Doctor Sleep — Review
Mike Flanagan reconciles King and Kubrick in one of the year’s best horror films, bringing warmth and hope seldom found in the genre.
Stephen King’s brand of horror has always been deeply rooted in human emotion. Many times, the physical monsters and ghosts that King conjures are secondary horrors to the trauma they cause his characters. That’s why King’s voice works so well — he writes character-first fiction. This tendency for character drama over scares has only become more prominent in the writer’s work recently, especially in Doctor Sleep, the sequel to his classic novel, The Shining.
Upon first reading Doctor Sleep, I thought we would never see a film adaptation of it without retconning everything that Stanley Kubrick did in his 1980 adaptation of The Shining. It’s common knowledge that King infamously disliked Kubrick’s film, feeling as though it stripped away the humanity of his novel and made Jack Torrance a one-note lunatic. Yet, the film is an iconic piece of pop culture and cinema, and rightfully so. It’s a wonderful film; it’s just a much different beast than King’s novel of a family being torn apart by ghosts and addiction. This presents a unique challenge for an adaptation of King’s sequel.
Well, here we are in the year 2019, and director Mike Flanagan has released his film adaptation of Doctor Sleep. Facing the monumental challenge of creating an adaptation that was faithful to King’s novel yet worked as a sequel to a film that varied drastically from its own source material, Flanagan has crafted one of the best horror films of the year. It’s a film that wears many hats (literally and metaphorically), and pulls them all off with poignancy and applomb. While it could be — and has been — said that Kubrick’s The Shining is a cold, bleak film, there is no hint of that bleakness in Doctor Sleep.
That’s because, at its core, Doctor Sleep is a drama about addiction, trauma, and the recovery from those hardships. It’s definitely a horror movie; there are scares aplenty, but Flanagan uses them to enhance the characters’ emotional journeys rather than make them the centerpiece of his film. It’s a quieter film than Kubrick’s, a contemplative journey of confronting the past and moving forward to find peace. But there are also vampiric quasi-immortals that torture their victims and drain them of their life force.
Anchored by a stellar performance from Ewan McGregor, Doctor Sleep follows Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) years after the events of The Shining. When we meet back up with Danny, now going by Dan, he’s picked up a few of his father’s bad habits. He’s got a drinking problem, a temper, and violent tendencies. To put it simply, he’s not an upstanding citizen of the world. He indulges in alcohol and drugs to suppress the Shining, still haunted by past ghosts both literal and metaphorical. After a particularly rough morning, Dan hops and a bus and starts over in a new town. There, he finds a friend who gets him the help he needs to sober up. While there, Abra (Kyleigh Curran), a girl with extraordinary abilites begins to communicate with him.
Meanwhile, a cult of vampiric beings that ingest “steam,” the lifeforce of those with the Shine, roam around the country, searching for their next victim. With less and less steam in the world, the True Knot grows hungrier and more desperate in their search. Led by the charismatic and powerful Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the True Knot oozes menace from the moment they grace the screen. Of course, it stands to reason that they would find out about Abra and want the abundance of steam she has to offer. Therein, lies the person vs. person conflict of the film.
Yet, despite the main storyline being so straightforward, Doctor Sleep has a lot going on. Dan, Abra, and the True Knot don’t truly come together until midway through the second act, so the first half of the film largely focuses on them individually. The True Knot creates an interesting character foil to Dan in many ways. Where Dan dampens the Shining, they actively seek it out. They seek out steam like addicts while he learns to control his darker impulses.
Likewise, Abra and Dan compliment each other nicely. Dan, having associated the Shining with the ghosts and trauma of his past, considers it a beacon for the horrors of the world. Therefore, he stays away from using his abilities, afraid that they’ll only bring him more pain. Abra, on the other hand, is infatuated with her abilities, only hiding them because of her parents’ apprehension to them. She calls the Shining “magic” and enjoys playing tricks on people — especially the True Knot.
But even the best written characters are nothing without the right actors bringing them to life. Much like its predecessor, Doctor Sleep shines in its three central performances. Ewan McGregor gives the performance of a lifetime as a man looking to find peace. He keeps Dan rooted firmly in reality, even as supernatural occurences surround him. The movie rests on his shoulders, and he rises to the occasion. Kyleigh Curran brings heart to a role that can sometimes feel overshadowed by the other two leads, but manages to shine through when it counts.
Still, the MVP of Doctor Sleep is undoubtedly Rebecca Ferguson, in the first role worthy of her talents since her mainstream breakthrough in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. Every mannerism, vocal cadence, and movement is meticulously crafted to make Rose the Hat a villain both terrifying and magnetic. Her eyes have a glow to them, even when they’re not being enhanced with CGI. She steals every scene she’s in with a nuanced performance, giving depth to a role that could have easily slipped into cartoonish villainy.
Similar to its predecessor, Doctor Sleep benefits from assured direction. Instead of aping Kubrick’s style and sensibilities, Mike Flanagan makes this story his own. There’s homage paid to Kubrick’s film — entire shots are recreated with different actors giving uncanny performances — but it never feels as though Flanagan is trying to be Kubrick. He brings a warmth to this film that was absent in its predecessor and imbues the movie with hope. Dare I say, this is the most feel-good horror film of the year.
That’s not to say Doctor Sleep doesn’t go to some dark places; Dan begins this movie a rather unlikable character, and there are plenty of stomach-turning sequences. Much like Andy Muschietti’s It duology, children are far from safe in this world. Still, Flanagan weaves themes of hope and peace throughout the film, much like King has done in his more recent works. It’s not a spoiler to say that I had a smile on my face at the end of the film, which brilliantly reconciles both King and Kubrick’s respective visions of the story.
By honoring the past and coming to the table with a strong vision, Mike Flanagan has crafted a horror classic that’s every bit as impressive as The Shining. If Kubrick’s film was a cold look at addiction’s destructive power, Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is a warm, heartfelt response of recovery and healing. It’s not only a great companion piece to a cinematic icon, but a great film in its own right. Audiences seem to be sleeping on it, which is a shame. Doctor Sleep is further proof that the Stephen King brand shines on.