For his latest directorial effort, Mike Flanagan no doubt faced a task as daunting as the prospect of spending a winter snowbound inside the Overlook Hotel. He would be helming a sequel to one of the most revered horror films of all time, and his own endeavor inevitably would be measured against a Shining touchstone. Not only is an adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep no easy task (considering the book’s size and scope) in and of itself, but Flanagan also had to deal with the fact that the author famously hates the Kubrick interpretation of the precursor novel The Shining. That Flanagan manages to overcome these obstacles and create a film both faithful to its source text and aligned with the Kubrick classic is testament to the director’s considerable cinematic skill.
The novel version of Doctor Sleep presents a sprawling narrative, featuring three parallel plotlines that span decades in time and cover countless miles of national ground. Flanagan’s adaptation streamlines matters without sacrificing breadth or complexity; it hearkens to all the major beats from the book. The film takes the time to establish its various characters, and takes off thanks to the brilliant performances turned in by its three leads. Ewan McGregor is terrific as the flawed yet endearing Dan Torrance (a relatable American Everyman in the vein of Christopher Walken’s John Smith in The Dead Zone). Dan’s struggles with alcoholism and anger management throughout his adult life are successfully established without ever becoming cliché or tedious. Just as her character steals gifted kids’ “steam,” Rebecca Ferguson steals scenes here as the simultaneously sexy and sinister leader of the True Knot, Rose the Hat. In lesser hands, her character might have been reduced to a (figurative) mustache-twirling, (literal) black-hatted villain, but Ferguson renders Rose a multi-faceted and fascinating figure. Lastly, newcomer Kyliegh Curran sparkles as Abra Stone, the paranormally-talented young teen stalked by the True Knot. This superpowered adolescent (whose shining ability far exceeds Dan’s) could easily have become annoying or cartoonish, but Curran’s impressive work makes Abra a finely nuanced rather than one-note character.
At so many points this adaptation might have skidded off the road, but time and again Flanagan navigates deftly. King’s narrative is rife with telepathic gymnastics that could have proved quite hokey-looking when projected onto the big screen, yet such scenes are not only convincing here; they are marked by sublime cinematography. Likewise, the “cycling” of True Knot members when they get a taste of mortality could have been cause for some cheesy visuals, but the film’s dramatization of these death throes shows off some eye-popping special effects.
I imagine that the ultimate question that a review of Doctor Sleep has to address is: Is it scary? The answer is yes, but with the addendum that moviegoers should expect a different viewing experience than they had with The Shining. That earlier film established much of its atmosphere from a sense of terrifying confinement (as the Torrances are trapped within a quintessential Bad Place), whereas the sequel is more expansive in its horror, typically foraying into the great American outdoors. The ghosts of the Overlook are overwhelmingly haunting in their posthumous habitat, but the supernatural nemeses in Doctor Sleep have a knack for messing with character’s heads form afar. The vampy campers comprising the cult of the True Knot are undeniably creepy, in the flesh and even in broad daylight. Their nocturnal torture (with the headlights of their vehicles beaming eerily on them) of an abducted Iowan child is as chilling as anything Kubrick depicted in the 1980 film.
One significant difference between the book and film versions of The Shining is that the Overlook is not destroyed at the end of the latter, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to note that the still-standing (now abandoned) hotel figures into the proceedings in the film version of Doctor Sleep. Flanagan invokes the iconic scenes, settings, weapons, and revenants of the Overlook, not just as facile callbacks, but as a strategic key to Dan and Abra’s battle with Rose. This climax thus diverts radically from King’s novel, yet satisfies in terms of plot logic and proves wildly entertaining (even in its quieter moments–there’s a conservation between Dan and a ghostly bartender that’s worth the price of admission alone). Fans of Flanagan’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix will revel in the work the director does with the Overlook here.
Personally, I was captivated by Doctor Sleep, and marveled at the delicate balancing act it pulled off. I also understand, though, that there will be plenty of viewers resistant to this movie. Some will criticize it for being nothing like The Shining, while others will treat its borrowings from the earlier film as almost sacrilegious. But like the True Knot in a feeding frenzy, Doctor Sleep is bound to gather steam: I believe appreciation of the achievement will grow steadily over time, and in retrospect the film will be regarded as Flanagan’s magnum opus.