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Thursday 29 October 2020
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‘Doctor Sleep’ review

Doctor Sleep (2019) Director: Mike Flanagan

Performers: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran

If you know Stephen King’s The Shining, you know the story: Jack Torrance devolves into madness and murder on the haunted Overlook Hotel, terrorizing his son Danny and wife Wendy. Stanley Kurbick made a very famous film based on King’s novel in 1980, and his version of The Shining won numerous awards, pioneered horror films and film in general, and became a classic. However, King never liked Kubrick’s work. He famously complained about it as soon as he saw the final product, and even went so far as to write and fund his own miniseries version of his novel (it was awful). Now, years later, King’s written a sequel to The Shining starring Danny Torrance, now grown up, and his struggle to cope with the pressures of his supernatural gift. 

It’s a sequel that didn’t need to be made, as are so many sequels these days. That’s not the trouble. No, the problem with Doctor Sleep is the not-so-subtle implication that it exists merely to recapture the magic of Kubrick’s vision while satisfying King’s demands. As such, it’s impossible to talk about the film without discussing other versions of The Shining, thereby spoiling Doctor Sleep. If you’re expecting something like director Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, this is a disappointment.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

The movie opens with instant nostalgia, cuing beats from Kubrick’s film from the sound design to the sets and costuming. This is a peculiar choice given King’s notable distaste for Kubrick’s interpretation, but Flanagan is in a tough spot – he has to homage Kubrick because that film is indeed a classic movie, but he also has to appease King. In the end, he creates a film that serves as a continuation of Kubrick’s film without any of Kubrick’s philosophies or motivations. Where Kubrick was bleak and existential, Flanagan’s Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) insists that “we go on,” giving comfort to those dying in hospice. Where Kubrick avoided the rationale from King’s novel for the Overlook Hotel, Flanagan turns Danny into a reluctant ghostbuster and treats the shining like a superpower. The ghosts in Doctor Sleep are no longer tortured souls held back as echoes of their former selves trapped in a hotel without reason for its madness, but just hungry movie monsters somehow able to suck the life out of those who shine.

Kubrick embraced the weird in a literary sense – that not everything needs a concrete explanation.

Flanagan explains everything to a fault.

Now that’s not to say the movie is all bad. It has a cast who are honestly trying to live up to the expectations of this sequel. Rebecca Ferguson is at once mesmerizing and terrifying as Rose the Hat, leader of The True Knot cult. There are also fantastic doubles for Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance (Alex Essoe), Scatman Caruthers’ Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly), and Jack Nicolson’s Jack Torrance (Henry Thomas), and some of the moments are eerily well-executed. But the film never quite knows what to do with these characters. Danny ends up in alcohol rehab for a good chunk of the film (much like the book), and his character is so boring and unlikeable despite Ewan McGregor’s best efforts. It’s hard to sympathize with grownup Dan in his mid-thirties refusing to take responsibility for his life when literally the entire cast revolves around helping him succeed. Moreover, Dick Halloran is still here, still offering sage advice to this kid he only met once or twice, even in the afterlife. There’s even a line of dialogue joking about it. 

In the end, Danny goes to the boiler room to die and take the hotel with him, and it’s framed as a heroic scene. It’s something right from the end of The Shining novel when Jack Torrance, straining under the Overlook Hotel’s influence, manages to delay just long enough for his wife and son to escape before scrambling down in a mad frenzy to the boiler room just before the explosion kills him. Danny, by contrast, tells young prodigy and much better written character Abra to save herself. That he has to “stay behind.” But why? It’s just one more way Danny avoids responsibility – now young Abra has to practice her gift, confront the reality that more of these attackers will inevitably find her, and face the fact that her father was murdered while she was in a trance without Danny’s mentorship. What a waste. And to think we waited almost 30 years for this. 

The movie is a nostalgia fest. It faithfully recreates sets designs and costumes. In fact, a whole scene is written in so Danny can wander through the Overlook Hotel for trailer moments. It leans so heavily on Kurbick’s score that I’m not sure how much if any was original to this film. And some of the camera work is pretentious: at one point, Danny is writing a message to Abra. The camera pans away to the bedroom door. It lingers. Why? No reason. We watch Danny leave, then slowly the camera pans back to his message. Like Danny, the camera here avoids facing emotions as Danny writes the first full sentence message of his exchange with Abra. It felt like something a film student would do then cut in editing. 

And some of the recreation is pointless: Why is Dan’s interview set in a room that recreates Stuart Ullman’s Overlook Hotel office from Kubrick’s film? It’s impressive, sure, but why is it important? His job doesn’t bring about some spiral that destroys him or anything like what his father experienced. Why add this painstakingly detailed echo? These details are jarring when held against the actual storyline that doesn’t hinge on nostalgia. Moment of Rose flying through space in meditation or Abra concocting mental illusions are well-executed and engaging scenes. If only the movie had just gone in that direction.

If you want nostalgia, go for it. Doctor Sleep may be fun. However, if you love Stephen King movies and The Shining, pick this one up later when it’s VOD.

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