FYI: This is a spoiler-free review.
ALSO: Although I’m a massive Stephen King fan, The Shining and Doctor Sleep are two of his works I’ve never read. So this review will be referencing their film adaptations only.
To understand what Director Mike Flanagan accomplished with his adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, we need to cozy up to some context.
As one of the most prolific writers of modern history, Stephen King’s approach to storytelling is so distinct and organic that it’s inescapable in modern horror and suspense works. It bleeds through in new horror literature, and it feels weirdly cozy in visual homages like Stranger Things. For many fans of horror and writers of every genre — myself included—his work is the example by which we learned to create and imagine.
Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic signature was just as pivotal. His visuals are all-encompassing, oppressive, and absolutely meant to be 30 feet tall. Everyone knows them when they see them, regardless of whether or not they’ve watched his films. This is especially true of the imagery of The Shining. It was everything audiences weren’t yet used to in horror: stark, atmospheric, symbolic as hell, and occasionally shocking in a way that was also confusing.
I suspect the fanbases of King and Kubrick might make more of a circle than a Venn diagram, but even so — that’s a vast range of loyal, committed fans to appeal to about a follow-up.
Flanagan’s challenge, then, was to work with King’s written sequel to create something engaging and free-standing that neither ignores the source material nor leans on it too heavily. Something that references the look and feel of the original settings, but doesn’t drag us back through it all just for shiggles. And inevitably, it needed to be something that rubs elbows with the same level of eye-widening, nerve-fraying uncertainty that King and Kubrick gave us to begin with.
When we drop in on Danny Torrance thirty-something years after his hellish escape from the Overlook Hotel, we see immediately that he isn’t well. He is clearly medicating one “sickness” with another — steadfastly avoiding his shining ability by drinking his liver into oblivion whenever possible, and consuming whichever other substance or woman happens to be nearby. He is his father, only pitiful and isolated rather than spiteful and violent.
When his self-destruction reaches untenable levels, he convinces himself to clean up. Travels north, rents a room, and buckles down to get control of himself. A clear mind means an open line of communication for the dead, however, and those who sense Danny’s shining ability make an unwelcome beeline for the chance to connect with him. They’re not the only ones, though — a living girl named Abra makes contact. Abra can shine too… and better than he can.
It’s not news to Danny that others like him exist, but it frightens them both to discover that their kind are being hunted, tortured, and sucked dry of their abilities for the sake of others’ quest for immortality. And those murderers are coming straight for Abra. This is definitely not a problem Danny can drink away — it means reckoning with his past and being willing to use his shine in the present to preserve any sort of future.
If you’ve never seen The Shining, I believe you can make it through Doctor Sleep without too much head-scratching.
To Mike Flanagan’s credit, this is a solid standalone story. His script invests deeply into present-day Danny’s life, and spins other new characters into existence with a lot of heart. (You can tell he’s read a King novel or ten — one of the hallmarks of why King’s writing connects so well is his brilliantly simple character work.) If you’ve never seen The Shining, I believe you can make it through Doctor Sleep without too much head-scratching.
If you’re wondering exactly how much this movie leans on The Shining for visual cues and menace and small details, my take is that Flanagan does it pretty economically. What I mean is that there are several well-placed, wonderful, dreadful, and poignant callbacks in this movie, and none of them are wasted. (And if you’re a horror nerd, all of them are straight-up delightful.) Each look back at the hotel, back at Danny’s mother, back at his conversations with Dick Halloran… All of it serves a very particular purpose in the context of the present narrative. It’s simply the cherry on top of being a fan that we get to see so many familiar places again through a crisp, clean lens.
If you’ve seen any of Flanagan’s other works (The Haunting of Hill House, Hush, Gerald’s Game), you know he’s a director with his own style. Here, he retains that style, but most definitely made efforts to use the same lighting techniques and shot set-ups as Kubrick for certain moments, for obvious reasons. It doesn’t happen often enough that the whole thing seems like a mimic, but you know it when you see it, because it hits you differently.
Great character work in a film is only as good as the actors who play the people on the page — and this cast came ready to play. Ewan McGregor rarely disappoints in any role he tackles, but I was impressed with how he approached a character that we’ve only ever met as a child before now. Even as he battles addiction and depression, Danny clearly still has a touch of earnestness and exuberance about him, and that’s McGregor making connections where they matter the most.
Teenage Kyliegh Curran is a great partner to McGregor on screen. Where he is subdued, she pushes forward. Where he is instructive, she listens and jumps a step ahead. Some young actors try playing a teenager with a little too much… happiness? Curran’s instincts are to play Abra the way teenagers actually are: Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when they’re talking about stuff they’re interested in, and nothing short of sullen when they couldn’t be bothered to pretend to care. The audience loved her.
Someone I haven’t mentioned yet is Rose the Hat — the leader of the True Knot cult that’s roaming the country in search of young, shining souls to feed upon. She sounds like such a Young Adult novel trope, and that sort of character on screen could have very easily turned into some annoyingly smarmy, Twilight-styled, over-played female vamp/witch character that we’ve seen in a dozen D-grade supernatural pieces. Instead, Rebecca Ferguson terrifies by honing in on Rose’s fluctuating callousness and desperation, which appear in varying degrees throughout the film.
Ultimately, Doctor Sleep offers up a lot of goodies that fall in and outside of the Shining universe. It features some wicked effects that I don’t think I’ve seen in a movie before. It also explores some heavy themes in relation to approaching death, what it means to connect with others, and recovery from addiction. Danny’s story (and its intersection with Abra’s) is my favorite part of this film. All of that substance was ten times more fun to watch because the script was so on-the-head for a King adaptation. Watching this movie felt like reading one of his novels, and I don’t think I could have asked for anything more than that.