Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.
I wouldn’t say The Shining connection is an out-and-out hindrance to Doctor Sleep, in that it can operate as a useful shorthand when we’re interrogating the traumas and buried history of Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), but there are times where there’s an “Overlook tourism” vibe to the flashbacks and reconjured characters and images that wouldn’t look out of place in Ready Player One. And yet, while the picture builds to a climax taking place in the iconic hotel (destroyed at the end of King’s The Shining), this section resists becoming a routine run-around, for all the visual homaging Flanagan indulges.
If there’s a flaw here – and there certainly is in other aspects of the movie – it’s that it can’t help encourage the feeling that less is more. Less shots of the gnarly old naked lady of Room 237. Less elevators of blood. And less flashbacks: at one point, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) advances up the stairs towards axe-wielding Dan, taunting him, and he retreats. Your mind instantly goes to the similar scene with his mother and Jack. But then, Flanagan choses to show us a clip from that scene, puncturing the trust it puts in the viewer to make the connection.
Elsewhere during the finale, though, there are several strong episodes, such as the hotel waking up as Dan tours it, and the mind maze trapping Rose. The standout scene occurs between Dan and his dad/the Bartender, played by Henry Thomas – which is funny, because I’d been thinking before he showed up that he’d have been an appropriate, less starry choice for Dan – and hits all the right notes, quietly distilling the various themes of abuse and suppression over a proffered whisky.
It is, accordingly, much more effective than any spurious jump scares. Which isn’t to say Flanagan goes overboard in that department either, but pointing out there will be those saying the picture isn’t scary, and it isn’t, very, but it is atmospheric, and quite thoughtful in places, and so deserves credit for pursuing the most appropriate treatment of the material.
However. On the face of it, the premise and motivation of Doctor Sleep’s antagonists do the more psychologically astute original a disservice, forfeiting the deterioration of the antagonist/ protagonist’s mind for lesser, more visceral and overtly supernatural waffle. Certainly, there isn’t very much that’s inspired about Rose the Hat and her followers, the True Knot, who prey on children who “shine” in order to syphon off their essence (“steam”) and so garner vastly extended lifespans.
There are perhaps allusions, at one point, to broader conspiratorial rumblings regarding the Elite and their purported penchant for child sacrifice, when Dan is dissuasive over the suggestion of going to the authorities as the True Knot are rich and doubtless have powerful connections.*
However, their actual machinations are entirely rudimentary. Worse, Flanagan makes an entirely gratuitous fumble in his decision to show the graphic extended murder of one of their victims (Jacob Tremblay). I’ve previously referred to Bruce Robinson’s principled approach to depicting the endangerment of children on screen, and it generally seems like a good yardstick. Flanagan could quite easily have got the message across in this sequence in a less explicit manner, but instead risks turning the audience off the picture entirely. At least, it took me a while to re-engage with Doctor Sleep subsequently.
Chronologically, the movie makes several leaps, from 1980, to 2011 to 2019, so it’s to Flanagan’s credit that these pass relatively seamlessly. Sure, you’re aware of the performative facsimiles of young Danny (Roger Dale Floyd) and Wendy (Alex Essoe, whose lower lip trembling is almost too good a copy of Shelley Duvall), and there’s never a sense that McGregor is in any way an older version of either this Danny or his Shining incarnation.
But the character through line, and McGregor’s dedication to the role, provide compensation. Dan’s struggle with alcoholism, like-father-like-son, sins of the fathers etc – also resulting from King pondering the question of what would have happened to Jack Torrance if he’d found AA – is familiar but understated, as Dan transitions from so derelict you can almost smell him to, in the eight-year time lapse, reformed and in recovery, and a relied-upon facilitator to the dying as a hospice worker.
It’s the kind of role that suits McGregor, operating on a level of reserved sincerity, and his distance friendship with fellow shine Abra (Kyliegh Curran) is easy and natural; admittedly, the point where Dan pulls out a gun and, with pal Cliff Curtis, starts picking off members of the True Knot is a less likely development, albeit also very satisfying cathartically.
Curran is a note perfect and entirely comfortable with carrying significant portions of the picture. Indeed, some of the best scenes involve Abra’s altered-state interactions with Rose, during which the extent of the former’s powers are revealed. Flanagan’s visual touches manage to be striking but not so much that they’re distracting, from the tilting floor sending the shine catapulting into the astral to Rose taking off over the world to find Abra, in a particularly fine depiction of lucid dreaming. It’s only when he’s aping the original that his visual repertoire begins to feel on the derivative side.
Doctor Sleep’s move from hunted to hunters is effective, so much so that it’s a rare film in recent memory where the second half is undoubtedly superior to the first. I wasn’t entirely convinced by several of the plot choices, notably the need to exhume the boy’s body so Abra could have his mitt and thus gain a fix on the True Knot (it seemed to me that her powers were sufficiently extensive anyway, and I sometimes had the impression they waxed and waned according to the demands of the scene).
The showdown at the Overlook is more in Flanagan’s House on Haunted Hill wheelhouse – for my money, this is a more satisfying exercise, given how he fell at the last hurdle there – although, I have to admit I wasn’t entirely convinced of the need for Dan’s final act of self-sacrifice. It felt like the type of thing this kind of narrative does because it’s expected, rather than because such an exit is earned (I note this differs from King’s novel, which makes for a bit of a filmic dead end should he decide to expand Dan’s journey into a trilogy).
Admittedly, it provides a neat bookend to the amended relationship with Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly as an effective recasting of Scatman Crothers), whereby Dan, now passed beyond, continues a mentor role with Abra, but neatness isn’t everything (likewise, having an earlier scene play out with Dan as a possessed Jack with an axe, threatening Abra, felt like a reference too far).
Doctor Sleep may be two-and-a-half-hours long, but it rarely overextends itself; even the Overlook finale, which begins when most pictures are wrapping it up, doesn’t outstay its welcome. And there are supporting elements adding to the overall flavour. The True Knot aren’t interesting enough to devote vast swathes of time to, but the induction of shining paedophile hunter Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), in Alison Lohman Matchstick Men mode by way of Hard Candy, provides a curious flip, but for the flipping of her morals being so, well, flippant. And Dan’s role as facilitator of the dying has an air of The Green Mile about it; in some respects, you’d almost like a movie just about him and the psychic cat, except that it probably wouldn’t be terribly interesting.
I’d by no means call Doctor Sleep a first-tier King, but it’s the most satisfying of recent movies of his work. It’s arguable that following up on Danny Torrance makes for an unnecessary addendum that can only detract from the original, yet I don’t think this film ultimately diminishes The Shining any more than 2010: The Year We Make Contact does 2001: A Space Odyssey. That might be a good point of comparison, actually; neither arises from sequel material equal to the original, and neither has been turned into a movie nearly matching the original, but taken on their own, each has considerable merit.
*Addendum 08/08/22: Indeed, it’s impossible to look at this now and conclude other than adrenochrome.