The task of crafting a film that is both a faithful Stephen King adaptation and a worthy follow-up to another King adaptation that the writer famously dislikes sounds quite daunting, to say the least. If anyone could have a shot at making Doctor Sleep work, it’s Mike Flanagan, who has proven himself to be one of the most reliable filmmakers in modern horror.
From his unsettling adaptation of another King novel, Gerald’s Game, to Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan has shown considerable talent in building the horror elements off of great dramatic storytelling and character development. He doesn’t go for the cheap, empty scares that so many modern horror films resort to; he makes you feel for the victims of the terror, which makes for a much more involving and unsettling experience.
Doctor Sleep sees Mike Flanagan attempting to build on and pay homage to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic and highly influential The Shining, faithfully adapt Stephen King’s storytelling sensibility, and also imbue the film with his personal stylistic flair. And while the film relies a bit too heavily on its cinematic predecessor, as far as certain imagery and the emotional investment in the story, Doctor Sleep‘s amalgamation of influences mostly works, even as the characterization runs a bit thin. And, perhaps best of all, Flanagan is able to make the film his own, even as he wrestles with two masters of storytelling.
Doctor Sleep begins in the year 1980, soon after the traumatizing events of The Shining. Danny Torrance and his mother Wendy have moved to Florida, far away from the snowy hell that they narrowly escaped at the Overlook Hotel. But the horrors that made their way into Danny’s mind are still there. His ability to “shine” (telepathically communicate and see into the lives of others) allows Danny to compartmentalize the demons that scare him. As he becomes an adult, though, his struggle to overcome his past trauma leads to alcoholism, which was the beginning of the end for his father all those years ago.
In an attempt to run away from himself, as he puts it, the adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) moves to a small town, befriending a local named Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) and getting a job at a hospital, where he uses his special abilities to comfort patients in their final moments of life. Everything seems to start looking bright for him, that is until he begins “shining” with a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who also possesses his abilities. Together, they must engage in a physical and mental battle against The True Knot, a cult who feed off of innocent children who shine, which allows them to stay young and live longer than humanly possible.
The cult is led by Rose the Hat, who is a properly formidable and well-developed antagonist for our heroes. Rebecca Ferguson, who is one of the best parts of the two recent Mission: Impossible films, plays Rose with such relish, exuding gleeful menace with every breath. Her cult, which includes veteran TV actor Zahn McClarnon (Westworld, Fargo) and Flanagan regular Robert Longstreet, get a substantial amount of screen time, allowing us to understand their dynamic and what motivates them to commit such horrific acts against innocent youngsters. These scenes help set the stakes for Danny and Abra, which makes Doctor Sleep‘s first 90 minutes or so utterly captivating.
The problem, unfortunately, is that the stakes are better defined than the two protagonists are. Abra wants the True Knot to pay for all the evil that they have done. Her sense of purpose and urge to do good remain her defining character trait throughout Doctor Sleep. When one of her parents becomes in immediate danger, the influence this has on Abra’s character is treated almost like an afterthought. And other than Danny’s alcoholism, his character arc relies very heavily on what happened to him in The Shining, meaning your emotional investment in his journey relies very heavily on you having seen Kubrick’s film. It’s safe to say that anyone going to see Doctor Sleep has at least passive knowledge of the Overlook Hotel and certain images, but that doesn’t change the fact that Danny’s character in this sequel doesn’t get much development.
What Doctor Sleep lacks in characterization, it makes up for with an urgent plot and an atmosphere that evokes Kubrick, while still looking and feeling like a Mike Flanagan film (for the most part). The color palette of dark greens and blues does much to give this film a different look, while still providing an eeriness. The way Flanagan visualizes the mental battles that occur between Abra and Rose the Hat are very clever and surreal. One sequence where Rose attempts to raid Abra’s mind is wonderfully weird and dreamlike, with Michael Fimognari’s vertiginous cinematography floating and flipping us through the scene in ways that are far from Kubrick’s notoriously slow-moving tracking shots, but equally as engrossing.
Mike Flanagan also edits the film, and his use of dissolves to transition between scenes is intentionally reminiscent of Kubrick’s film, setting a deliberate pace that feels in line with the storybook way the plot unfolds. The thump-thumping of the Newton Brothers’ stripped down score adds to the underlying sense of dread, with jarring outbursts of strings at points of high tension. They smartly save their rendition of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s iconic theme for a couple key scenes.
I say that Doctor Sleep looks and feels like a Flanagan film for the most part, because the visual references and callbacks to The Shining are very faithfully recreated, which is both impressive and a bit of “been-there-done-that” redundant. A couple specific scenes involve new characters in new situations, but are staged and framed exactly like scenes from Kubrick’s film; this kind of playful homage is satisfying in a way that the more obvious references aren’t. And Flanagan’s choice to recast key characters from The Shining here allows Doctor Sleep to stand on its own, without any distracting CGI recreations to take you out of the experience.
But there are also specific shots and images (specifically in the third act) that are purely carbon copy recreations of Kubrick’s images, which feel less integral to the story and more like obligatory fan service than anything.
It is quite miraculous that Doctor Sleep turns out to be as distinct as it is, considering the incredible weight of two highly acclaimed artists’ influences on Flanagan’s shoulders. While the film occasionally stumbles in relying too much on imagery we’ve seen before, and the characterization may be a bit thin, Mike Flanagan is able to make Doctor Sleep his own and give us more of his trademark brand of psychological, character-based horror. This should please King and Kubrick fans alike, and hopefully bring more attention to Flanagan, who is quickly becoming one of the most important voices in today’s horror cinema.
Doctor Sleep is rated R, and it opens wide starting tomorrow night.
All images courtesy of Warner Bros.