A follow-up to a classic that’s messy and flawed but nonetheless intriguing and engaging.
Doctor Sleep reveals to the audience how it intends to handle its cultural baggage rather quickly. Right from the opening minutes of the film, we are treated to a brand new recreation of a familiar scene from Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror opus this follows in the footsteps of. Then right after that, new scenes of Wendy and Danny Torrence after leaving the Overlook Hotel, a move that signifies this film doesn’t find it necessary to shy away from reintroducing these classic characters played by new actors. Right from the get-go you immediately get the sense that director Mike Flanagan doesn’t feel completely tied down by the weight of what he’s dealing with.
This continues to be the case for much of the following runtime. We flash-forward to catch up with Danny (Ewan McGregor) in the present day, a lost man who has a good heart somewhere in him but who has clearly inherited some of his father’s violent tendencies and certainly his dependency on alcohol. He moves to a new town and makes a friend who gets him a place with cheap rent, some honest work, and motivates him to start attending AA meetings. It’s in these sections where the film feels the most effective and poignant, as Danny’s lingering trauma both from the rage of his father and the supernatural power of the Overlook have both continued to haunt him in ways that have turned him into a broken man who needs help to learn to cope. It’s an honest shame that Doctor Sleep isn’t able to spend more time on this.
Instead, we get a large time-jump and significant focus on the other aspect of the plot: a group of immortal soul-sucking supernatural folks led by Rebecca Ferguson in a steampunk hat who murder children (and other people too I assume though they seem to go after a lot of kids) to consume their “steam”, the physical manifestation of the Shine that people like Danny are so in tune with. As the film progresses, they set their sights on a young girl named Abra who is especially gifted with the Shining and who becomes telepathically linked to Danny, who in turn must protect her and help her defeat this cult.
If that sounds kind of insane it’s because it is. This may be a sequel to Kubrick’s The Shining but it’s also assuredly an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, one that carries over his overt sense of goofy hokum. Those looking for more of the psychological torment of Kubrick’s film will walk away disappointed from a movie that is much more of a dark fantasy drama than any kind of spookfest; I have a feeling not many are gonna be itching to rewatch Doctor Sleep as part of their Halloween rotation in the coming years. Flanagan, as one of the most consistently interesting mainstream horror directors working today, is able to put his chops to good use for a handful of sequences but this is largely about the fight for the survival of Danny and Abra against a foe who is decidedly not particularly frightening in a traditional horror-movie sense.
It’s very odd but it’s also strangely compelling, the result of a talented filmmaker working with a solid foundation for a follow-up to classic material that somehow feels at once engrossing and disjointed. For as competently assembled as it is, there’s a strange sense of dissonance that pervades the project. The murderous cult spouts silly dialogue about consuming steam and living forever and is given several sequences to consume said steam, and watching everyone fight for their taste of the CGI smoke with glowing eyes is kind of dopey, to say the least. However, this is contrasted by a few surprising bouts of violence the movie dips into, including the torture and murder of a child and a wounded hand bit that recalls Flanagan’s other work on another King adaptation, Gerald’s Game. The film haphazardly jumps from being an accessible, sort of hacky supernatural drama that even has genuine comedic beats to something much darker and grim at the drop of a hat.
The disconnect exists elsewhere too, namely the climax of the film. I wasn’t sure how much Shining nostalgia the film was gonna go for, and I won’t spoil anything. Suffice to say that if you want to revisit certain elements of that film here, I do not think you’ll be disappointed. But given Flanagan’s apparent skepticism of purely coasting off Shining worship elsewhere in the film, it’s weird where we end up. It’s a strange feeling of Flanagan wanting to tread new ground with this material and its history but also feeling rigidly beholden to it. You can actively sense the middle ground he tries to reach in this movie; an attempt at a reconciliation between King’s novels, the iconography of Kubrick’s film, and his own vision as a filmmaker. It never quite coalesces.
Even still, despite all of its flaws and slipshod nature, there’s something genuinely fascinating here and it’s an entertaining ride. It’s long and bloated, (the second King adaptation this year with those descriptors after It: Chapter Two) and it never quite achieves the feeling of being a completely worthy follow-up. But there’s something endearing about this big, messy thing. It doesn’t do anything to tarnish the legacy of what came before and it takes some big swings in an effort to expand its lore, universe, and central character. It’s a film I’m left with endlessly conflicting emotions on, but one I ultimately respect for its admirable craft and its boundless sense of moxie for taking on this endeavor.