Revisiting the past is a major theme in Doctor Sleep, and we’re not just talking in the narrative sense. A sequel to The Shining arriving nearly 40 years after the iconic original was released, it’s tempting to see it as a kind of throwback; a “remember when” kind of event. But while it might be the sequel nobody was really asking for, it’s also a film that ends up being a necessary and important second chapter.
Decades after his harrowing supernatural experiences at the Overlook Hotel, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has found a new life in New Hampshire, working at a hospice where his psychic “shine” allows him to help ease dying patients into their final rest and earning him the nickname “Doctor Sleep.” He ends up coming into psychic contact with Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl who’s shine is even more powerful than his own. Unfortunately, Abra has also been discovered by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a quasi-immortal who feeds on shine and leads a pack of psychic vampires called the True Knot. In the course of trying to protect Abra, Danny is challenged by his doubts, struggles to maintain his hard-fought sobriety, and must confront the ghosts of his past…which include a whole lot of actual ghosts.
Writer/director Mike Flanagan has given himself an inarguably daunting task. He’s adapting the Stephen King novel Doctor Sleep, one of King’s few direct sequels, while also making a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film version of The Shining. This might not seem so complicated until you remember that King famously disliked Kubrick’s version of his book, and that King and Kubrick’s narratives differ significantly (especially in their endings). In fact, the ending of Kubrick’s version is wholly incompatible with many aspects of King’s sequel.
But Flanagan is some kind of mad genius, because he manages to honor both of his sources with equal reverence, striking a sure-footed and confident balance between King’s story and Kubrick’s. In fact, this could be one of the most independent and accessible Stephen King adaptations in years. Flanagan incorporates enough of the novel to stay true to the core of the story, but he also makes sure it matches Kubrick’s stripped-down take on the material that more people are familiar with. And he makes this look almost effortless to boot.
It helps that Flanagan maintains a distinct style and vibe that, while it might echo Kubrick’s original, has a flavor all its own. It’s much less a horror film than it is an exceedingly dark fantasy, and there’s less focus on the raw, elemental terror that Kubrick used. Instead, much of the film is suffused with a sense of dread, echoing the in-universe idea that even acknowledging the presence of someone with shine turns the world into a much more dangerous place. It’s like we’ve been invited to a secret reality, a dreamlike existence uncannily like our own but just slightly off.
A tremendous number of elements come together to help give the film it’s quietly hypnotic power, from a strong focus on characters over mythology, a script full of natural dialogue, carefully rationed visual spectacles, and an ever-present but always-welcome soundscape by The Newton Brothers. The soundtrack, like the film itself, echoes Kubrick when it needs to but does it’s own thing. It’s a character onto itself most of the time, always speaking from the shadows until it needs to make itself known. Especially with that famous Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind theme.
What really draws the viewer in, however, is a trio of fully-inhabited, complex main characters. Ewan McGregor’s performance as Danny is one of restrained but vivid emotional beats. He rarely gets too dramatic, and a casual observer may think he’s too subtle. But Danny has seen things, and he’s bottled up his entire self to hide his shine. A good deal of the film involves him coming to terms with this coping mechanism, as well as the root of his alcoholism and self-destructive behavior. It’s through his interactions with Abra that he learns to accept himself completely and come to terms with the terrors of his past. Danny’s arc serves as a strong form of needed, earthly grounding in a film about psychic powers and hungry ghosts.
Abra herself is a fascinating character, a kind of wild innocent blessed with a massive amount of raw power. Almost like a genre-savvy Jean Grey, too clever and talented for her own good. Kyleigh Curran has fantastic chemistry with McGregor, and like Abra herself displays a large amount of raw potential. This is her first major role and only her second film credit, and she handles things like an experienced professional.
But the MVP of Doctor Sleep is Rebecca Ferguson. Rose the Hat is a terrifying individual, a kind of mother of monsters who’s dedication to and genuine love for the True Knot is matched only by her cold, incalculable ruthlessness toward everybody else. Ferguson is effortlessly charismatic, a boho-chic femme fatale cult leader who owns every line of dialogue she utters. She’s a fully three-dimensional antagonist, as frightening as the Overlook Hotel itself but also as vulnerable and emotional as any human.
The only thing that sort of undoes the film is a first act that feels rather slack and uneven, although this turns out later to be a carefully-executed example of placement and payoff. In the moment, we may ask ourselves why things are happening that seem entirely superfluous but just one act later turn out to be of major importance. Even that, however, doesn’t excuse the fact that it takes just a little too long for Danny’s, Abra’s, and Rose’s plot threads to converge. Once they do, the film has a ceaseless kind of energy to it, but up until that point, it’s a bit like getting three signals through one radio at the same time that keep fighting for dominance.
It’s no easy feat to follow up an indisputable horror classic like The Shining, but Flanagan is more than up to the task. Even if he doesn’t craft a true modern classic, it’s more than a worthy successor. Captivating, confident, and insidiously creepy, it’s the film we didn’t know we wanted all these years later.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+