), when his worst instincts are boiled into a hard concentrate, it is hard to look away.
However, despite all of this, there’s a lot to appreciate in Doctor Sleep, thanks both to its construction and to Flanagan’s steady hand. And I’m not just talking about a rich villain with great style and wearing a top hat, even though that’s an immediate thumbs up from me. Flanagan fills the film with interesting ideas, scenes and visuals that astound, impress, and emotionally affect. There are moments of every shape and size that will stick with you long after leaving the theater. Moments like a fly crawling across a dead woman’s eye, Danny comforting a man in his dying moments, or the chilling, discomforting moment where Tremblay’s Bradley Trevor is brutally murdered (it’s horrible to watch and yet so well-acted). There’s a terrific moment where Dan and Abra see each other for the first time that weirdly possesses an emotional weight beyond most of the film. And I really dig the inclusion of Dick Hallorann as Dan’s conscience. But perhaps most important of all, Doctor Sleep is refreshingly enough of its own thing. While there are essential and vital callbacks and allusions to The Shining, the film is strong enough to stand on its own without resting on the laurels and ‘member berries of its predecessor. That being said, when the film does call back to Danny’s past, it is through interesting, spine-tingling allusions that will make you smirk in your seat, no matter how dumb or ridiculous they might be. For example, there’s absolutely no reason for Abra to know that Danny used to refer to murder as “Redrum,” but when she psychically cracks the word into Danny’s chalkboard wall, it’s still haunting to see all these years later. Allusions consistently pop up throughout, never overstaying their welcome and providing just enough thrills to justify their existence. Whether it’s Tony, a typewriter, a specific coat and shirt combo, or an axe, each reference serves as an Easter egg for fans of the original without overplaying its hand. And even when the film offers up a cheap recreation, or gilds its own lily by replaying classic scenes, the film will still provide movie magic in the form of the Overlook’s lights magically turning on by themselves. While Doctor Sleep is flawed, it is not irredeemably so.
As for the filmmaking, the normally low-budgeted Flanagan’s control is somewhat all over the board. There are several inspiring choices, particularly the use of the iconic score combined with a traditional, almost Kino quality cinematography. Flanagan also uses eerie filmmaking to elicit pure, inescapable dread, thanks to practical effects (mostly), well-placed creepy shots like spoons on the ceiling, and ideas of child abuse to create an eerie ambiance. And whenever we grow weary of the obnoxious, overlong plot, Flanagan throws in a moment of weirdness, like a mental battle between Rose the Hat and Abra. At the end of the day, this is Flanagan’s film, not Kubrick’s, and Flanagan can stage terror with the best of them. But that being said, there are significant issues with the filmmaking. The biggest setback with the film is in its script, editing, and pacing issues. No matter how you slice it, Doctor Sleep is just too long. It takes almost forty minutes to get to the actual story. And what’s more, you can efficiently and effectively cut the first forty minutes and change nothing. Almost 70% of the film is filler. There is nothing more frustrating than a film where you can physically see where the cuts are necessary, and can effectively make those changes, and yet the film goes on. This is a 150-minute film that could have told the same story better in 110 or less. And no matter how effective the film may be, and no matter how many clever tricks the director pulls, lazy editing is a surefire way to drag your film down into the fiery pits of failure.
As for the acting, most of the performers show up in one way or another. Ewan McGregor struggles to find his groove as Dan, but thanks to his talents as an actor, he manages to find his stride in several later scenes, including his moments with they dying man and with Curran. Curran meanwhile, is an impressive, likable lead, but mostly feels like a way to progress the story than a fully fleshed character. I’m more excited to see where this young actress goes with her career than with her performance in this film. The real hero of this movie, meanwhile, is Rebecca Ferguson. Ferguson is having the time of her life playing the villainous Rose the Hat, milking every scene she’s in with her seductive, yet unearthly body movements and hypnotizing gaze. Hell, her opening scene set on a Floridian beach is closer to Pennywise and the terror of It than either of the recent adaptations of said novel. She may be one of the best Stephen King villains ever put on film. In terms of Danny’s friends and mentors, Carl Lumbly does a solid Scatman Crothers impression, while Cliff Curtis continues his string of excellent performances in disappointing roles. As for the True Knot, I appreciated Emily Alyn Lind’s performance in spite of her material, and would gladly have watched a whole film surrounding Carel Struycken’s otherworldly Grandpa Flick. And while I won’t comment on their roles or performances, I appreciated Henry Thomas’ and Alex Essoe’s ability to resemble their counterparts without resorting to mimicry.
At the end of the day, Doctor Sleep is just a missed opportunity. There are so many great moments, both original and spiritually connected to The Shining, and yet they don’t add up to a compelling story. This is a Flanagan film with Stephen King roots trying to be Stanley Kubrick, and it should have settled for being one of those three. It is a film in need of an identity, and more importantly an editor. I can’t wholeheartedly condemn it, because I loved seeing the Overlook Hotel one more time, and the things Flanagan’s mind comes up with do thrill me. But I cannot exactly endorse it, either. Doctor Sleep is the equivalent of the photograph at the end of The Shining: it asks more questions than it answers and just confounds and irritates those who desire closure.