A film review by Craig J. Koban November 21, 2019

DOCTOR SLEEP jjj

2019, R, 152 mins.

 

Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance  /  Kyliegh Curran as Abra Stone  /  Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat  /  Zahn McClarnon as Crow Daddy  /  Bruce Greenwood as Dr. John  /  Carel Struycken as Grampa Flick  /  Emily Alyn Lind as Snakebite Andi  /  Jacob Tremblay as Bradley Trevor

Directed by Mike Flanagan  /  Based on the novel by Stephen King

Question: 

How does one take on the Herculean task of making a sequel to one of the most iconic horror films (and cherished Stanley Kubrick films) of all time, which in turn was loosely adapted from one of Stephen King's most well known novels?  

Second Question:  

How does one make a sequel movie that appeases both fans of Kubrick's work and King's literature?

The short answer?  Very democratically and carefully. 

The Kubrick film in question is, of course, 1980's THE SHINING, which fully emerged at the time as less a faithful appropriation of King's source material and more something uniquely out of filmmaker's eccentric playbook.  THE SHINING wasn't instantly adored by filmgoers and critics upon release, but over the years people have warmed over to the notion that it's one of Kubrick's most chillingly atmospheric efforts, made all the more memorable because of Jack Nicholson's go-for-broke performance in it.  

King, on the other hand, has routinely been vocal of Kubrick's approach to his material (which most likely led to his mostly forgotten 1997 TV mini series version of his novel).  This brings us to the tricky dilemma of DOCTOR SLEEP, which is (a) an adaptation  of King's own sequel novel to THE SHINING and (b) tries to pay respect to both die hard King and Kubrick lovers.  Writer/director Mike Flanagan (GERALD'S GAME) seems thanklessly committed to such a tough endeavor, and his DOCTOR SLEEP miraculously manages to keep its feet in both ends of the cinematic and literary legacies of THE SHINING.  That, and it doesn't fall victim - as so many lackluster sequels do - of just spinning its narrative wheels and dryly and lazily rehashing what's come before.  King's and Kubrick's indelibly large shadows are cast heavily over DOCTOR SLEEP, but Flanagan deserves supreme props for crafting his own nightmarish thriller that stands on its own while thoroughly and respectfully acknowledging what's come before. 

And this sequel has an intriguingly enticing hook: What happened to that poor and deeply traumatized young lad in Danny Torrance after the events of THE SHINING, during which time his stay at the supernaturally charged Overlook Hotel made his father go six ways to Sunday nuts and attempt to murder him and his mother?  Flanagan opens his film with some nifty flashbacks (which rather wisely and thankfully doesn't utilize distracting CGI recreations of the 1980 film's actors) that serve as a prologue to THE SHINING, re-introducing us to Danny (Roger Dale Floyd) as he's still being tormented by the ghosts of the Overlook that want to catch and eat away his "shine" powers and essence.  He's given a crash course, so to speak, by the spirit of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly, doing a pretty spot on impression of Scatman Crothers from the first film) in terms of how to take on each of these poltergeists one at a time.  Regardless of how psychically powerfully young Danny is, he still remains devastatingly haunted by what's happened to him and his mother, and as we flash forward to 2011 we meet back up with him as an adult (Ewan McGregor), who's now a pathetic drunk that can't find ways to forget the hellish ordeals of his childhood past.   

 

 

Danny can still shine, but he mostly subverts those abilities in an effort to try to maintain some semblance of normalcy in his life, but his alcoholic addictions get the better of him.  After being befriended by the kindly Bill (the always great Cliff Curtis), Danny learns to find solace in a group of recovering alcoholics and learns to beat his addictions and, while doing so, takes a job as an orderly in a nearby retirement and finds new purpose in using his powers to help dying old tenants find peace with moving on to the other side.  Unfortunately, Danny finds himself drawn pack into his past with the appearance of the teenage Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who arguably has shine powers just as strong, if not more, than his.  She's being routinely hunted down by a traveling group of gypsy-like stalkers, all led by Rose the Hat (a stellar Rebecca Ferguson), who has become a nearly unkillable vampire-like monster that kidnaps, tortures, and then literally inhales the shine from children.  Realizing this threat from Rose will never end, Danny decides to team up with his new protégée in Abra so they can plot a trap that will stop this nefarious being once and for all, and they do so with a return visit and a much need assist from the Overlook Hotel, which is now really, really worse for wear...in more ways that one. 

I found DOCTOR SLEEP's narrative trajectory quite interesting, especially in terms of how it uses the horror genre as a launching pad for exploring themes about how intense childhood trauma can all but ruin people well into adulthood.  Danny was so emotionally destroyed by the events of THE SHINING that he drinks just to suppress and forget about it.  DOCTOR SLEEP becomes an exploratory examination of salt being pour over decades old wounds, and it's compelling and sad to see the adult Danny engage in ample self-destructive behavior early on, and it becomes even sadder when he's forced to confront his past demons even well after beating his alcoholism.  That makes his Batman and Robin like relationship with Abra equally fascinating, mostly because he wants to ensure what happened to him all those years ago doesn't happen to her.

I appreciated the slowly evolving character driven approach to DOCTOR SLEEP, which doesn't feel all that compelled to throw obligatory jump scares at viewers like it was going out of style.  Flanagan's overall approach is patient and leisurely, allowing for the characters to be well introduced and developed, which helps the existentialist terrors to come feel all the more unnerving.  The performances here are uniformly committed and assured, with McGregor leading the charge as the forty-ish Danny who has been wallowing in self-medicated help for far too long to cast out memories of his murderous and crazy father and that damn possessed hotel (McGregor wisely underplays his role with just the right level of long term sadness that gives way later to headstrong resolve).  His paired nicely with the 13-year-old Curran, who shows a maturity and poise for her very taxing role (her character never becomes a mere sidekick that requires frequent rescuing, which is refreshing).  Stealing the movie, though, is Ferguson's tour de force portrayal as the villain of the piece, and her hippie vampire could have been overplayed to the part of distracting, but the actress is smart enough to make this monster more subtly and seductively dangerous and creepy. 

Flanagan is perhaps the real star here, and his method of respecting his multiple creative parties of inspiration in DOCTOR SLEEP is a real delicate and tough balancing act, to be sure, but he pulls it off rather well.  Yes, DOCTOR SLEEP is a direct movie sequel to THE SHINING, with specific events, characters, and moments being referenced and sometimes recreated, but it also acknowledges that King's source novel is important as well, making a reconciling of both of paramount importance here.  Flanagan employs a remarkable amount of ambitious inventiveness in having his film maintain some stylistic echoes of Kubrick's work, most definitely felt in the score by The Newton Brothers, which understatedly echoes the music of the first film while having a synthesized life of its own.  The production design (or, re-design work in some cases) is pretty incredible as well, most notably as the film builds towards its tension filled and well earned climax set in the run down, abandoned, boarded up, but still very much haunted Overlook Hotel, which I've read was not entirely the product of VFX, but rather meticulous set recreations on vast soundstages (kind of staggering).  DOCTOR SLEEP really makes audiences think that they're thrust right back into that haunted house of horrors without missing a beat.  And, as already mentioned, Flanagan makes the absolute right choices with not using de-aging effects to make THE SHINING's characters come back four decades later; I love the fact that he used look-alike actors...there's a lesson to be learned here I think.   

Not all of DOCTOR SLEEP is rock solid and steadily engineered.  Some ideas and subplots - like Danny using his gifts to assist dying elderly people in that nursing home - are introduced and then jettisoned too early.  The film is also far too long, and its 151 running time shows its bloat and sometimes impedes narrative flow and momentum.  That, and perhaps the largest elephant in the room worthy of bringing up is just how, well, necessary was a cinematic sequel to THE SHINING?  DOCTOR SLEEP is unquestionably a good standalone horror film with stalwart direction and some truly refined performances, but as a sequel to THE SHINNING - so deeply entrenched in the minds of cinephiles and Kubrick fundamentalists the world over - it reminded me a lot of 2010 as a sequel to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (the former was well crafted on its own terms, but felt mostly superfluous as a required follow-up entry to a landmark classic that didn't require one).  DOCTOR SLEEP ain't THE SHINING.  But, what horror film could attain such a lofty upper echelon status?  It's a terrifically orchestrated sequel made with great care, tact, and polish, and it makes honest attempts to expand upon the first film as opposed to remaking or re-imagining it, and all why vigilantly paying fan service to two creative titans in their respective fields. That's not easy, which is why DOCTOR SLEEP mostly shines throughout.  

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