Doctor Sleep is a strange thing. Part a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film The Shining and part an adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal book The Shining it sits in an awkward spot. See, the film and the book have drastic differences, which led to King being one of the only humans on earth to not like the film. That means that Doctor Sleep not only has to live up to the majority of people’s experience with The Shining (the film) but also function as a sequel to the book.
It also has the crushing weight of being a sequel to one of the greatest horror films ever made. A movie from one of the greatest directors ever that we probably will never see the likes of again and has influenced pop culture for decades. It’s an impossible standard. A standard that Doctor Sleep does not live up to at all but, to be fair, what movie could?
Director: Mike Flanagan
Release Date: November 8, 2019
So how exactly does Doctor Sleep merge together two stories that had the same basic premise but diverged greatly? It cherry picks where it gets its info from mostly, pulling tidbits from the movie then the book but keeping everything that happened in the past as generalities rather than confirmations. No matter which version you’re coming from its undeniable that the events at the Overlook Hotel severely screwed up Dan Torrence’s (Ewan McGregor) life and have led him down a path of ignoring his telepathic gift of the shining and turning to drugs an alcohol.
He finds redemption in a small town in New Hampshire where he is living happily when a young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) reaches out to him through the magic of the shining. Abra is being hunted by a group of demons/humans led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who use the souls (known to them as Steam) of people gifted with the shining to stay alive forever. Dan has no choice but to confront his very literal demons and aid the girl.
As the plot might suggest this isn’t the same kind of movie as The Shining. Far more a supernatural thriller than a psychological horror, the film features gun fights, bloody torture, and all out magic. A character study on insanity and isolation this is not. Nor should it be. The book the movie is based on is much the same as this, less a Stepehn King horror book and more along the lines of his fantastical pieces like The Dark Tower. The problem simply comes from expectations. On it’s own Doctor Sleep is the movie it should be coupled with The Shining audiences run into a hard switch from one genre to the next.
The switch is also one of style as well. Kubrick’s film plays out slowly — very slowly — in a fashion that builds tension and anticipation so expertly that the visuals have become ingrained into our culture’s minds. The movie is full of long, unbroken shots. Filled with disconcerting directorial choices that constantly shake us off balance and finished off with the intense focus of the perfection that Kubrick was. Doctor Sleep is far more straightforward in its direction. Flanagan paces and plots the movie like a thriller not a horror, which he does a solid job of. His direction, when he isn’t paying homage to The Shining, plays out more like a lesson in solid direction than a groundbreaking movie. It’s good, it just isn’t Kubrick good.
It shouldn’t have to be Kubrick good, either. In any other situation it would be easy to compliment Doctor Sleep as an enjoyable adaptation of King’s novels. The problem is that the movie won’t let you forget the original. At every turn Flanagan brings up visual cues or blatant references to the first movie, deciding that duplication is often better than originality. It is quite possibly a good decision — the plot of the story requires a return to the hotel and is he really going to outdo Kubrick? Yet, it forces the viewer to constantly compare the film to the original and it can’t do anything but fail compared to that. It places the film in a tough spot where it’s good on it’s own but a disappointment every time it pushes its connections to the original.
Let’s pretend, however, that the movie separates itself better from its predecessor and we can somehow judge it on its own. Doctor Sleep is an unflinching film and while it might not be scary it is definitely shocking. The movie does not shy away from Dan’s troubles and isolation, nor the violence that Rose the Hat and her followers inflict on children. At one point in the film Dan is visited by the ghost of a mother and baby he is responsible for the death of and at another we are shown the visceral torture of an eleven-year-old child as the Steam is sucked out of him. The violence in this film in raw and the quest for revenge just as raw as well. There’s an interesting, if underdeveloped, streak in the film that questions our heroes tactics as well as he and Abra begin their gruesome retribution against those hunting her.
The film also plays out at a strong clip despite its length, an obvious reversal of Kubrick’s approach but one that makes this movie work. This kind of revenge thriller would not function any other way and the story develops coherently around it, which is say a lot given the amount of world building that the film has to do to make up for the lack of it in The Shining. Demons and ghosts and horrors are 100 percent real this time around the movie needs to go through a lot of set up to establish how this world all works, something it does quite admirably.
It also unpacks its characters quite well too for the kind of movie it is. Dan is a complete and very flawed hero and he’s given enough room to breathe and develop. Abra could feel a lot like a Mary Sue character but she’s played wonderfully by Curran, who imbues the character with a childlike petulance that makes her work. Their interesting characters and the film’s conclusion allows them to be unpacked both in terms of the plot and emotionally — not to mention ironing out some of King’s complaints about the first film.
Yet, that ending is also the perfect example of the film’s biggest issue. It takes place at the Overlook Hotel and is far more about the events of the first film than anything going on in this one. It is the perfect Stephen King ending (the man is a brilliant writer but often falls into formulas he knows work) but not the right conclusion to the first film, which it desperately wants to be. Everything in the last 15 minutes reminds you that this isn’t The Shining and it’s too bad it had to be that way. Without that reminder the film stands on its own quite well; with it the movie seems less than.
That being said, I’m going to offer up two scores here. The official score will be the one that the movie earned itself as a film: 6.5. However, I feel the need to apply a score that takes into account that this is a sequel to The Shining and as such can also be scored in comparison to that film. In that situation the bottom drops out and the score is a 3. You can decide which you believe applies more.