It’s a tall order to attempt a sequel to THE SHINING, one of the all-time greatest horror movies. Still, if author Stephen King could do it and deliver a novel acclaimed by both critic and reader alike, then Hollywood was sure to follow. Pleasingly, the film version of his bestseller DOCTOR SLEEP honors its source material and lands as a serious-minded horror film. Of course, it doesn’t come close to Stanley Kubrick masterpiece version of THE SHINING, but it does manage to deliver a shrewd homage, as well as a solid frightener on its own due to the care of talented writer/director Mike Flanagan at the helm.
Flanagan has earned his horror bona fides with sharp efforts like the films OCULUS and GERALD’S GAME. His best work was Netflix’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, a miniseries so popular it’s returning in 2020. In DOCTOR SLEEP, Flanagan tackles another spooky house – this time is the Overlook Hotel from THE SHINING – and juggles plenty of ghosts both in front of the camera and behind it.
The ghosts in front of the camera are the ones that 8-year-old Danny Torrance still faces after he thwarted his dad’s attempts to kill him with an ax at the Overlook. He may have outsmarted him in that wintry maze on the grounds, but the poltergeists from the hotel still come calling on him in his new life in Florida with his mom. Overlook cook Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly, taking over the role from the deceased Scatman Crothers) helps his fellow ‘shiner’ use his psychic powers to compartmentalize those evil spirits, but that troubled past takes a toll on Danny. He grows up to be a drunken adult, and when the story flashes forward decades, Dan (Ewan McGregor) is now a homeless drifter, at war with a host of new demons – the bottle and his temper.
As for the ghosts behind the camera, Flanagan must deal with the looming shadow of legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Wisely, Flanagan fully embraces many of Kubrick’s bits from THE SHINING, everything from the production design to camera angles, preferring not to reinvent the wheel. The Overlook Hotel bookends the movie, and it’s a lot of fun to revisit such haunts, but Flanagan’s greater accomplishments lie within the new parts in between.
They start with Dan working his way to sobriety in a small town under the guidance of new friend and employer Billy Robinson (Cliff Curtis). Dan learns to live a quiet, humble life with the help of Robinson and AA, and yet his psychic powers still upset the apple cart. Dan develops a relationship with a new chum in his psychic network named Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran). She’s a powerful 11-year-old shiner who empathically experiences the real-time murder of a fellow shiner (Jacob Tremblay). A vampire-esque pact of shiners known as “The Knot” kill the 12-year-old boy to feast on his powers released as steam from his dying body. Abra feels his pain and Dan feels hers.
The Knot becomes quasi-immortal through such acts, almost like the steam is a fountain of youth. And during that most recent killing, the cult leader Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) senses both Abra and Dan psychically watching them from afar. Soon enough, she and her brood go after the two, hoping to feast on them as well. It’s kind of silly, watching this misfit brood such steam out like it’s marijuana smoke, but director Flanagan knows how to make such malarkey play.
He’s especially fortunate to have Ferguson in the villain role. A scene-stealer from her last two appearances in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise, the comely actress makes for a fantastic earth-momma baddie here. She combines hippie sexuality with an intense, unblinking scowl to make for a truly memorable antagonist. Rose is both a flower child and Manson girl in a jaunty top hat.
McGregor excels too in his mostly reactive role. He’s become one of the best everymen onscreen, doing superb work as duped protagonists in material like this as well as stellar turns in THE GHOST WRITER and the third season of FARGO on FX too. Curran and Curtis do sharp work too, as does most of Rose’s band of bandits, particularly Emily Alyn Lind as Snakebite Andi. She is a dominant presence in the first half of the movie and the film loses some of its verve when her character recedes.
Flanagan never lets the far-fetched aspects of the story feel silly, not even when the shiners psychically fly about the world to find their prey. THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE proved that he knows how to direct set-pieces without losing the sense of character, and he balances the fantastic with the more grounded moments well throughout. The filmmaker also scores points for not shirking away from the nastier elements in King’s book, including the vicious killing of that young boy. It’s horrible to watch onscreen and should be, cementing the villainy of “The Knot” as well as the stakes of the plot.
Where Flanagan flails some is when the story returns to the boarded-up Overlook for the final showdown. Inevitably, Dan and Abra must face off against Rose, and while it’s exciting, it plays so much upon memories of THE SHINING that it can’t help but come up short. And while he faithfully recreated so much of that film, it doesn’t quite play to have new actors portraying the iconic roles essayed by Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall. Actor Henry Thomas (E.T., THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE) gives Papa Torrance a game try but it falls somewhere between good effort and satire. There’s simply too much of the character, but then again, there was too much of him in King’s literary sequel as well.
The title DOCTOR SLEEP stands for the nickname Dan gets while working as an orderly who helps patients give in to death through his suggestive psychic abilities. He helps them think of it as “the big sleep.” Such scenes here add an unexpected poignancy to the material that was not in THE SHINING, either the book or film. Perhaps that could have been a story unto itself, one that didn’t require the machinations of attempting a sequel. In those moments, and others where this film is more original, DOCTOR SLEEP shines its brightest.