Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Emily Alyn Lind, Carl Lumbly, Zahn McClarnon
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For even casual fans of The Shining (book or movie), or quality horror in general, this is absolutely one you won’t want to Overlook.
There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about director Stanley Kubrick and author Stephen King discussing the possibility of ghosts and an afterlife during the adaptation of The Shining. Kubrick opined, “anything that says there’s anything after death is ultimately an optimistic story.” King countered with, “what about Hell?” After a long pause filled with stony silence, Kubrick intoned, “I do not believe in Hell.” This schism of personality, of intellect versus faith, is perhaps the reason why The Shining book and movie are so very different, and why King hates Kubrick’s 1980 version, despite it being so iconic and beloved. This is all a rather roundabout way to discuss Doctor Sleep, both King’s 2013 sequel to his own 1977 book, and the 2019 adaptation by director Mike Flanagan.
The best way to view Doctor Sleep (book and movie) is less as a direct sequel and more as a spiritual continuation of The Shining. Because although the story’s protagonist is a grown up version of Danny Torrance, the tale told is a very different one. If we’re going to be blunt, the book was a disappointment to many. Even the most ardent of King fans had to admit this follow-up was an awkward continuation of a masterpiece perhaps better left alone. But here’s the twist, despite the patchy source material, and the inherently risky nature of sequalising a masterpiece, Doctor Sleep is a bloody cracker of a film.
Doctor Sleep reintroduces us to Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) aka the kid from The Shining who, haunted by the literal and figurative ghosts of his past, has become an alcoholic middle aged man. After hitting rock bottom he decides to quit the grog once and for all, and settles in a small New Hampshire town, working at a local hospice and helping patients ease into death. Elsewhere, a beautiful but deranged woman, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) leads a group of malevolent cultists around America, feeding on children who possess psychic powers aka “the shine”. And elsewhere still, a young child named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) is just coming into her own shining powers, and wonders if she’s alone in the world. The way these plot strands come together is what makes up the bulk of Doctor Sleep, and in lesser hands it could have been goofy, or worse, a slog. Happily, Mike Flanagan knows how to shoot King, having done a stellar job on the “unfilmable” Gerald’s Game in 2017, and imbues the proceedings with a slowburn intensity and pervasive sense of unease.
Ewan McGregor is wonderfully lowkey and believably damaged as Dan, and Kyliegh Curran acquits herself well also, however this film absolutely belongs to Rebecca Ferguson. Rose the Hat is a fascinating, layered villain as she commands a group of immortality-seeking psychic vampires, who aesthetically owe a debt to Kathryn Bigelow’s criminally underrated Near Dark (1987). Never vamping too hard or going over the top, Ferguson makes you actually care for Rose and her little family of fiends, which makes it all the more shocking when – in easily the film’s most disturbing sequence – they brutally murder a young boy and gleefully eat his screams.
Story-wise the film follows the book pretty closely until it radically changes the third act, and instead uses Kubrick’s film as canon in ways we won’t spoil, and it’s a change for the better overall. It’s a curious one, though, and obsessive fans of Stanley’s 1980 masterpiece may balk at some of the imagery used, but it’s undeniably effective. At 153 minutes, Doctor Sleep is certainly long, but it never drags and the plot is constantly moving forward in curious but interesting ways.
Ultimately, Doctor Sleep is a strange and wonderful beast. Based on a divisive book, that itself was a sequel to an unmitigated masterpiece, and using iconography from a cinema classic, it somehow manages to be better than its literary source material, and a mostly fitting tribute to the film that still looms large almost 40 years after its release. But even ignoring historical and artistic context, Doctor Sleep is simply a bloody good film, showcasing superb performances, excellent direction from Flanno and a score that drips with hallucinatory menace. Even in a market crowded with decent-to-excellent Stephen King adaptations, Doctor Sleep stands tall as one of the best, and is an engaging, original supernatural horror/thriller in its own right. For even casual fans of The Shining (book or movie), or quality horror in general, this is absolutely one you won’t want to Overlook.