It’s hard to imagine today, but The Shining (1980) was a tremendous financial flop back in its day. It was with video release that the film slowly began to attract a cult following. After nearly 40 years, and six years since Stephen King published a sequel, the follow up Doctor Sleep (2019) has arrived in theaters.
Doctor Sleep is a more faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s sequel to “The Shining” that Stanley Kubrick was with his original. The film follows the traumatic aftermath in 1980 of Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mother Wendy (Alex Essoe), as they grapple with the horrors they escaped at the Overlook Hotel. We are also introduced to a group called the True Knot, led by the seemingly charming Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who feed off of children with the “shine” power. Jump to 2011, Danny (Ewan McGregor) is now an alcoholic, and is attempting to drown out the past within himself. However, as he his brought to a small town in New Hampshire, he will cross paths with a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) who has a powerful “shine” and will inevitably be in the sights of the True Knot.
As in all Stephen King novels, the plot and characters are incredibly complex. Most movie adaptations choose to stave off of the detailing of his characters and focus instead on the creative horror aspects. However, this choice makes many King adaptations lose the enveloping feeling of his worlds. Writer-director Mike Flanagan, however, is a careful student of King’s (having directed an adaptation of his Gerald’s Game (2017)) and brings about incredible care to both the source novel as well as to Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. Flanagan is able to find an impossible balance between winks at the original film, fidelity to King’s novel, and constructing his own independent film.
Flanagan has already proven to have a delicate and expert hand at horror, creating one of the most effective horror TV series (perhaps ever?) with Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (2018-), and he brings about his restraint and pause to Doctor Sleep, staving off of jump-scares and instead relishing in the slow peel-back of a curtain or the creaking of a doorknob. Flanagan is smart to avoid passing too close to Kubrick’s film, and thus avoid too many comparisons. While The Shining might have been a horror situation with characters sprinkled in, Doctor Sleep is much more focused on its characters with the horror elements being an almost secondary thought. Because of this the film feels much more like a psychological breakdown and subtle exploration of mental illness. In this sense, the film might disappoint those hoping for a more classic horror experience, who instead have to sit through a meditative character study. That’s not to say that Doctor Sleep doesn’t have its share of scares, only that it is specific with its choices. One particular scene, involving a harrowing performance from Jacob Tremblay (in a cameo role), becomes hard to watch despite not explicitly showinganything. This unseen trauma impacts the audience and is utilized as a plot catalyst with expanding side-effects. It is this attention to detail and story elements that make Doctor Sleep such an impressive and responsive film.
The film is over two and a half hours long, and yet despite not having much action, the film keeps you plastered to the screen. Flanagan is smart in luring viewers in with more questions than answers, prompting a mystery-like dive into this particular Stephen King world. This allows certain exposition scenes to be more digestible and natural, as well as allowing the parallel character studies that King and Flanagan were so keep on exploring.
Doctor Sleep is able to juggle the weight of its narrative by splitting equal loads to its three main performers: McGregor, Ferguson, and Curran. This latter is able to encapsulate the bursting power in her character, while also holding her own against McGregor. Ferguson and McGregor, however, do the majority of the heavy lifting. Rebecca Ferguson is an actress whose every role still feels too small for her; her villain in Doctor Sleep is taken with such a jubilant passion that she is able to transcend both the charming appeal of her Rose while maintaining an imposing and terrifying presence. McGregor meanwhile transforms both his posture as well as his darting look into that of a broken man, who is forever with the huge weight of his past on him. His performance is perhaps the quietest of the bunch and yet the most crucial at completing the film’s arc.
In the end, Doctor Sleep may become too side-tracked with its fascinating character studies and themes, focusing on the effects of childhood trauma instead of horrid axe murderers. There is a “scary” pay off at the end, but it might be too little too late for fans looking for an escapist horror. I, personally, was pleased with the seeming imbalance into introspection that Mike Flanagan added, making use of two spectacular performers into delivering an independent but equally satisfying sequel to Kubrick’s masterpiece.