Doctor Sleep (2019)
Dare to go back.
It’s no easy trick to follow up one masterpiece, let alone two, but that is the task that newly minted horror maestro Mike Flanagan, The Haunting of Hill House (2018), has taken upon himself with his latest work.
Doctor Sleep is adapted from the 2013 novel of the same name by Stephen King, which is a continuation of his hugely successful late seventies paperback The Shining. In practice, this means that Flanagan’s movie is a de facto sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining and, seeing as Kubrick was a genuine cinematic genius, Flanagan has set himself up for some potentially unflattering comparisons.
Further complicating matters is that King didn’t actually like Kubrick’s version of his story, effectively disavowing it to the point of penning a more book-faithful (and, frankly, less than great) two-part TV miniseries directed by Mick Garris, essentially an effort to banish Kubrick’s picture from the King Cinematic Canon (it, uh, didn’t work).
So, director Flanagan has the unenviable and complicated job of forging a sequel to two inextricably linked but nonetheless largely antithetical works that must also stand on its own two feet as a discrete film-going experience; after all, the audience needed to push this thing into profitability are not necessarily book readers or connoisseurs of classic horror. That’s a pretty tall order.
Does he pull it off?
Yeah, kinda. Except when he doesn’t. Doctor Sleep the movie is a mixed bag of pop horror goodies, and while it doesn’t add up to as much as I wanted it to, individual elements work a treat.
The film’s success largely hinges on the vulnerable, haunted performance by Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge! (2001), as the now-grown Danny Torrance, who as a little boy struggling to understand his powerful psychic gifts was almost murdered by his father, Jack (Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s film), who was driven mad by the haunted Overlook Hotel (and a tangled recap illustrates this); despite its best efforts, Doctor Sleep really requires familiarity with The Shining.
Now an adult who has lost years to booze and drugs in an attempt to suppress his various psychic visions and apparitions, he cleans up his act after a particularly grim bottoming out, which leaves him in prime position to act as mentor to Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl with abilities even more powerful than Dan’s own gifts. It’s good timing, too, as a coterie of RV-dwelling, quasi-immortal psychic vampires called the True Knot, led by sexy-scary Rose that Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), have made a lifestyle of hunting and killing psychic kids to drink their essence, and Abra is on their radar. And so, having used the word ‘psychic’ way too many times in one paragraph, we proceed from there.
For all the talk that’s been thrown around about Flanagan’s film synthesizing both King and Kubrick’s versions of The Shining, it is plain to see that the Kubrick picture holds greater sway than the King novel here, with Flanagan defaulting to Stanley over Steve whenever there’s some conflict between the two versions. Design elements from Kubrick’s flick are prominent, and flashbacks involving Dan’s parents do their darnedest to ape the earlier movie; Alex Essoe, Starry Eyes (2014), is almost a dead ringer for Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance, and while Flanagan regular Henry Thomas would never be mistaken for Jack Nicholson, he’s dressed and styled to evoke the old hellraiser pretty strongly.
This extends to plot elements as well, most notably in regard to the disposition of the notorious Overlook Hotel: blown up in the novel but abandoned in the film, here it’s still standing in order to serve as the location of Doctor Sleep’s climax.
And that’s all fine, really, but it’s a little jarring to see pastiches of Kubrick’s icy, meticulous film applied to what is a prime example of King’s looser, more self-indulgent late-period work. As a novel, Doctor Sleep sprawls and meanders, taking us through Dan Torrance’s addiction and redemption, lingering on the details of his small but clean sober life, his relationships, while bifurcating the narrative to put us in with Rose’s nomadic and murderous True Knot and their own mythology, identity, and group dynamics.
On-screen, we basically get the Cliff Notes version, and while I imagine condensing King’s doorstopper down to a filmable length, even at a generous 152 minutes, we’re rushing through some areas and dawdling in others. This doesn’t just give the film a weird sense of pace; it also leaves great supporting actors like Cliff Curtis, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019), and Bruce Greenwood, Gerald’s Game (2017), in surprisingly small and thinly written roles (the same can be said for child actor Jacob Tremblay, but we’ll get to him in due time). Even the title is rendered a little nonsensical by the approach taken; Dan gets the nickname when, in his job as a hospice orderly, he uses his powers to help the dying cross over, but while King could spend time on that element, here it’s fairly briefly touched upon, and so the title feels like an artefact of an earlier approach to the material.
But what does survive is worth your attention. McGregor’s portrayal of addiction, anguish, guilt, and redemption is worth the price of admission alone, as he explores territory that both he and King are no strangers to in their own lives, and even when the larger story wobbles we have him and the onscreen chemistry he shares with Curran to keep us anchored. Flanagan has an eye for an arresting image, such as when Rose, projecting her astral self out to sniff out her prey, flies vertically over sleeping rooftops thanks to a camera tilted 90 degrees. Flanagan also gives us an altered ending that is, to my mind, more effective than the novel’s, and certainly more successful and thematically faithful than the wholesale changes wrought on the recent IT duology.
And while Doctor Sleep sits firmly in multiplex-friendly pop horror territory, there are moments that chill. Obviously, the big set-piece is the final confrontation at the Overlook, but the pre-existing cultural weight of that location, combined with Flanagan’s choices to directly mimic Kubrick in much of the execution, blunts its effect to no small degree. Much more unsettling is an earlier scene in which the True Knot (played by, among others, Longmire’s Zahn McClarnon and Twin Peaks’ Carel Struycken) mercilessly torture Jacob Tremblay’s Little Leaguer to death, which might be one of the most upsetting on-screen murders of the year.
Doctor Sleep does not lack for ambition, skill, or passion, but it feels hamstrung, if not terminally so, by the twin legacies it is in thrall to. This is a real curate’s egg of a film, and while horror fans in general and Stephen King fans in particular will find some fun here, it’s a solid effort rather than a modern classic.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson