Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Ewan McGregor
Redefining for yourself what constitutes family is a large part of Doctor Sleep. the belated follow-up to both Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Those two precursors are famously divergent. King hated Kubrick’s film, which is widely regarded as one of the horror masterpieces. Kubrick altered the focus of the story, and diverged wildly from the source.
Flash forward nearly 40 years (gulp), and its curious that King has wholesale championed Mike Flanagan’s film of Doctor Sleep – which wrestles constantly with having two masters, and once again careers off book once its done setting up its stall.
Flanagan has become one of the safest bets in popular horror, hitting home-runs at the cinema with the likes of Oculus and superior-prequel Ouija: Origin of Evil, while also gathering praise for his Netflix miniseries The Haunting Of Hill House. He’s developed a particular style – glossy but character driven – and Doctor Sleep sees that established aesthetic reconfigured into a 150 minute homage to Kubrick. It’s a blend that works surprisingly well.
Flanagan takes screenplay duties here, too, and makes efficient work of getting Doctor Sleep going. The book stumbles out of the gate, struggling to cross the void of time from where we were to where we’re headed. Flanagan’s film makes this transition a little more palatable and he nestles into a comfortable groove, setting up the story’s disparate characters.
Ewan McGregor takes over the task of playing Dan Torrance, now an alcoholic drifter, doing his best to mask his gift with an endless hangover. Realising he’s hit bottom, he holes up in a picturesque northern town, gratefully taking on the charity of strangers. Elsewhere, a nomadic tribe of creatures who call themselves the True Knot are corralled by their mesmeric leader Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). They feed on humans with ‘the shining’ – though they call this food ‘steam’. A third story strand focuses on a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who is learning the extent of her own supernatural powers… and finding herself targeted by the True Knot as their food supplies dwindle. She reaches out across the dark… and finds Dan.
Where The Shining hemmed its characters in, using The Overlook Hotel as its terrifying lockbox, Doctor Sleep sprawls across the United States, carving out a new niche, cross-pollinating the horror film with the road movie. It makes sense. Both hero and villain here are lost souls, wandering with no fixed abode. Dan finds community with an AA group, while Rose has the ‘Knot. There’s a balanced theme of salvaging yourself, and protecting what you have left.
Abra’s relationship to Dan – initially a psychic nexus aided by a blackboard wall in Dan’s apartment – becomes familial. She calls him ‘Uncle Dan’ to avoid suspicion, pointedly folding into the theme of reconstituted family. With Dan and Abra united against the True Knot, the two factions start circling one another, and Flanagan leans hard on the metronomic heartbeat that underscored much of Kubrick’s film. Warner Bros. have produced here again, and there’s a concerted push to link the two titles, visually and otherwise.
There’s some exceptional casting work, particularly within the ‘Knot itself with the likes of Zahn McClarnon, Carel Struycken and Emily Alyn Lind fleshing out the psychic vampires into a group that recalls Kathryn Bigelow’s clan of monsters in Near Dark. Elsewhere young Room star Jacob Tremblay is gifted a particularly gruesome cameo, and its always a pleasure to see the likes of Jocelin Donahue, Carl Lumbly and Alex Essoe in the mix. Ferguson is the movie’s MVP, however. Her Rose is a deliciously devilish woman, and a sequence in which she uses astral projection to search for Abra marks a clear technical highlight and a creative high-water mark in fantasy cinema this year.
But The Overlook Hotel looms large over the picture. In King’s book of The Shining, the hotel is destroyed, decimated in a boiler blast. It’s no longer there, and the third act of Doctor Sleep (the novel) takes place near its grounds but scurries up new resources for effective thrills. For Flanagan, however, deferring to Kubrick’s timeline, revisiting old haunts proves too much to resist. The technical recreation is as pleasing – in a sense – as that seen in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, but it knocks the picture into a different sensibility, closer to indulgent fan service. Here, knowledge of the text takes away from the viewing experience – Flanagan’s is a far weaker, more pedestrian climax. That sense of seismic shrug is given form in the movie, when Rose nonchalantly walks away from the famous elevator full of blood.
There are other little narrative frustrations that suggest more ruthless pruning would’ve benefited the project (why set up Bruce Greenwood’s doctor if you’re not going to pay him off later? Dan’s role as ‘Doctor Sleep’ the orderly is also left barely relevant), but these feel like the niggles of those who bemoan “oh the book was better” and walk away.
Isn’t this what King himself has been doing to Kubrick ever since 1980?
This film is an ungainly beast, but – looking beyond its inconsistencies and awkward ending – I’m still incredibly happy to have it in the world. It’ll be one to fondly return to. Like The Green Mile from 1999, this is a leisurely love letter to Stephen King’s craft as a storyteller. An exceedingly handsome film that casts a spell with its methodical pacing and autumnal fixation with the dead and the dying. “We’re all dying,” Dan Torrance says at one point. Doctor Sleep is about huddling close to those who keep you warm in the meantime, and worrying about threats from within and without.