REVIEW: Doctor Sleep (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – Warner Bros. Pictures

The following is a review of Doctor Sleep — Directed by Mike Flanagan.

How do you please the fans of two very different masters of storytelling (i.e. Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick) when the storytellers’ understanding of The Shining differs so much that the author, Stephen King, once disowned director Stanley Kubrick’s extremely popular adaptation? How do you continue the story of The Shining on the big screen, when King and Kubrick’s endings are in conflict with each other? Those questions made the adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, a sequel to his hit novel The Shining, an incredibly daunting task exactly because audiences would expect it to also be a sequel to Kubrick’s beloved masterpiece. Mike Flanagan, a promising horror filmmaker who adapted Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game into a terrific Netflix film, was eventually chosen for the difficult task. Ultimately, I think Flanagan, who both wrote, directed, and edited Doctor Sleep, did an outstanding job. Flanagan has confidently united two clashing visions in this quite satisfying, but undeniably unnecessary sequel.

Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep takes place more than thirty years after the events of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and the film is about the adult experiences of Danny Torrance (played by Ewan McGregor), whose ability to ‘shine’ once made him a target at the Overlook Hotel when his father was influenced by both substance abuse and ghosts that haunt the hotel, which has since been abandoned. In short, to ‘shine’ is to possess telepathic abilities that can potentially make you capable of recognizing ghosts, communicating telepathically, have premonitions, and so on and so forth. Now an aimless adult, Danny has tried to lock away the spirits that still haunt him, and whenever those spirits, or others, surface, he drowns his sorrows like his father before him.

Meanwhile, the vicious and hungry True Knot, a cult of quasi-immortal individuals that feed on the ‘steam’ that someone who ‘shines’ produces when he or she is about to die, is looking for new and powerful victims to satiate them. This cult is led by Rose the Hat (played by Rebecca Ferguson), whose diabolical actions are eventually discovered by Abra (played by Kyliegh Curran), a young girl whose ability to ‘shine’ is overwhelmingly powerful. Abra and Danny eventually team-up when Rose the Hat sets her sights on young Abra.

As one of the film’s last lines makes clear, Doctor Sleep is a film about embracing what makes you special. It tells a story about a man who tried to numb himself from human emotion, and you see him try to guide or help a young woman who feels comfortable with her gifts. The film’s main character is haunted by his past and, like his father, suffers from substance abuse. In Doctor Sleep, Danny tries to overcome his substance abuse and understand and learn from his trauma. Finally, the film also makes it quite clear that it is about removing the leeches from your life that make it tough for you to be the person you want to be.

To reiterate, King and Kubrick famously did not see eye-to-eye on the way the story of Jack Torrance should be told, and they also have very different endings for their versions of The Shining. A pivotal character survives the novel but not Kubrick’s film, and while the hotel still stands at the end of Kubrick’s film, the same can not be said for the hotel in King’s novel. This provided Mike Flanagan with a serious challenge. To stay true to Stephen King, Flanagan has made sure to make his film be an adaptation of Doctor Sleep first and foremost, but Flanagan’s film should satisfy the vast majority of Kubrick’s disciples as he has dedicated several sequences, and one quite large chunk of the film, to the Overlook Hotel and flashbacks. Although it is definitely not always seamless whenever Flanagan switches from indulging in recreated scenes from Kubrick’s film to telling a distinctly different story about Danny Torrance decades later, Flanagan has found a lot of success here by melding the story of King’s Doctor Sleep with the ending of Kubrick’s The Shining.

There are three types of audience-members who go into the movie theater to watch Doctor Sleep. Firstly, those who are fans of the King novels first and foremost. Secondly, those fans of The Shining who think more highly of, or have more of an interest in, Kubrick’s film than King’s work. Finally, a few moviegoers will walk into the movie theater expecting just another horror film, while either not knowing about or caring about the connection to Kubrick and his film or Stephen King. The first group will likely be thrilled that most of Flanagan’s film is focused on the story of Doctor Sleep and perhaps later frown at the fact that Flanagan chose to dedicate a twenty-to-thirty minute chunk of the film to indulge on a meticulously-detailed recreation of the Overlook Hotel. The second group will likely be entertained by Flanagan’s adaptation of King’s novel but obsess about any and all references to or recreations of Kubrick’s work, of which there are many. Where Ready Player One‘s recreation of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece made me feel uneasy, I thought that Flanagan approached Kubrick’s scenes and characters with a lot of respect, and, as a result, I never had a problem with the existence of recreations in Doctor Sleep. The third and final group will obviously be lost completely in this sequel, which is not self-contained.

I have great admiration for the work that Flanagan has done to make a film that should satisfy both Kubrick’s disciples and Stephen King, but I do think that he almost flew dangerously close to the sun with the number of recreations of scenes from Kubrick’s film that he uses. Also, I think it is very interesting that Flanagan has boldly decided against the cutting-edge technology that might allow him to recreate the likenesses of characters from Kubrick’s films via visual effects. Instead, Mike Flanagan has cast new actors to play characters from the previous film, like young Danny Torrance and Wendy Torrance, and, although the recast actors can be distracting in certain scenes, I thought Alex Essoe did a remarkable job of capturing the way you remember Shelley Duvall’s character in Kubrick’s film.

As a big fan of Kubrick’s film, I love how the story of Danny Torrance continues here. I think his own issues with substance abuse make a lot of sense, and I think Flanagan eventually does a terrific job of establishing how kind and comforting Danny becomes with his ‘shine’. I think Ewan McGregor does a solid job of playing Danny Torrance as an adult. It isn’t a showy performance, but I really like the way he played the quiet scenes in the hospice that Danny eventually works at.

Child actors can definitely hurt a film, but neither The Shining nor Doctor Sleep suffers because of their inclusion of young characters. Doctor Sleep possibly even relies more on the performance of the actor playing a young character than The Shining did. Thankfully, Kyliegh Curran gave a very good performance as Abra Stone, and she managed to convincingly capture confidence and excitement about her character’s abilities.

Other than with Mission: Impossible, I think that Rebecca Ferguson has struggled to find projects that give her an opportunity to make a significant positive impression. Just earlier this year, she played a minor character in the forgettable Men in Black: International, and, when I saw that film, I was shocked to see that she had agreed to play that character. However, I think that Rebecca Ferguson definitely gave the best performance in Doctor Sleep. Ferguson makes her character feel irresistible, slightly vulnerable, and still dangerous. Along with Zahn McClarnon, who is also quite good, Ferguson makes sure the ‘True Knot’ is an interesting group of villains to follow.

I also want to briefly mention the effective horror imagery that Flanagan conjures up in Doctor Sleep. Though it isn’t what audiences would probably refer to as ‘conventionally scary,’ Doctor Sleep genuinely did have moments that freaked me out in some way. When Flanagan’s film would return to the Overlook Hotel, I eventually noticed that I was holding my breath multiple times in scenes. Flanagan made me remember how frightened The Shining truly made me, and he awoke those dormant feelings in me, maybe, three or four times. To add to that, I particularly cannot get this film’s final shot out of my mind. It is a very creepy final shot, which I think works phenomenally as a definitive end to the story of The Shining, even though one of the last lines in the film is quite corny.

I think Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece and probably the most frightening film that I have ever seen. For all the good that he does achieve with Doctor Sleep, Mike Flanagan cannot say that his sequel is ever as frightening or incredible as Kubrick’s film, but, again, no one expected him to achieve that. Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is a satisfying sequel that succeeds despite the fact that Flanagan had to combine two storytellers’ distinctly different visions. However, I think the moments in Doctor Sleep that will stick with me the most are the ones where I think Mike Flanagan’s own brand of storytelling shines brightest, so to speak.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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