What Shines Bright Casts Long Shadows
Review by Wade Buckley
Directed by Mike Flanagan of Haunting of Hill House fame, Doctor Sleep is an adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 novel of the same name. The film follows Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), a man who as a child suffered abuse at the hands of both his alcoholic father, and supernatural horrors which were drawn to his innate psychic abilities, which he refers to as “shining.” Now an adult, Dan struggles with his own alcoholism as he tries to move past his traumatic childhood.
Dan eventually finds purpose when he encounters Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran), a thirteen-year-old girl who can use the “shining” just like him. Abra’s incredibly powerful “shine” has attracted the True Knot, a group of vampiric individuals lead by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who murder and consume children who “shine” to maintain eternal youth. Dan must now step into the role of mentor and protector of Abra, and help her stop the True Knot once and for all.
What Doctor Sleep excels at is creating convincing relationships between its three main characters, allowing time for each character to be introduced and developed at a natural pace. In fact, the entire first act of the film doesn’t have Dan, Abra, or Rose meet in person at all, instead establishing their characters independent of each other. By the time the three inevitably meet, the viewer knows and understands each one completely. As such, no character motivation or decision ever seems confusing or contrived, which is incredible considering how much is going on in Doctor Sleep’s plot.
Ewan McGregor leads the film as Dan Torrance, a protagonist who is fighting on two fronts, against the True Knot and against himself. There is tense darkness that lurks underneath Dan’s psyche, and his awareness of that darkness causes him to keep others at a distance, out of fear of hurting them.
McGregor brings a vulnerability and sensitivity to the role that sells it completely and his stand-out performance makes Dan’s internal conflict almost more compelling than the external, creating a much deeper and human hero than the horror genre is used to.
Rose the Hat (Rebecca Fergusson), on the other hand, portrays a twisted facsimile of kindness, a monster who has lived too long to show any sort of sympathy for anyone besides herself. Rose is a person who indulges in eternal youth by devouring the pain and fear of children who “shine,” and Fergusson plays this compulsion to inflict pain on others perfectly. However, Rose is not just in it for herself. She depends on the community of like-minded killers in the True Knot, and her willingness to kill for it makes her an even more compelling and terrifying villain.
Dan and Rose are fantastic foils of each other, with their personal philosophies challenging the other despite the two not encountering each other until the third act of the film.
By contrast Abra Stone, played by newcomer Kyleigh Curran, is overshadowed by McGregor and Ferguson, which is a shame since Curran doesn’t do anything wrong with the character. Abra has many moments where she shows agency and growth, but ultimately feels like out of place at times. She doesn’t quite mesh with the thematic struggles that Dan and Rose bring to the table, and at times feels more like a way to bring Dan and Rose into conflict.
The first two acts of Doctor Sleep are great, as a psychic cat-and-mouse game between Abra, Dan, and Rose escalates with deadly consequences. Although not as scary as most horror films, some scenes are downright disturbing and leaves the audience engaged and anxious the entire time.
The third act finds the trio returning to the Overlook Hotel for the final showdown, which unfortunately becomes a bit of a mixed bag, especially if you are a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
If you were not aware, Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining, another adaptation of a Stephen King novel, and considered to be one of the greatest horror films ever made. Now, almost forty-years later, Flanagan was tasked with directing the sequel to a film that people have been calling a masterpiece for decades. No pressure.
Despite the difficulty of this assignment, Flanagan has exceeded expectations with Doctor Sleep. While it is a continuation of The Shining, Doctor Sleep is very much its own story, with a different scope, tone, and scale than its predecessor. It also expands on the rules and mechanics of “shining,” crafting a brand-new mythology, whereas The Shining focused more on atmospheric horror.
Flanagan recognizes this, and instead of attempting to recreate Kubrick’s acclaimed style, he uses his own, which draws out the strengths of the novel’s story to its fullest. However, Flanagan doesn’t flat out ignore Kubrick, and offers subtle homages throughout the first two acts.
It works spectacularly, and Doctor Sleep stands on its own as a great picture, and you don’t even need to see The Shining to appreciate it. If you have never seen The Shining you can still enjoy Doctor Sleep without feeling confused or isolated. However, if you are a Kubrick fanatic, Dan and Abra’s return to the Overlook may make or break the film for you.
In the third act Flanagan recreates some of the most iconic shots of The Shining with an attention to detail that only one with a huge respect for Kubrick can. Flanagan’s use of the original Shining score is powerful but not over done, and his homages to Kubrick’s style puts new context onto familiar settings. Additionally, seeing the same set of the condemned Overlook some forty years later is breath-taking. Watching Dan walk into the Gold Room the same way Jack Torrance did forty years ago is chilling, and my personal favorite moment of the film.
Where things go off the rails a bit is when Flanagan references the horrors of the Overlook. The Grady Twins, the woman in room 237, and the blood spilling out of the elevators all make an appearance, but they seem more like side show attractions this time around, especially when the ghosts of the Overlook are used as a plot device. Depending on how much you like Kubrick’s adaptation, this could feel anywhere from plain boring to sacrilege.
However, Doctor Sleep is enough of its own movie that comparing it to both Kubrick and King’s renditions of The Shining isn’t very fair. Doctor Sleep is very much its own entity, and it’s a shame that what bogs it down the most is the connection it has to its predecessor. Doctor Sleep is a fantastic film, and while he can’t compare to the directorial phenomenon that was Kubrick, Flanagan has created something worthy of your time, and if it pleases you, your scrutiny.