Doctor Sleep (United States, 2019)

November 06, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Doctor Sleep Poster

Thirty-six years after publishing The Shining, Stephen King returned to the world where the Overlook Hotel once stood to catch up with how things have been going for the now-adult character of Danny Torrance. The lure of making a movie out of the sequel, called Doctor Sleep, was too much for Hollywood to resist. The producers tabbed Mike Flanagan, the creator of the critically-acclaimed Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, to handle the adaptation – a task that forced the writer/director to confront the thorny issue that has surrounded The Shining: author Stephen King’s distaste for the 1980 film version. Flanagan was able to convince King to agree to a hybrid of sorts, an approach that has allowed Doctor Sleep to be reasonably faithful to the source material while at the same time existing as a direct sequel to Kubrick’s adaptation.

Like Peter Hyams’ 2010, which used 2001 as an inspiration but didn’t attempt to mimic Kubrick’s style, Doctor Sleep offers a more concrete approach. While adopting visual cues from The Shining (and co-opting the efforts of look-alike actors to fill the Shelly Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and Jack Nicholson parts), Flanagan avoids an over-reliance on the earlier film. Doctor Sleep is more straightforward and narratively clean than The Shining. Although too long by at least 20 minutes, it is more accessible and doesn’t overly penalize those who haven’t seen (or don’t remember) the original movie.

Doctor Sleep is an example of Stephen King horror – more complex and thematically rich than the average motion picture fright fest. Neither King nor Flanagan is interested in jump scares. The production escalates using existential dread as its fuel. One could argue there’s too much in the way of build-up; the movie’s second half is stronger than the occasionally leaden first hour. The Newton Brothers’ score employs percussion to keep the soundtrack synchronized with the overall tempo. Echoes of Kubrick are most evident during the film’s last act but they can be found elsewhere as well, including in the performance of Ewan McGregor, who studied Nicholson’s work in the earlier motion picture and isn’t afraid to let it shine through the cracks and crevices of Danny Torrance’s personality.

The film opens with a prologue set shortly after the events of The Shining. Danny (Roger Dale Floyd), still a young boy, is haunted by poltergeists who seek to devour his “shine.” Lessons from the spirit of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), allow him to confront and eliminate the ghosts one-by-one. Nevertheless, his childhood experiences take their toll on his psyche and when we next meet him in 2011 (now played by Ewan McGregor), he’s a homeless drunk searching for a purpose in life. He finds one in the protection and mentorship of teenager Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a girl with a powerful shine. She is being hunted by a group of energy vampires led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) who have gained near-immortality by torturing, killing, and devouring children with supernatural abilities. Danny becomes Obi-Wan to Abra’s Luke as the girl heads for a showdown with Rose at a location that has deep, dark meaning for Danny: the Overlook Hotel (burned to the ground in King’s novel but left very much standing in Kubrick’s movie).

From the outside looking in, Rose’s band of gypsies seem harmless – almost likable. For her part, she traipses around their camp barefoot and spends time meditating on the top of her RV. But the placid exterior hides the heart of a devil. Flanagan establishes her inherent evil early in the film, amplifies it during a scene when she “turns” a 15-year old girl (Emily Alyn Lind), and cements it during a horrifying torture-and-murder of a boy (Jacob Tremblay). Rebecca Ferguson’s interpretation of Rose is subtle- she is neither ugly nor outwardly monstrous. She uses seduction until she no longer needs it, then her true nature emerges.

The movie’s final hour, which includes three distinct confrontations, rewards the patience of viewers who plow through the extended first 90 minutes. (Flanagan could have used a more ruthless editor.) The movie’s tone as it traverses the path to the inevitable climax is more thriller than horror. In fact, Doctor Sleep has a lot on in common with traditional action/adventure films. It’s not scary or even especially creepy. The supernatural elements place it within the horror genre but this isn’t conventional movie horror in either its scope or presentation.

Ewan McGregor could probably do this role in his sleep, although that’s not to say he isn’t invested in the performance. Danny is seeking meaning, redemption, and closure. Along the way, McGregor gets to break out a few of the characteristics he showed in the Star Wars prequels. Kyliegh Curran, the 13-year old actress in her first major part, shows fire and energy in a demanding role. She and McGregor develop the chemistry necessary for the mentor/pupil relationship to work.

Those who loved Kubrick’s The Shining primarily because of its weirdness and imagery may be disappointed by the restraint and coherence evident in the sequel. In a way, this is King reclaiming his territory while acknowledging the mark left by the 1980 production in the cultural psyche. 2019 has been a banner year for King’s work, with a new Pet Sematary, It Chapter Two, and In the Tall Grass having preceded his film. Although Doctor Sleep is flawed, it’s arguably the best of a surprisingly strong group of movies that prove King’s enduring popularity as he enters his sixth decade as a professional writer.

Doctor Sleep (United States, 2019)

Run Time: 2:26
U.S. Release Date: 2019-11-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1