Stanley Kubrick‘s iconic 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King‘s The Shining seemed much more concerned with Jack Torrance’s descent into madness than anything else, including who and what it was titled for.
It’s Jack’s son Danny that ‘shines’, something pointed out to him by Overlook chef Dick Hallorann all those years ago… except now he barely does anymore. We find Dan a mess of a man at the opening of Doctor Sleep, suppressing both his telepathic capabilities and his trauma with a constant stream of alcohol, unwillingly becoming his late father.
Helming this exploration into life after the events of that infamous night in Colorado is horror renaissance man Mike Flanagan (Ouija, Hush, Oculus), continuing work under the tutelage of King, following his 2017 adaptation of Gerald’s Game, which did well critically, with fans, and with the man himself.
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Interesting then, is the rapport the two must have for King to allow Flanagan to step into the modified canon that Kubrick constructed, as he famously completely despised it. That is an awful lot of trust. And it’s well placed too, as far as keeping faithful to the original film and appeasing King, who seems to have nothing but good things to say about Mike and this project overall. It’s a busy tale about two individuals who share a gift, coming together to attempt to thwart a murderous cult with bad intentions for their strange power, and banishing some inner demons along the way.
The real horror of this production is present whenever Dan’s (Ewan McGregor) mouth is open at any given time; not just for the least convincing American accent heard onscreen in some time, but for the clunky and intelligence-insulting dialogue choices that I can only assume were pulled directly from the book (if not, I have no idea why some of it would ever make it to a screenplay).
There are a few stand-out performances – notably Rebecca Ferguson’s depiction of True Knot leader and primary villainess Rose ‘The Hat’ – that are sure to land right with audiences. But this film is spinning too many plates. It’s hard to fully explain without venturing into spoiler territory, but Doctor Sleep has more plot than is at all necessary.
For example, the title is a reference to a midpoint subplot that never fully materialises into anything interesting, proving at least that we really are back in Kubrick’s world. The pacing is something to behold too: the first act bombards you with a never-ending assortment of new, assemble-yourself characters and information, and generally the whole story happens at break-neck speed to get from one plot point to another. It’s very strange: here’s this story that exists solely to flesh out the lore of The Shining, and you can tell because at no point does it elaborate on the newer elements it made the point of introducing. That’s not on Flanagan, that’s on King.
In Doctor Sleep‘s less awkward moments however, it’s rather engaging. It must be incredibly difficult to recapture the spark of the previous work nearly forty years later, and yet tonally it is dead on. The little moments that re-enact The Shining are executed with startling precision (Alexandra Essoe is a wonderful Wendy Torrance that Shelley Duvall should be proud of) both in their look and in the way they feel.
It’s easy to be sympathetic towards protagonists Dan and Abra in the more tense moments, when the world around them is so recognisably and tangibly awful and twisted. However, this is no tribute act; you can tell this is a project always reaching for an identity of its own.
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Doctor Sleep is a really difficult one. It’s familiar with The Shining and its palettes, and all visual translation work and mood-boarding was executed by the most capable of hands. Flanagan loves to zero-in on characters and their finer details – their whys – and he does, but there’s a bit too much to these explanations.
To return to the issues with dialogue – nobody in this movie talks like a human being. Exposition abounds to make sure you’re up to speed with the convoluted plot, but it’s unclear which route it would have benefited more from: to have simply attempted less, or be fleshed out yet further with a little extra run time (although audiences might be somewhat sick of long films this year). Possibly the best description for it is… a half-pregnant movie.
It is, despite this, enjoyable, and the brunt of the visual direction should get serious credit. Whichever side of the fence you ultimately come down on, you have to experience it for yourself. It’s a crazy ride.