by Andrew Wyatt on Nov 6, 2019

In case the film’s rather shameless marketing didn’t make it glaringly obvious, writer-director Mike Flanagan’s latest chiller Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining. This is true in two different senses. It has been adapted from a 2013 book by Stephen King, which is itself a sequel to the author’s pivotal 1977 novel The Shining. However, Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is also a sequel to director Stanley Kubrick’s legendary 1980 film The Shining, an adaptation that substantially changed the original novel’s events and focus – and notoriously garnered King’s ire in the process. Accordingly, there’s an inevitable tension at play in Doctor Sleep that Flanagan never manages to resolve. The film can’t quite decide which audience it’s aiming to satisfy: fans of the 1977 novel, fans of the 2013 novel, fans of the 1980 film, or – arguably – King himself.

Resolving the plot discrepancies between the book and film versions of The Shining is a daunting challenge all on its own, and Flanagan’s screenplay is, admittedly, quite cunning in how it goes about squaring that circle. Rather than retconning events from Kubrick’s work, Doctor Sleep essentially treats the film as holy canon – unsurprising, given that Warner Bros. produced both features – and then works forward from there, modifying events from the Doctor Sleep novel so that the inconsistencies (mostly) work themselves out. In the process, Flanagan also irons out the more unappealing wrinkles in King’s 2013 book: excising a peculiar 9/11 subplot; jettisoning an absurd Dickensian twist; compressing a character’s protracted struggle with sobriety; and generally sharpening the story’s conflicts.

The real problem is that Mike Flanagan loves loves loves Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and assumes that the viewer does as well. This is probably a reasonable assumption – the 1980 film is a legitimate masterpiece and one of the greatest horror films of all time – but the director’s fanboyish enthusiasm doesn’t automatically translate into compelling cinema. Whenever Flanagan is geeking out about Kubrick’s version of The Shining, Doctor Sleep ends up feels like a mildly embarrassing work of fanservice, much like the middle passage of last year’s Ready Player One. The director has recreated many of the original 1980 sets in impressive detail; reimagined several sequences with a discombobulating half-twist; and cast lookalike actors in the roles of Jack Torrance, Wendy Torrance, Dick Hallorran, and several of the Overlook Hotel’s phantasmal denizens. All this doubtlessly delighted Flanagan to no end, but it feels more than a little self-indulgent, and ends up detracting from the story that exists independent of all the overt Kubrick homages. To put it bluntly, Doctor Sleep is a superb and surprisingly brutal 120-minute horror-thriller about people with psychic abilities… with a hokey 30-minute The Shining fan film grafted onto it, mostly at the end. The latter doesn’t negate the former – the good stuff is very good, too strong to be undone by Flanagan’s film-nerd gushing – but it does suggest the superior feature that might have been.

Doctor Sleep skips around a bit chronologically, but the 1980-set prologue establishes the two sides in the struggle that comes to define the film’s story. Following the events of Kubrick’s feature, 5-year-old Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) and his now-widowed mother Wendy (Alex Essoe) are recovering in Florida, as far from the snowbound Rockies and the malevolent Overlook Hotel as they can get. Danny, however, is still receiving unwelcome visits from the hotel’s apparitions, particularly the naked, putrefying old woman he glimpsed in the bathtub of Room 237. Fortunately, the spirit of hotel chef Dick Hallorran (Carl Lumbly) is also lingering about, and he explains to Danny how to entrap the Overlook’s hungry ghosts in a psychic prison – which Danny eventually visualizes as a series of ornate lockboxes secreted away in the Overlook’s snowy hedge maze.

Meanwhile, the viewer is introduced to a clan of villainous nomads called the True Knot, who lure a young girl (Violet McGraw) from a nearby public campground for nefarious purposes. While not the oldest member of the Knot – that would be the gaunt giant Grampa Flick (Carel Struycken) – the most powerful and charismatic of these baddies appears to be Rose the Hat (a best-in-show Rebecca Ferguson). She might be attired like a post-hippie groupie with a Stevie Nicks fixation, but Rose exudes a purring, vampiric allure that crackles with velvety menace. The Knot, it turns out, are quasi-immortal beings who feed on the “Shine” of psychically gifted individuals like Violet and Danny, thereby extending their lifespans and fueling their formidable paranormal powers. (The Knot call this energy “Steam” rather than Shine, but, well… to-may-to, to-mah-to.) The most potent Steam allegedly comes from a child in the throes of agony, and the Knot have no qualms about committing the bloodiest and most depraved crimes to slake their supernatural thirst. (Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 cult-classic about nomadic vampires, feels like an obvious reference point for Flanagan’s conception of the Knot, which diverges somewhat from how they are presented in King’s novel.)

Fast-forward to New Jersey in 2011, when a now-36-year-old Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is scraping a rock bottom that he’s concocted from alcohol, cocaine, and anonymous sex, partly to dull the mental cacophony of his Shine. Fortunately, a harrowing encounter jolts him out of his stupor and sends him northward to Frazier, N.H. – a seemingly arbitrary destination that is anything but. There, Dan manages to pull his life together over the next eight years: getting off booze with the help of friend and AA sponsor Billy (Cliff Curtis) and finding part-time work as an orderly at a local hospice, where his psychic talents allow him to comfort to the dying in his unique way. He also spends those years maintaining a cagey, ongoing correspondence with a mysterious psychokinetic pen pal via the chalkboard wall in his attic apartment.

What the viewer knows, but Dan initially does not, is that he has been conversing with Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran), a now-13-year-old girl who lives nearby and appears to possess an even stronger form of the Shining. Confident in her abilities and compulsively principled in a way that Dan has not been for many years, Abra proves to be a steadfast foil-slash-friend, even though the pair have never met face-to-face. Unfortunately, the girl also makes a juicy target for the Knot, who are still crisscrossing the nation in their caravan of RVs, their psychic radar searching for a “whale” like Abra. Rose – who has not aged a day in 31 years – and her lover Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon) have recently inducted a mind-controlling adolescent dubbed Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind) into the Knot, in the hopes that her abilities will enhance the group’s hunting prowess. Steam has become much rarer and more challenging to obtain over the years, and the Knot is beginning to feel the pinch as their reserve supplies dwindle and Grampa Flick’s health fails. Unfortunately for Abra, her long-range telepathic snooping on the Knot’s murderous activities attracts Rose’s ravenous attention and ultimately alerts them to her location.

Flanagan’s screenplay makes the stakes of this scenario savagely clear: The Knot will do anything to capture and consume a powerful psychic like Abra, who has no intentions of standing by and letting such a thing happen (or allowing them to harm any other gifted children, for that matter). Dan is clearly a potential ally to Abra, but he’s fearful of opposing the Knot. His experiences at the Overlook – and, it is implied, subsequent encounters – have taught him just how dangerous the supernatural can be. Given that he’s survived for as long as he has by keeping his head down, he encourages Abra to do the same. As is often the case in Stephen King stories, however, evildoers have a way of forcing the hand of a reluctant hero, and Dan is eventually compelled to help Abra put a stop to Rose and her vampiric cohort. It’s a straightforward conflict right out of Screenwriting 101, but one that’s firmly rooted in the film’s faintly trippy occult world-building. There’s nowhere to run from a powerful psychic, after all: Once Rose and Abra become aware of one another, a spectacular collision between them becomes a terrifying inevitability. There’s a palpable air of mortal peril that pervades Doctor Sleep, and it makes for an experience as intensely spine-tingling as anything in wide-release horror cinema this year.

It bears repeating that this story – a gruesome horror-thriller about Abra and the Knot, which is secondarily an opportunity for Dan to confront his own unsettled traumas – is superb stuff. Flanagan exhibits his usual flair for visualizing the slippery, persistent nature of the past, a talent previously showcased in Oculus (2013) and in his epic, cathartic Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House (2018). In this respect, he’s an ideal filmmaker to continue the story of The Shining, which is concerned with, among many things, the way that history echoes across the years, even (perhaps especially) when it’s studiously ignored. What’s more, Doctor Sleep allows Flanagan to play with space in the same manner in which he’s previously played with time. He finds novel ways to envision the astral projection, telepathic spying, and other psionic weirdness that occupies much of Doctor Sleep’s plot, often (though not always) opting for metaphor and practical effects over CGI-drenched pyrotechnics. Sometimes it’s a choice as simple as putting Abra in the backseat of Dan’s car as she carries on a psychic conversation with him across hundreds of miles. There are, however, plenty of wildly ambitious visual effects shots as well, many of them involving disorienting flips and rotations along the X-, Y-, and Z-axis. (Between Climax, Midsommar, and now Doctor Sleep, 2019 seems to be the year in which horror filmmakers fell in love with the 180-degree tilt.)

Flanagan has an eye for vivid details, some of them nightmarishly front-and-center like the pinpricks of unholy starlight that appear in the Knot’s pupils after they've "fed". Others are marvelously subtle, such a never-commented fact that Abra’s psychic avatar wears the electric-blue bob briefly glimpsed on the anime action figure on her nightstand. Strong work from production designer Maher Ahmad and cinematographer Michael Fimognari – the latter a longtime Flanagan collaborator – both contribute to the lived-in feeling of the film’s world, although Fimognari’s visuals do get a bit stifling and monotonous in the nocturnal outdoor scenes. However, it’s the score by Andy Grush and Taylor Newton Stewart (professionally known as the Newton Brothers), that really stands out as the key mood-setting weapon in the film’s arsenal. Unashamedly cribbing from Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s score from The Shining, the composers return repeatedly to the 1980 film’s iconic opening melody and the thumping-heart motif associated with Room 237. In less skillful hands, this sort of recycling might have come off as crass and obvious. Yet the Brothers make it work, in part by shaping it into something grandiose, combining traditional choir and orchestra with synth manipulation and oddball instruments like an aeolian harp and a hurdy-gurdy. This fits Doctor Sleep's expansive sensibility of a sprawling world filled with wandering evils and vast psychic vibrations, as opposed to the pressure-cooker claustrophobia of The Shining.

Flanagan himself is less successful in his efforts to integrate his vision with Kubrick’s film. Rather than being inspired by it, he often feels shackled to it, if giddily so. The tale of Abra and the Knot is an enthralling horror twist on X-Men in all but name, and Dan’s inner struggle with his own demons works well when it’s seen through the lens of this primary plot. However, Flanagan is very determined to return to the Overlook Hotel – long since boarded up and abandoned in this version of the story – and he’ll be damned if he’s going to allow a tale about magic-eating vampires to interfere with the opportunity to recreate scenes from The Shining. Admittedly, it’s hard to repress a shiver when Dan warily suggests the locale for a climactic confrontation with Rose (“There’s a place…”), and the events that push him and Abra towards the Overlook feel much less contrived than they might have been. Still, there isn't much about the final 30 minutes or so of Doctor Sleep that feels particularly inspired, even if it's suitably creepy. There’s something faintly disappointing about the way that Flanagan turns the indefinable terrors of the Overlook into a mashup of 13 Ghosts (1960), The Amityville Horror (1979) and American Horror Story: Murder House (2011).

It’s certainly easy to see how the director might have fallen into this tempting trap — The Shining is a great film, after all, and there’s no sin in admiring it. Indeed, there are murmurs of some fascinating meta-themes in Doctor Sleep concerning horror fans’ (and horror filmmakers’) inability to escape the shadow of Kubrick’s film, as well as the way that cinematic images and soundscapes can soak deeply into our collective subconscious. However, it’s doubly disillusioning to see a filmmaker as skilled as Flanagan become distracted from a genuinely compelling good-vs-evil story set in the same world as King’s 1977 novel; it’s like watching a talented singer-songwriter fritter their stage time away on unimaginative covers. Simply put, Doctor Sleep is a great story about the Shining, but a meager sequel to The Shining. The film’s harrowing mood, its visual inventiveness, and Ferguson’s lusciously wicked performance all make one wonder what Flanagan’s feature might have looked like if it had not ventured back up the mountain.

Rating: B