Doctor Sleep really should be a mess. Mike Flanagan has decided to adapt Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining by not only adapting the book in question, but also in fashioning it as an actual sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s novel, an adaptation that took some deviations from the source and which King is famously on the record as not liking.
Trying to serve two masters in such a way really ought to make the film fall apart and yet, right from the minute it opens with its 1990s style Warner Bros. logo, there is a brazen confidence here that is hard to resist.
While Doctor Sleep very much takes place in the universe of Kubrick’s film, it’s very much an adaptation of King’s novel; the story here is a much different beast than ‘family get terrorised in a haunted hotel’ relying on antagonists of a much more supernatural flavour than anything hinted at before and which has at least one foot planted more in a fantasy style of horror than the ghostly goings on that Kubrick presented.
Of course, King’s novel, like so much of his work, has always managed to blend horror genre trappings with more grandiose fantasy themes; the novel of The Shining featured hedge maze animals coming to life, something that was noticeably absent in Kubrick’s film, possibly for budgetary reasons but which might not have worked in his more chillier take on the source novel.
Doctor Sleep, which catches up with Danny Torrance in his later years, is a narrative that relies on immortal psychic vampires and psychic battles, already meaning that as a filmed sequel to Kubrick’s film it’s placing itself into a more overtly fantasy realm. Sure, Kubrick’s film made it clear that the Shining was real, but there has always been a hint or suggestion that the more ghostly goings on were either down to something as mundane as cabin fever or projections from Danny, and that’s where we should leave The Shining theories for now lest we go down that wonderful rabbit hole that was very much at the forefront of Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237.
King’s novels are ones in which the occurrence of supernatural activity is very much to be taken at face value and it’s that approach that Flanagan has followed. A wonderful director, Flanagan even did the daring thing of doing a new version of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a reinterpretation that worked wonders, despite having the spectre of a wonderful novel, an equally wonderful filmed version from the 60s and a critically reviled remake to contend with, and here he does it again by daring to walk in the footsteps and shadows of one of the most iconic works in the genre, and also one directed by one of the most famed auteurs in film history.
There are tributes, references and even full re-staging’s of Kubrick’s film going on here, but they never for once feel like the type of fan service that so much film going demands nowadays. In fact, they are very organic to the story and function as a brilliant set up a third act that takes us right back to the hotel itself for its final confrontation.
At the centre of it all is Ewan McGregor putting in a wonderful central performance as Dan; it’s a weighty characterisation for sure, but it never feels too maudlin, or overwrought, with so much that is left unsaid at key moments. King’s novel played very heavily with themes of addiction, and while the side of Jack Torrance’s character was there in Kubrick’s film, it was never his primary concern. Flanagan has put Dan’s demons front and centre and spends considerable time in the first act showing the depth of addiction, but the efforts he takes to clean up meaning that after one pivotal moment in the film’s later stages has him reaching for the bottle again, you cannot help but find yourself almost crying to the screen for him to not do it.
The central friendship at the heart of the film is that of Dan with Abra, played by Kyleigh Curran, which instantly reminds one of Danny and Mr Hallorann, portrayed here by Carl Lumbly in a manner that very much recalls the kindly warmth of Scatman Crothers. Credit is very much due for the fact that instead of trying to resurrect certain actors who have passed away via motion capture, ala Rogue One, or using the de-aging process, Flanagan opts to recast actors who look like those from The Shining and inviting an audible gasp when the film actually even goes as far as having a key Haunting of Hill House cast member appear as Jack Torrance himself for an incredible moment that pays glorious tribute to King’s writing but also to the visuals from Kubrick’s film.
Danny and Abra’s confrontations, a lot of them psychically, with Rose The Hat form the bedrock of many of the film’s set pieces, with dazzling staging, effective use of horror that isn’t solely relying on jump scares, and, as with King’s work, being able to be incredibly gripping by being unafraid to engage the audience in an emotional way that can border on the intense and disturbing.
Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat must surely go down as one of the most memorable movie villains of 2019. This is a character who looks like a cool hipster what with her gorgeously raggedy clothes and, of course, that hat, yet we’re witness to her doing genuinely awful things in order for her and the members of the True Knot cult to remain as young as they do. Like IT Chapter One, there’s a moment involving a child being murdered that is distressing and horrifying, so much so that it almost takes one five minutes just to settle into the film again.
There is a danger that such villains could just be one-note but the unapologetic nature of their behaviour and the violence they are ready to dole out means that they remain a powerfully threatening presence. The film in unafraid to shy away from the violence that they dole out to children meaning that when the film picks up considerable momentum in the second half and the body count starts to rise, the the suspense and danger that’s being portrayed and palpable and there truly is no guarantee of survival for everyone.
The third of this year’s big studio produced King adaptations, and the second from Warner Bros., Doctor Sleep proves to be the superior adaptation. Pet Symmetry was good and even managed to alter the narrative of the book somewhat, while IT Chapter Two arrived with an abundance of hype but proved to be a somewhat spectacular mess, albeit an enjoyable one, but Doctor Sleep is a smooth, brilliantly produced film that doesn’t rely on throwing whatever sticks to the screen. Flanagan gives the audience some incredibly effective scares, but they aren’t simply jump scares; there is imagery here, set pieces and scenes that rely on more than resorting to a cattle prod type of horror.
Like the best of King’s work on the page, it’s a controlled slice of brilliant genre cinema that throws a lot into itself but does so in a way that it never loses sight of the big picture or emotional ideas it’s dealing with. It’s by far the best King adaptation of 2019 and also a contender for one of the best genre films of 2019. I loved it.