Doctor Sleep (2019)

21 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Doctor Sleep” is the sequel to “The Shining”…but is it a sequel to Stephen King’s novel “The Shining” or Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic “The Shining”? It’s no secret that Kubrick took a lot of creative liberties with King’s original ideas, to which King expressed his disappointment—on the other hand, it’s hailed by a majority of cineastes as one of the greatest horror masterpieces of all time because its atmosphere and execution caused us to fill in many blanks that we actually cared to fill in. (There’s even a documentary, “Room 237,” about all of the fan theories surrounding many of the film’s ambiguities.) 

King wrote a sequel to his original novel, titled “Doctor Sleep,” and writer-director Mike Flanagan, who established himself as a modern master of horror with movies like “Hush,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” and another King adaptation, “Gerald’s Game,” as well as a hit Netflix horror series, “The Haunting of Hill House,” is making it into a film. But not only is it to be a faithful adaptation of the “Doctor Sleep” novel—it also has to work as a sequel to Kubrick’s “The Shining,” because that’s what movie audiences who love the original want to see. That’s a really tough challenge to take: appeal to both Kubrick fans and King fans—and you thought Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” (based on a Kubrick script) was ambitious! 

Well, no need to worry. It works wonders either way you look at it. “Doctor Sleep” is a terrific horror film and one of Flanagan’s most successful in an already-long line of gripping horror films. 

Our main character is Dan Torrence, who was the little boy (“Danny”) that was terrorized along with his mother (Alex Essoe, playing the Shelley Duvall role from the original film). Played by Ewan McGregor, he’s an aimless, alcoholic drifter who one day decides to get away from himself, as the experiences that haunted his childhood, which he’s tried to keep locked up using his psychic abilities (or “shine”) for many years, are still getting to him. After trying to drown out the senses of his gifts with booze, he wants to use it to help people (and himself). He travels to the small town of Frazier, New Hampshire, where he attends AA, gains a friend in his sponsor, named Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), and gets a job in hospice to care for dying people. (He knows when people are about to die and, using his shine, gives them each one last moment of peace and reassurance that there is life after death.) 

Fade to eight years later, when Dan has now cleaned up and bettered himself, and he also communicates telepathically with someone else who has the same psychic ability: a teenage girl named Abra (Kyleigh Curran), who is afraid to make her gifts known even to her parents. When a pack of nomadic, monstrous, humanistic beings is caught on her radar, Abra comes to Dan for help in stopping them from causing any more damage than they’ve already caused. Dan is reluctant as it seems these “people” are too dangerous, but before long, he knows he can’t let them get away with their doings. 

Let’s talk about these guys, shall we? They roam the country to capture, torture, and kill psychic children to feed off of their souls (or their “Steam,” as they call it)—they keep what’s left of the children’s essences in containers to feed off of when they need it. In return, they live longer lives than the average person. They may look ridiculous as somewhat of a ‘60s touring hippie rock band (complete with tour bus), but they are terrifying—especially in a gruesome sequence in which they snatch an innocent Little-Leaguer (Jacob Tremblay) and torture him to death to feed on more steam. They’re led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, wonderfully, subtly diabolical here), named for the black hat she always wears. Rose is near-immortal as she knows the ways of getting more steam (mostly by astral projection to seek more targets). 

Oh, and there’s a member on their team who can easily manipulate people’s minds by speaking to them. This is Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), a 15-year-old new member of the pack. Having her around makes things even more unsettling as she can easily convince someone to fall into one of their traps. 

They learn of Abra’s power, particularly that it’s stronger than they’ve ever faced before. Despite the possibility that she could fight back and overpower them, Rose insists on going after her to feed off her steam. Dan agrees to help Abra go against them when the time comes.

What surprised me most about “Doctor Sleep” (and what shouldn’t surprise me about any Mike Flanagan film by now) is that it put character and atmosphere ahead of terror and jump-scares. So much of the film depends on the acting, the writing, and the directing to keep us invested. They all work terrifically. Ewan McGregor is excellent as Dan Torrence, who is trying to move past his childhood traumas through alcoholism and then by getting away from himself before ultimately using his shine to help those in need. Up-and-comer Kyleigh Curran “shines” (forgive the pun) as Abra, a sweet, bright girl who is ready for battle when someone deserves to suffer for the horrific deeds they’ve done. We’re given plenty of time to witness the establishment of both interesting characters before they’re thrust into madness with Rose the Hat and co. Once that gets going, it’s an entertaining ride that also isn’t afraid to delve into deeper territory at times. 

As for the question as to whether this film is more “King” or “Kubrick,” I’d say it’s more “King.” Most of the time, watching the film is equal to the same experience as reading one of his stories. It’s more accessible than Kubrick’s work, which is to say that it’s more narratively polished and straightforward. But there are many visual cues that remind viewers of his work on “The Shining,” so that it still feels like a fitting sequel. And what’s even better is that it doesn’t rely TOO much on people having seen the original film (though it’s more of an interesting experience if you have seen it), and the scenes that call back to it (which have unfairly been dubbed as “fan service” by other critics) are satisfying because of its context within THIS story and not the previous story. 

I loved “Doctor Sleep” for being what it is and being a lot better than it could have been. How does it rank against “The Shining?” That’s both a fair and unfair question, but one is obviously all Kubrick and the other is obviously King (and Flanagan, obviously)—so, I guess it comes down to the question of are you fine with a more-than-suitable companion piece with more emotion than anticipated? I’m more than fine with it, which is why “Doctor Sleep” is one of my favorite films of 2019. 

One Response to “Doctor Sleep (2019)”

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