“The Shining” has long been one of the most quintessential Stephen King novels, an early distillation of his talent for using horror as a mirror to reflect on human weakness and strength. And The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of the novel, was a moody masterpiece that placed such a heavy stamp on the story, it’s easy to think of the auteur’s name before the author’s when you hear the title even now. The thing is, of course, that there are some major differences between the book and the film, especially in how they ended. Then, 35 years after the publication of “The Shining”, King went on write an unexpected sequel called “Doctor Sleep,” which examined what a grown-up Danny Torrance’s life would look like — and now we have the film adaptation of that book. Only this film, written and directed by Mike Flanagan, does so much more than simply adapt King’s sequel. He recognized that, while King only had to correspond with himself on the page, any filmmaker tackling this sequel also needs to contend with the cinematic shadow cast by Kubrick as well. The Doctor Sleep arriving in cinemas this week manages to bridge the gap between Kubrick’s and King’s visions of the events at the Overlook Hotel, creating a confident and thoughtful testament to the legacies of both creators — and a wholly satisfying experience in its own right.
Not that there’s much of the story that takes place at the Overlook, mind you. Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has spent his life running away from the trauma of his past. He was able to trap the ghosts from the Overlook that continued to haunt him in lockboxes of the mind, thanks to a trick he learned from his old pal Dick Halloran, and he managed to dull his fear (and his Shine) the way he’d learned from his father: with alcohol and violence. We meet him when he disastrously hits rock bottom, then follow him to a quaint New Hampshire town that offers him a chance at a fresh start. It’s there that he chooses sobriety, enters AA, finds a mentor named Billy (Cliff Curtis), and takes a job as an orderly at a hospice. With his newfound clarity comes a glimmer of his former powers, which Dan uses to comfort the dying elderly in his care during their final moments… and to strike up a psychic correspondence with a young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran). Abra too has the Shine — only hers is bright as a spotlight, and with it she can hear people’s thoughts and even look in on them from a distance. Dan and Abra remain pen pals of the mind for years, sharing the odd greeting throughout their day, until the night that Abra uses her gifts to witness a redrum… er, murder, and calls out to Dan for help.
And here’s where I finally get to introduce Doctor Sleep’s delicious villain, Rose The Hat — played by a swaggering, bohemian Rebecca Ferguson. Rose leads a caravan of roving pseudo-vampires called the True Knot as they traverse the country, vaping on kids. Seriously. The True Knot aren’t exactly immortal, you see. They simply live long lives, provided they eat well — and their diet of choice is “Steam.” When people who have the Shine die, they release this Steam with their last breaths — and if they die in excruciating agony, the Steam tastes all the sweeter. Kids just so happen to have the best Steam, because of course they do!
So Abra witnesses the True Knot feeding, and Rose senses Abra watching, and you can tell where this is going, right? Abra is the best potential meal Rose has detected in years, and it’s down to Dan to help protect his young friend from the kind of evil no child should ever have to face — by taking her to the one place in the world evil enough to give Rose a run for her money. Luckily, Doctor Sleep is never quite as straight forward as it appears. Rebecca Ferguson may be the movie’s secret weapon, but Kyliegh Curran’s Abra is its heart and soul. Abra is everything little Danny Torrance could have been, if he’d had a stable family and a safe upbringing. She is confident, and brave, and she wants to hunt down the Knot just as badly as they want to hunt her. She is no frail child on the run, and one of the movie’s greatest pleasures is watching her cold, confident smile widen as she consistently gains the upper hand on Rose in their various interactions. It’s easy to sell the story as being about Dan Torrance, but so often he is just along for the ride as these two powerful women face off. Of course McGregor himself is no slouch, already used to portraying characters with Jedi mind tricks or wallowing in the depths of addiction, but his performance here is just the kind of unselfish slow burn the movie needed to ground it. He knows when he is the least interesting thing on screen, and he also knows when he needs to be the most interesting thing. In fact, from Zahn McClarnon as Rose’s right hand man to Jacob Tremblay in perfectly deployed cameo, the entire cast is a treat.
But the real star of the film is the man behind it, and I can’t give Mike Flanagan enough credit for pulling this sucker off — though I suppose it really shouldn’t be all that surprising that he did. Flanagan has a gift for knowing what makes a story tick, as he demonstrated with his adaptation of another Stephen King novel, Gerald’s Game, and he’s also not afraid to put his own spin on the source material, as was clear with his unexpected take on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. He approaches these works as a fan, but he’s doesn’t let his admiration get in the way of doing what he needs to do to make the finished product his own. Still, making a sequel to The Shining that is respectful to both versions of the story — and the two men behind them — is no small challenge. In fact, before seeing Doctor Sleep I would have said it was impossible. This is a long movie with a lot of threads to weave together, but never once in its 2.5 hour runtime did I feel that it actually dragged. The pacing is deliberate, punctuating the plot beats with terrifying set pieces and moments of deep dread that keep you engaged and never bored. The True Knot, as villains, are admittedly bizarre but never hokey. They’re chilling enough to make you forget about The Overlook entirely — at least for awhile. From the classic Warner Bros. logo at the top to the reprisal of The Shining’s haunting theme, there are steady callbacks to Kubrick’s film throughout — but Flanagan never tries to mimic the style of his predecessor (even as he’s staging flashbacks to scenes from the original that are so on point, I thought he’d used the actual footage). And the final act, where everything comes together, hinges on a twist so impressive that I’ll be unpacking it in a spoiler post next week. All I’ll say for now is that, with one tidy, clever storytelling choice, Flanagan managed to do justice to both Stephen King’s original vision of The Overlook and pay homage to exactly the kind of revisionism Stanley Kubrick committed in his version.
Doctor Sleep is an entertaining, well-crafted movie on its own merits, but it is an absolute masterclass is how to construct a satisfying sequel to something that never needed one in the first place.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.