Released: 7th November
Seen: 3rd November (Advance Screening)
In 1977, Stephen King released his third novel. The Shining told the tale of Jack Torrence, an alcoholic in recovery who takes a job as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. While he’s taking care of that hotel a bunch of ghosts basically push Jack off the wagon of sobriety and send him insane, leading to him trying to kill his wife and child. That child, Danny, has a special telepathic power that gives the book its title. The book went on to be a massive success, effectively confirming that Stephen King was the king of the horror novel and was such a huge hit that it wasn’t long before it was adapted into a film that is widely considered one of the best horror films of all time.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of the Stephen King novel is probably even more well known than the book, it certainly overtook it in popular culture. To make this point, let me just remind you that in the book Jack’s rampage at the end is with a croquet mallet and not an axe… chances are most people either forget that or don’t know it, that’s how influential the Kubrick version became. Of course, the one person who would gleefully argue that Kubrick’s version isn’t that good is King himself who, infamously, thought Kubrick didn’t have a clue what the book was about and missed out on a lot of key elements. He wasn’t alone because, at the time, The Shining was nominated for two Razzies and had a lot of critical dismissal. Everyone NOW regards it as a classic, back then critics weren’t fond of it (so when you see a critic coming after a film you like, maybe wait a little bit and see if the passage of time changes their mind). The Shining has managed to loom large over popular culture in the decades since the film’s release and in 2013, Stephen King set about writing the sequel that was destined to be turned into its own movie.
Doctor Sleep picks up decades after the original movie with an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) still barely coping with the trauma of his childhood. He copes by using cocaine and alcohol, a combination that has never gone badly for anyone ever at any point in human history. Still, after a particularly bad night that makes Danny realize he’s turned into his father, he enters AA and tries to begin rebuilding his life. Of course, just as he starts getting on the right track is when he ends up communicating with a young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) who also has the gift of the shining. Turns out, a lot of people have the shining in them… and also turns out that a cult known as the True Knot would like to find all the people who have the shining and drain them of it. The leader of this cult, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), has led her little cult into living for centuries thanks to their regular feeding on people’s shining, which they call ‘steam’ because we need to throw more varied terminology into this mixture. Now Danny and Abra must team up to fight against Rose and her True Knot cult before the cult finds them and drains them of more than just their shine.
Now, I will openly admit to not reading the novel this is based on. In my defence, Stephen King puts out books every other day so I stopped trying to keep up with them long ago. What I do genuinely like about this adaptation is that it accepts that most people’s point of reference is the Kubrick version and uses the imagery from that film to help tell the story. Recreations of shots from the 1980 movie are spot on, and the borrowing of Kubrick’s visual style flows throughout the film so it feels like the sequel that Kubrick might’ve done had he been the kind of man who was in any way interested in doing sequels. The recasting of Wendy and young Danny are especially perfect, to the point where there were several moments I needed to do a double-take. They also really went in on recreating the interior of the Overlook and how it would look after being abandoned for 40 years, it’s a visual treat that takes all of Kubrick’s tricks and expands on them. Serious kudos to Mike Flanagan who found this unique blend of adapting the book and making a sequel to a completely different movie, that’s not an easy thing to pull off but he did it and it’s genuinely impressive in every possible way.
What’s also really stunning is the performances, in particular, Rebecca Ferguson who made Rose the Hat into an iconic villain within a few minutes of being on screen. Put Rose the Hat up there with Annie Wilkes or Margaret White in the pantheon of “Stephen King female movie villains” where she belongs because she is intimidating, cunning and brilliant. Ewan McGregor does a genuinely commendable job playing Danny Torrence, in particular exploring how Danny’s childhood would’ve basically screwed him up for life. The entire film is about childhood trauma never really going away and trying to cope with painful memories, and Ewan has to sell that and he does. From his early scenes where Danny is just a lost soul to when he finally finds the ability to… well, to shine (sorry), Ewan makes the character his own and sells everything he’s got. Kyliegh Curran as Abra might be the most fun character in the film, still discovering how to use her powers but having no qualms about using them any way she has to in order to survive. There are so many scenes where she’ll face off with a member of the True Knot clan and tell them she hopes they die slowly and it’s just such a treat to see someone being so blunt about wanting the bad guys to lose. Also, serious props to Alex Essoe who took on Wendy Torrance, she just became Shelley Duvall and it’s brilliant.
I will confess though, it feels like this is almost a completely unrelated story that just happens to involve Danny Torrence. The shining is portrayed in this movie as some kind of strange gas that can give people immortality but that was never a part of the original story, not to my memory anyway. It’s just such a different tone and feel like it’s just a bunch of different ideas that got slammed together by adding Danny. There’s the stuff with the cult which is interesting but also feels like it’s just there because you can’t do a sequel without a new antagonist so they adjust what the shining is. Then there’s this entire subplot with a cat who can predict when people will die, which is how Danny gets the Doctor Sleep nickname… this plot means nothing, it’s a creepy idea but it’s completely unrelated to the cult or the shining. It just feels like there’s a bunch of ideas that don’t mesh quite right, and they feel insanely different from the tone of The Shining. I guess the upside is that you don’t need to watch The Shining to understand Doctor Sleep, but they just don’t feel like they’re related narratively… visually, sure, but how one story follows the other is beyond me
It’s also just not quite as scary as it could be. Yes, the original film had a ton of build-up but it used that time to create an atmosphere so that when the time came for hell to break loose, the audience was on the edge of their seats. That’s not happening here, the tension never really builds to those great heights and some of the effects are just kind of bad. The CGI they use for whenever a member of the True Knot clan dies is honestly pretty shocking and pulled me right out of the horror of the moment, but the final sequence in the Overlook does make up for some of the lost scares.
All in all though, Doctor Sleep is still really good. It never reaches the lofty heights of what came before it and it certainly doesn’t feel like we desperately needed to know what happened to Danny, but it’s an interesting exploration of the long term damage that comes with childhood trauma. It’s got some great performances and a visual aesthetic that is just a delight to watch, but it’s just a little bit short from being as great as the original film was. It’s certainly a good film and fun to watch, but it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be a classic… but then again, neither did the original so who knows. In 20 years I might be claiming this one is a masterpiece, but right now it’s just pretty good and pretty good should be good enough.