Mike Flanagan’s sequel to The Shining doesn’t just do justice to its predecessor – it’s one of the best Stephen King adaptations of recent years, a genuine horror epic sure to cement its director’s reputation as a horror auteur.
One of King’s most popular novels and the basis for the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film, The Shining was a claustrophobic tale of a troubled writer driven mad while wintering in the stately yet sinister Overlook Hotel. Throughout the narrative, his young son Danny acted as a harbinger of his demise, tormented by the hotel’s many ghosts as well as vivid premonitions of murder and madness.
Based on the recent King novel of the same name, Doctor Sleep takes place nearly forty years after Jack Torrance tried to chop up his family with a fire-axe. The film focuses on a now-adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), still traumatized by the events at the Overlook and struggling to cope with his distressing psychic powers.
He has an unlikely mentor in the ghost of Dick Hallorann, the similarly gifted chef who died rescuing Danny from his father. (“You just wandered into my kitchen one day, and I’m still on the hook!” the dead man chastises him.)
Of course, Danny isn’t the only one with “the shining.” According to the film, there are thousands of people in the world with traces of extrasensory powers, some so subtle that they don’t even realize themselves. After building a new life in small-town New Hampshire, Dan befriends a young girl whose telekinetic and telepathic abilities are even stronger than his. When she finds herself targeted by the True Knot, a travelling cabal of semi-immortal psychics who feed off supernaturally-gifted children, Dan must risk his life and sanity to save her.
The action culminates in a mind-bending showdown at the now-abandoned Overlook Hotel, where blood still flows from the elevators and Kubrick’s twin ghosts are still looking for someone to play with. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, these call-backs may have felt like fan service; here, they feel essential, not just as the epic conclusion to King’s saga but as a natural consequence of the trauma Dan endured. It stands to reason that after what he survived, Dan would be still me haunted by demons both figurative and literal.
Director Mike Flanagan mixes Kubrick’s iconic imagery with his own slightly surreal style. Flanagan’s always been a master of sleight of hand, and his deft use of misdirection and disorientation reminded me of his 2013 shocker Oculus and his gruelling adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. (The film’s treatment of telekinesis, extrasensory perception, and telepathy also recalls King classics like Carrie, The Dead Zone, and Firestarter.)
Doctor Sleep also reconciles King and Kubrick’s divergent takes on the Shining story, restoring the author’s incendiary ending and (through Danny’s reflections at an AA meeting) showing a less monstrous side of Jack Torrance. King’s book was in large part about the horrors of alcoholism, and Danny’s early evolution from a violent drunk to a gentle, eight-years-sober hospice orderly was touching.
In addition to the technical aspects of horror direction, Flanagan excels at creating emotional stakes. His tendency towards sentiment has at times been controversial (he tends to catch viewers off-guard by affixing sweetly optimistic endings to his disturbing horror odysseys) but it makes him a good fit for King, whose best stories have always been character-driven.
Flanagan’s screenplay overflows with heart, accentuated by powerful performances by the whole cast from lead Ewan McGregor to the most minor of characters. From the earliest scenes, we have an affection for Danny, and for his AA sponsor Billy, and for the scared old men who seek comfort from “Doctor Sleep” on their deathbeds. And we grieve as we see a series of bright-eyed kids – a sweet little girl lured by magic and flowers, a gifted baseball player whose parents think he can make the Big Leagues – abducted and tortured. The goodness we see – the film’s unshakeable faith in humanity – underscores the evil.
Child characters in horror can sometimes be either annoyingly helpless or obnoxiously precocious. Thankfully, our young heroine Abra is neither of these things: an exceptionally powerful psychic capable of kicking the cultists out of her head, she’s practical (and a little bit ruthless) without losing her endearing sweetness. That’s a difficult balance to strike, but actress Kyliegh Curran does the character justice.
The film’s villains are no less well-developed. As Rose the Hat and Crow Daddy, Rebecca Ferguson and Zahn McClarnon steal scenes as a pair of energy vampires facing a supply shortage. The newest addition to their cult, predatory teen hypnotist Snakebite Andi, is a formidable foe. And I’d watch a whole movie about Grandpa Flick, an ancient being who supposedly once fed on “kings and princes and Popes,” played by seven-foot-tall Twin Peaks icon Carel Struycken.
There’s a lot going on here: in addition to multiple subplots, the film is riddled with hallucinations and flashbacks and psychological trickery. It all blends seamlessly together, and the end result is so gripping that you don’t notice the two-and-a-half hour run-time until you check your watch on the way out of the theatre.
Ambitious, disturbing, frequently beautiful and thoroughly original, Doctor Sleep defies all the conventional cautions against following up a classic film. This isn’t just a great sequel or a great Stephen King adaptation; it’s a great movie in its own right.
Title: Doctor Sleep
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenwriter: Mike Flanagan