DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Talk about a tough act to follow. Though it’s maybe not my favourite, pound for pound, I reckon Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining is perhaps the single greatest horror film ever made. Not only is it still scary, with a sustained sense of dread from the opening shot, but it’s incredibly iconic: Nicholson’s face in the door, the two little girls waiting around the corner and what happens if combine all work and no play. As such, for this movie sequel, and the 2013 novel it has adapted, it was hard not to see some hubris when it first got announced. Then I saw who was making it: Mike Flanagan. I’m as much a Flanboy as a constant reader: he’s very possibly the most exciting director in our genre. For a start, he’s shown he can do sai King justice before, with the excellent Gerald’s Game (my film of the year for 2017 and very maybe in my top twenty of all time). He’s also made one of the best individual seasons of TV I’ve ever seen, with the Haunting of Hillhouse, along with some great original work such as Hush. As such, if there’s anyone I’d trust to rise to the challenge, it’s him.
He certainly doesn’t shy away from it, with an extended opening that plunges us right back into a remarkable recreation of the Overlook complete with look-alikes. The obvious love and affection that’s gone into recreating this, and later scenes, so faithfully is reason enough to want to watch it on the big screen. We see Danny got into Room 237 and then find out what happened in the immediate aftermath (this bit quickly establishes we’re in the Kubrick continuity). Since we left Danny (McGregor), as he fled the hotel where his axe-wielding father froze to death, he’s been struggling to come to terms what happened there. Homeless with PTSD, and his long since departed dad’s penchant for the demon drink, he drifts between towns fighting strangers and struggling to silence the ghosts of his past. In other words, he’s a far cry from the little mop-top on a tricycle we once knew. It’s only through a job at a hospice that he finds peace, with his telepathy allowing him to sooth the dying – hence a patient nicknaming him Doctor Sleep. However, this hard-won solace gets shattered when he is sought out by Abra (Curran), a teenager with extrasensory powers. She needs his help to fight the True Knot: a rag-tag gang of beatnik, soul-eating vampires, who feast on the powers of kids who shine. Led by Rose The Hat (Ferguson), they will stop at nothing to steal Abra’s innocence, leading to a psychic battle which takes place all across America. Of course, there’s only place it can end.
King has made no secret of his dislike for Kubrick’s version of The Shining, with characters in one of his recent books (The Outsider) even taking time to dismiss it. So with him on board as executive producer, Flanagan has the unenviable task of uniting the two different versions of the same story. The problem is these very distinct voices are opposites, with the warm, sentimental and otherworldly nature of the former going up against the sterile, cold nature of the latter. Perhaps wisely, given the sprawling plot, Flanagan goes for the most part with King, aside from some moments of nostalgia. It’s also worth mentioning from Mike’s previous work that, as per King, despite the dark subject matter he appears to have a fundamentally optimistic world view: there’s always light in the darkness. He also seems to care a lot about the metaphysical aspects of this universe, and its limits, once again connecting it in dialogue to The Dark Tower (all things serve the beam). So think of the movie as the novel’s Overlook with Kubrick’s furniture. Maybe its biggest achievement is how well it builds upon the mythology of the first, making its small-scale terror a tiny part of a grand battle between good and evil. However, the more open narrative means Doctor Sleep struggles to create much tension, with the main players being thousands of miles apart for most of the running time.
Rather, unlike the similarly bladder-testingly long It Chapter 2, Doctor Sleep uses duration time to develop its themes over its fear. What happens after we die, how to deal with trauma and a surprisingly sober look at alcoholism – these are what interests Flanagan. Which is commendable, and means that while Doctor lacks the immediate visceral impact of a dad trying to butcher his family, it does have personal stakes. The contrast between Danny and his father’s struggles with booze rage and madness is also a really strong element that will sit well with fans – that is until a slightly goofy, and I’d say unearned, point when subtext becomes text late on. However, it also means there’s not much momentum before it becomes the movie I suspect a lot of fans will have wanted it to be in the final act – with some good thrills and awkward pandering alike. Instead, its meandering pacing means it almost watches more like a mini-series at points, and the bulk of the characters’ long-distance duelling resembles the sort of world tilting, astral projection psychic battles more commonly associated with X-Men movies. Spectacular, but for me a little flat and without urgency. As the characters get moved around ever so slowly, like pieces in a particularly cautious chess game, there’s rarely the feeling things will kick-off. That is until they finally do, roughly 80% into the running time.
This slump occurs despite Ferguson’s best efforts. Her delightfully flamboyant depiction of Rose the Hat may be the highlight of the film, but she never registered as much of a threat for me. From an early stage, we know that Abra is more than a match for her, and when it comes, a strange deviation from the book means the final confrontation lacks the suspense it could have had. It was one of few times I’ve been genuinely more worried for the villain. Nonetheless, her scenes with the rest of the True Knot are more often than not the standouts, with their comradery and constant fear of death keeping them interesting. One scene, in particular, that echoes Batty’s speech in Blade Runner, hints at an epic backing story and a long journey they’ve been on together. Danny and Abra’s ones also have their moments, with their early time as telepathic pen pals being endearing. McGregor and Curran are also both likeable, with enjoyable chemistry and it’s nice to see him take on the Hallorann role. Yet despite how long we spend getting to know him, Danny’s trauma is perhaps a bit too abstract. This issue was heightened for me because I rarely felt anything like as worried for him as I used to.
On that point, there’s maybe an inevitable meta-element of revisiting The Shining all this time later. As a man in his early 40s, Flanagan likely grew up cowering behind the sheets at the Kubrick classic: for those not old enough to have seen it, it’s almost become a right of passage. In that respect, intentionally or not this sequel interrogates the first’s legacy since a lot of the audience will be like Danny, revisiting the site of their trauma. For many of them, I think it’ll work. Heck, it’s currently divided the Horror Cult Films crew, with Cludge liking it more than I did – maybe we’ll see a counter review soon. Out of the big three King flicks of 2019, I rate Doctor Sleep lower than It Chapter 2 or Pet Sematary. Still, despite its flaws, it’s an at times mesmerising, contemplative and ultimately rewarding sequel which is not to be *chuckle* overlooked.