If remaking a classic movie is the worst idea, an unnecessary sequel is a close second. Sometimes it’s just better to leave well enough alone. And while that may be your first reaction when you think about Doctor Sleep, a sequel to both Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, check that sentiment right now. Doctor Sleep may not be “necessary,” per se, but it’s highly engaging and entertaining on almost every level, and that makes it absolutely worthwhile.
Doctor Sleep tells the story of a grown-up Danny Torrance. You know, the young boy from The Shining whose father, Jack, went crazy with an ax in the Overlook Hotel. Stephen King wrote The Shining in 1977 and Stanley Kubrick adapted it in 1980, but Kubrick made so many changes to the text, King was famously not a fan of the film. In subsequent years though, two things happened: Kubrick’s film got way more famous than the book it was based upon and King wrote a sequel novel, called Doctor Sleep.
Enter Mike Flanagan, who wrote, edited, and directed Doctor Sleep. Flanagan (who recently had a huge hit with Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House and has a long history with horror) decided to take King’s book and twist it just enough so it stays true to the source material, but also satisfies fans of the film. It’s a delicate balance, to be sure, but one that absolutely works. Maybe too well.
Torrance is played by Ewan McGregor and, for the first act of the film, we see that he hasn’t had a great life since the whole Overlook experience. Much like his father, Danny is now a violent alcoholic, and it’s not until he hits rock bottom and moves to New Hampshire to straighten out his life that he can begin to deal with the demons that have haunted him since he was a child.
Meanwhile, two other stories unfold in the film. First is that of Abra, played by newcomer Kyliegh Curran. Abra is a young girl who, like Danny, has the ability to “shine”—meaning, do things with her mind. Without anyone to explain it to her, though, she’s very unsure about her place in the world. Then there’s Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) who leads an evil group called True Knot. They’re kind of spiritual vampires who live extraordinarily long lives by feasting on the “steam” of people who “shine.” Basically, they suck the special out of them until the person dies and, in the process, live for centuries.
Okay, movie reviews should not have that much exposition. Seriously, what am I doing? But for Doctor Sleep, it’s all absolutely crucial. That means, much like this review, the film takes a good long while to set everything up. And, also like this review, it gets a tiny little tedious. Information is layered on top of more information and there are so many plates spinning there’s a chance everything could go horribly wrong. Thankfully, it doesn’t.
Once all the pieces are set, Doctor Sleep starts to soar. Rose, Abra, and Danny’s stories begin to intersect and hint at an eventual showdown. All the while, we get to watch strong performances by McGregor, Ferguson, and Curran, as well as their supporting actors (which include the likes of Cliff Curtis, Jacob Tremblay, Bruce Greenwood, and more) keep this fantastical story grounded and relatable even as they engage in what is basically mental warfare with a supernatural twist.
The key to that, of course, is Danny. McGregor plays him as a guarded but capable, reluctant hero. Danny doesn’t want to shine anymore. He doesn’t want to get involved. The most he’ll do is help his hospice patients peacefully pass away, hence the film’s title. But once he gets wind of Abra and Rose, Danny starts to evolve, grow, and eventually face his demons head-on. It all leads to a truly magnificent third act.
The biggest difference between King and Kubrick’s Shinings is the fate of the Overlook Hotel itself. King’s book burns it to the ground and Kubrick’s film leaves it standing. Since more people know the film, Flanagan uses the Overlook as a location, and he employs every trick in the book to give fans of The Shining goosebumps the entire way. From borrowing Kubrick’s music to his shot composition, set dressing, everything, Flanagan reinvents the hotel in a way that feels true not just to Kubrick, but this story.
From the very beginning of the movie, Flanagan doesn’t hide his intentions to crib from The Shining. The Warner Bros. logo before the film plays The Shining score and he cast actors to play the Torrances from the original film. In these flashbacks, it becomes abundantly clear how important reconciling those events is to Danny’s character development. And when it all comes to a head along with Abra and Rose? Holy shit. I get chills just thinking about it. On the other hand, I’m a sucker for that kind of nostalgia and there’s absolutely an argument to be made that Flanagan relies a bit too much on Kubrick’s film. Love it or hate it, you have to respect how well it works narratively.
Though if you were hoping for some big scares in this horror follow-up you may be disappointed as Doctor Sleep is never particularly scary. It’s fascinating, moody as hell, and cover-your-eyes gory at times, but that pure dread you’ve come to expect from the Overlook doesn’t quite permeate the film as much as you’d hope. The whole thing plays more like a solid, psychological thriller than a horror movie. Which is fine, but perhaps different from Flanagan’s intention.
And yet, that disconnect may come from a positive place: Rebecca Ferguson’s performance as Rose. Rose may be one of the most sinister villains King ever created and yet Ferguson plays her with such charisma and charm, it’s difficult not to fall in love with her. Which dials down the scary a bit, but sucks you deeper into her web of deceit and makes her beyond evil deeds that much more shocking and rewarding.
Those minor knocks aside, Doctor Sleep tells a complex, interesting story, filled with even more dynamic characters, set in a rich world that surprises as much as it strokes your nostalgia. No, it’s not as strong as The Shining, but you can say that about basically every single movie ever made. Instead, Doctor Sleep carves out its own niche. One of wonder, tension, and satisfaction. We think you’ll like it.
Doctor Sleep opens November 8.
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