Director Mike Flanagan has spent most of his career attempting to untangle the endless web that is the human psyche. Like many classic filmmakers, he attempts to untangle these webs through the genre landscape. With Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” being one of the quintessential films that blends both family drama and horror, it would only make sense that Flanagan would be the person to helm the follow up, based off Stephen King’s 2013 novel.
With Kubrick’s classic take on “The Shining” and King’s beloved original novel differing greatly, a follow up feature should be a near impossible task, but “Doctor Sleep” is an ambitious, melancholic return to the mind of Danny Torrance.
Ewan McGregor gives one of his best performances as the now-grown Danny Torrance. Danny, having turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with his traumatic childhood, is given a fresh start when he moves to a small town in New Hampshire. His ability to “shine” has lessened over the years, until he begins communicating with Abra (newcomer Kyliegh Curran); a tween girl whose immense shining powers attracts the interests of an evil cult called “The True Knot”, led by Rose the Hat (a commanding Rebecca Ferguson).
Rebecca Ferguson has never been better as the villainous cult leader. Rose is fairly flamboyant, but also has a quiet intensity boiling beneath the surface that Ferguson plays with a swift precision. It’s the type of performance that’s sure to become an audience favorite for years to come and marks the most sublime turn in Ferguson’s career. Newcomer Kyliegh Curran also gives an astonishing performance that stands firmly alongside vets such as McGregor and Ferguson.
Avoiding many pratfalls from other, less successful franchise reboots, Flanagan successfully honors both Kubrick and King while still forging his own unique path. It’s no secret that King had great disdain for Kubrick’s film after taking massive creative liberties, so Flanagan had the daunting task of merging both different takes of “The Shining”. It’s a flat-out miracle that Flanagan does well by both parties and tells his own story. “Doctor Sleep” never slavishly retreads familiar territory.
Thematically similar to his most recent masterpiece, Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House”; Flanagan explores the deep trauma of his main character. Danny is still deeply scarred by the events of the Overlook Hotel and struggles to keep his demons — both figuratively and literally — locked away. Danny’s struggles are amplified when he’s forced to protect young Abra, eventually leading him back to the Overlook Hotel in the films extended climax.
Running at a full 152 minutes, audiences should anticipate a slow-burn, not unlike Kubrick’s original. There are some extremely unsettling sequences and Flanagan excels at establishing palpable atmosphere, but anyone expecting a flat-out horror film will most likely walk away unfulfilled. “Doctor Sleep” is less interested in scaring its audiences, but rather telling a dark and sorrowful story about recovery and the lasting effects of trauma. In fact, “Doctor Sleep” is more of a suspenseful psychological drama than it is a horror film.
“Doctor Sleep” is also one of the strangest films to hit theaters all year. Much of the runtime is spent focusing on the cult members, which makes for some psychedelic and distressing sequences. The cult specializes in feasting off the souls of those gifted with shining powers in order to stay alive. It sounds crazy — it partly is — and yet, Flanagan makes it work.
A lesser filmmaker would’ve completely fumbled the tone of this material, but Flanagan has such a firm grasp of the crazier elements of the story, that everything feels in sync. King’s novel gets a little wacky here and there, but Flanagan grounds these moments with his inventive craftsmanship.
The homages to “The Shining” are certainly prevalent, but rarely overbearing. Much of the films homages are at the mercy of the plot, with much of it feeling earned and not cheap. Opening with the same WB logo and slyly replicating some familiar shots are some of the highlights with much of the action in the Overlook Hotel being relegated to the third act. Only a few moments cross the line into fan service territory.
Flanagan also flawlessly recreates some of the more iconic moments from the original film, even if the digital cinematography leaves a bit to be desired. Thankfully using lookalike actors to play characters from the first film and not “Rogue One” style CG creations, these moments are used sparingly, adding more satisfaction to when they actually pop up.
This is also Flanagan’s most restraint film to date, but in doing so, the film’s emotional impact doesn’t quite land, leaving some climactic moments feeling relatively cold. The film also lacks a sense of urgency for most of its middle act, due mostly to its languid pace which runs about 15 minutes too long.
Obviously “Doctor Sleep” doesn’t compare to “The Shining”, but it never tries to. Mike Flanagan has the best impossible task of bridging the gap of King’s Novel and Kubrick’s film while telling a new story and the results are overwhelmingly positive.
“Doctor Sleep” is a contemplative and mature follow up to “The Shining” that forges it’s own unique identity while also honoring what came before it.