Let’s get this out of the way. I’ve never read Stephen King’s 2013 book Doctor Sleep.
This might come as a shock only if you knew what a fan I was of King’s 1977 novel The Shining and the fact I’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation a dozen times or more. Then again, you might understand why I’d go into something that tries to resolve or answer questions from The Shining with a little trepidation, and the same could be said for its adaptation by director Mike Flanagan (Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, Oculus).
After an opening set in 1980 that introduces us to Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose the Hat and her band of weirdos (more on them later), we revisit young Danny Torrance and his mother shortly after the events of The Shining. The only thing slightly strange about this introduction is that there are new actors in the roles of Wendy and Danny Torrance, originally played by Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd, as well as Carl Lumbly playing Scatman Crothers’ role as Nick Hallorann. The actors filling in do a perfectly fine job, especially at creating Duvall’s manic over-protection of her son, but it’s an important scene that will play a large factor later in Doctor Sleep.
31 years later, Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is a total wreck, an alcoholic getting into bar fights and sleeping with cokehead single mothers. After one such incident, he packs up and leaves for New Hampshire, where he encounters Cliff Curtis’ Billy Freeman who signs Danny up for AA to get his life straight. Earlier, we saw Rose and her band of creepy circus freaks traveling around the country, looking for more kids with “the shine” as Torrance calls it or “smoke” as they do. A young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) has powers unlike any Rose has ever seen or felt, so Abra becomes the group’s next target, but she’s already formed a cross-country psychic bond with Danny that will bring them together to face Rose.
The first hour and a half of Doctor Sleep is noticeably slow, acting merely as set-up for the battle between Rose with Danny and Abra. Taking such a languid and subdued approach to setting up this confrontation certainly will be frustrating to those without the patience to see how it all will pay off later. There are things like showing Danny at the hospice where he gets the moniker “Doctor Sleep” which is certainly an important clarified but it’s not something that needed to be dragged out as long as it is.
Doctor Sleep is more eerie than actually scary, and when you’re dealing with an audience of modern horror fans who might be expecting ghouls and the like jumping out of the dark, a movie that’s more of a supernatural thriller than a horror flick is likely to disappoint some of them.
I vaguely remember that not everyone loved Doctor Sleep as a novel, and it might be due to some of the same reasons why the movie doesn’t hit the audience from the start with big, gory setpieces ala It. King was clearly trying to find new ways of exploring the “shining” with this group of “vampires” (for lack of a better description) that might prey on kids who might not even realize they have these abilities. In that way, Ferguson’s Rose the Hat is quite an intriguing horror villain antagonist, because she’s not like the usual spirits or demons we see, yet her evil nature is so ever-present and delivered in such an alluring fashion.
The relationship between Danny and Abra is where things really pay off since McGregor is so good at playing the damaged and broken Danny, whose very childhood was taken away by how alcoholism destroyed his father and family. Likewise, Curran is such a fantastic young actor, you might be surprised that Doctor Sleep is only her second feature. There’s a lot of ways Doctor Sleep could have gone horribly wrong by having a young girl as its co-lead, but when you remember the likes of Drew Barrymore in Firestarter and even Danny Lloyd, you realize this actress had some enormous shoes to fill, but she delivers on all that’s needed to make Abra as interesting as the others. (It’s also kind of fun seeing Jacob Tremblay, who previously worked with Flanagan, in a small role.) Sadly, the great Cliff Curtis is wasted as Danny’s sponsor even while taking part in one of the more physical fights in the film.
The last hour is where things really pick up, especially with the story’s return to the Overlook Hotel, Flanagan’s team doing such an amazing job in recreating the production and set design of Kubrick’s classic you might wonder whether those sets and props had been sitting in storage somewhere for the last forty years just waiting for this sequel to get made.
Doctor Sleep certainly has its merits, and some might appreciate the fact it’s not just a moment-by-moment repeat of The Shining, especially if that isn’t the expectation with which one goes into seeing the movie. Although this is a sequel to The Shining, it’s a lot more than just The Shining: Part 2. Then again, others might watch the movie wondering why one would make a sequel to one of the scariest movies of all time and not make it scarier.
Doctor Sleep opens nationwide on Friday, November 8 with previews on Thursday night.