It’s a giant, terrifying monolith sitting high on a hill. A massive, foreboding, cold and cavernous void for all your fears and unspoken paranoia. I could be referencing The Overlook Hotel and its ghostly, psychic nightmares; but I could just as easily mean Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Itself a controversial adaptation of Stephen King’s equally (though differently) monolithic horror novel. Each version of the story of Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance’s ill-fated winter at a Colorado hotel seems impenetrable and unknowable in its own way; naturally marrying the two 40 years later would seem an insurmountable task. Unless you’re Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep.
A wunderkind of creepy, ghostly horror and a clear acolyte of King, Flanagan has garnered acclaim with his intimate horror stories about family breakdowns and spirits of the past. Perfect for something like Doctor Sleep. After 2018’s hit Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, not to mention his previous, “unfilmable” King adaptation, Gerald’s Game, the pieces were all in place for Flanagan’s biggest success to date. And it is a success, ultimately, even if isn’t a work of horror mastery like the original.
To Flanagan’s credit, much of Doctor Sleep‘s set-up is the book sped up. An adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has fallen victim to the same alcoholism that destroyed his father. He’s haunted by the literal and metaphorical ghosts of his time at the Overlook Hotel. Dan moves to New Hampshire, gets a job at a hospice, and checks into A.A. While living his quiet existence, he begins receiving messages from a little girl with a big ability to shine. Her name is Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) and they become pen pals of sorts.
Elsewhere, though, is the gang of gypsies known as the True Knot. Their leader, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), in an effort to stave off the extinction she fears is imminent, tries to find young shiners to eat. When she feels Abra’s presence, she knows there’s no better chance for her people’s survival than to feed off of the most powerful person she’s ever felt. This naturally leads Dan, Abra, and Rose on a collision course, the endpoint of which is the one place Dan has tried to forget about for his entire life.
At points during the movie’s first act, it seems like we’re in no hurry to get anywhere. We spend time with Dan, both as a child following the events of The Shining, and later as a supremely troubled, self-destructive alcoholic. This is an important stretch of the movie because without it, our lead character has no narrative push. Dan wants to better himself, he knows he can help people with his gift, and he knows how his dad ended up. We also get to meet Rose and her cronies. Rebecca Ferguson gives a deeply menacing and scarily relatable performance; one that provides the movie with the villain it deserves. She’s the most together person in the film until she becomes a cornered animal and it’s really great and upsetting.
Where the movie starts to lose it a bit (and just a bit) is in the middle section. We know Dan and Abra have to meet, and that eventually Rose will show up to face off, but because the book takes a very, very long time to get there, the movie by necessity must skip around quickly without lingering. As a result, the connection between Dan and Abra, and Dan and his friend/sponsor Billy (Cliff Curtis), feels a bit undercooked. It’s taken as shorthand a bit and I wish there was room for more organic growth there. But there’s too much ground to cover, often literally.
While I generally didn’t find Doctor Sleep all that scary, there are a couple of excellent sequences that remind you why Flanagan is the important horror filmmaker he is. The first is bound to be the movie’s most upsetting sequence. It involves the True Knot’s “feast” on a particular young psychic. Like animals, the members of the Knot encircle the prey and with every scream of pain they ravenously inhale the expelled steam. It’s incredibly harrowing, serving to show just how monstrous Rose and her family are. It’s scenes like this that make me hope one day Flanagan tackles Salem’s Lot; he’d kill it.
Where the movie really kicks up a notch is in the third act, when Dan and Abra reach the Overlook. Suddenly the movie slows down and we re-enter Kubrick’s world. Every recognizable bit of the hotel is alive and terrifying yet again. We get the sense Flanagan has been waiting the entire movie to take us into Room 237, the Colorado Lounge, and the hedge maze. This is also where Flanagan’s film diverges considerably from King’s novel, but in so doing, addresses some of King’s misgivings with Kubrick’s film in a surprisingly moving and satisfying way.
Doctor Sleep is a completely different beast to The Shining. The earlier story is about a family’s struggles with demons stemming from alcoholism; the follow-up is about recovery, trying to overcome said demons. As such, Dan doesn’t cower in fear from the Overlook’s many terrifying spirits. (The woman in Room 237 and the Grady Twins are certainly present.) Instead, he uses them and the power of the hungry evil hotel to his advantage. As a fan of Kubrick’s movie, as Flanagan clearly is, it’s supremely satisfying to see the iconography of The Shining as a weapon against an even greater foe.
And in this way, Flanagan and Doctor Sleep forge their own place in horror canon. It’s not about being scared, it’s about overcoming childhood fears to succeed in adulthood. While it’s harrowing and upsetting and certainly very creepy, Doctor Sleep doesn’t terrify. But I don’t think it needs to. It ends up feeling like a deeply personal story from a filmmaker who’s taking his love for literary and cinematic titans and channeling that into his own unique and chilling stamp on the genre.
4 out of 5
Featured Image: Warner Bros