Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining is largely seen as one of the greatest horror films ever put to screen. It’s also definitely my second favorite horror film of all time. So as a fan, I firmly believe, by and large, that as a property I hold in such high regard, it should not be franchised, sequel-ized, rebooted, or remade in any way, shape, or form… unless talented filmmaker, Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game, Haunting of Hill House) is doing it (or to a lesser degree, Spielberg is paying homage to it)!
Flanagan is a genius! And what he does with Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep is something rarely accomplished with sequels to legendary films helmed by different filmmakers than the original; he strikes the perfect balance between remaining consistent to the tone and spirit of the Kubrickian masterpiece while still making a “Mike Flanagan” film. What I mean by that is many moments in the film feel like they’re scenes ripped straight from the original Shining (yes, literally re-created moments, but also scenes, which coupled with the fantastic score by The Newton Brothers, evoke the same atmospheric sense of dread and doom Kubrick’s original was famous for), while other moments feel like they could easily fit in with Haunting of Hill House (from the quiet moments of tension-building, subdued scares to fever-dream induced camera angles and imagery). The resulting blend of both styles is one that fits seamlessly together, as the movie ultimately serves as a fantastic love letter to the original, while still being its own soon-to-be masterpiece that stands alone.
Interestingly enough though, Doctor Sleep, unlike The Shining, is a fantasy story about good-vs-evil first, a supernatural drama about how one’s past demons and traumatic memories shape their future for better or worse second, and a haunted house horror movie third — all of which provide the film with a unique identity in its own right. Now is the movie as good as or better than The Shining. No, of course not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not well-directed, well-crafted, well-acted, well-written, or overall, enjoyable. It is all of those things because Flanagan is too good of a filmmaker to not make a good movie. He understands the balance between homage and personal vision, understands how to do effective narrative-driven scares, understands character, and understands mood, and we see all of his skills at the forefront in Doctor Sleep.
If I was to make an analogy among existing King films, I’d say The Shining is to The Shawshank Redemption as Doctor Sleep is to The Green Mile. Obviously, The Shining and Shawshank have earned their rights to be considered cinematic classics. But that doesn’t mean Doctor Sleep or Green Mile aren’t just bloody fantastic movies.
The plot revolves around a now-in-his-40s alcoholic Danny Torrence, now called Dan (Ewan McGregor), who is trying his best to get sober and live an ordinary life following all of the horrors he’d seen at the Overlook Hotel as a child. Dan still sees the ghosts from the hotel now and again, but has managed to gain enough control over The Shining to psychically lock up the horrific specters trying to get him, thanks to a bit of training from the ghost of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly).
One day, a teenage girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who also has The Shining, forms a psychic connection with Dan, and the two strike up a bond over their gifts. Meanwhile, a group of other psychics with The Shining, called “The True Knot,” led by a woman named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) is going around the country murdering children who also have gifts, and devouring their fear and screams to give themselves quasi-immortality. After witnessing one of The True Knots’ murders, Abra is now being hunted by the group, and has to turn to Dan for help.
As previously stated, this is an incredibly well-acted film. McGregor is in top form playing a tortured hero you can root for. There is a multi-layered vulnerability that he gives to Dan that allows you to truly sympathize with him, illustrating the full toll the effects of his time at the Overlook Hotel had on him. However, there’s also a likability and gentleness that endears him to you greatly. You’re constantly rooting for Dan, whether he’s comforting a dying hospice patient, acting like a mentor, or resisting a drink to maintain sobriety.
The real breakout here, though, is Curran, playing such a badass, intelligent, tough character with Abra. She’s at once innocent, clever, and tough, while still being a bit naive. There’s an innate magnetism to Curran’s performance, with a resourceful spark that’s quite palpable for audiences to feel without ever being simplistically precocious. Her relationship with Dan, as well as the parallels between them anchor both his and her character arcs, as well as the narrative itself.
Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) also has a smaller role in the film, playing Dan’s kindly best friend Bill. He’s also a welcome presence, even if it’s a pretty limited role. And Carl Lumbly gracefully steps into the role once filled by Scatman Crothers in the original Shining with ease. His interpretation of Dick Hallorann is so spot on, it’s almost like Crothers was still alive, bringing the character to life.
On the opposite side of things, there are the villains. Rebecca Ferguson is so great as Rose. Her presence and charm enhance what could easily have been a one-note character, as she chews up the scenes she’s in without ever going fully camp. Westworld’s Zahn McClarnon plays Rose’s second-in-command, Crow Daddy, and provides a genuinely menacing presence to the film. Overall the cast does genuinely brilliant work.
On a technical level, I may have already mentioned how perfect The Newton Brothers’ score is, easily evoking the score of the original film in this one. However, the cinematography absolutely also needs to be commended. Frequent Flanagan collaborator, Michael Fimognari knows exactly how to shoot this film, and exactly what sorts of shots would be perfect to capture the spirit of Kubrick’s film, but also does some insanely trippy work to bring Flanagan’s vision to life. Everything is framed so perfectly, with a picturesque quality that allows you to see the visual beauty in the most terrifying places the film takes you.
If I have to nitpick some of the issues about the film, I will ding it slightly on the notion that, while Ferguson’s performance as Rose is brilliant, at no point did I ever feel like she was a threat. The movie illustrates how powerful Abra is, by taking it to a point where you just can’t believe anything can harm her. So even if we see bat-crap crazy, juiced-up Rose on a rampage towards our heroes, we’re less afraid of her than we are of her sidekicks or Dan’s Overlook ghosts. Additionally, those not used to Flanagan’s slow-burn style may take issue with the slower pacing of the film (not me, but I would understand others perhaps doing so).
However, on the flip side, to add more adulation to this already verbose review, the movie also does a brilliant job thematically touching upon the ideas of the demons in our past being a huge part of us, for better and worse. And that we as individuals have the power to let those demons destroy us or make us stronger. I think Dan’s character is the absolutely perfect choice to illustrate all of this. Furthermore, while I haven’t read the book, I hear the film does deviate greatly from it in a good way. Without spoiling anything, the final act will absolutely have Shining fans on the edge of their seats, foaming at the mouth on every easter-egg filled moment Flanagan takes to pay tribute to the behemoth film he’s standing on the shoulders of. That said, anything you see in the final act is absolutely all done with narrative and character purpose, and not just out of fan-service, which makes it all the sweeter!
Overall, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep is such an awesome time at the movies. I may go as far as to say this is probably my favorite horror movie of this year so far! Flanagan has made a triumphant movie with brilliant performances (particularly a star-making performance from Curran), a great script with soulful themes, a fantastic score, and brilliant (albeit sometimes scary) visuals. And in doing so, he’s accomplished the impossible by crafting a worthy successor to one of the finest horror films of all time, from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. At this rate, we’ll soon be seeing Mike Flanagan on that list in a few years time!
Overall Score: A-
Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep hits theaters November 8!