Walking through an airport about five years ago as if drawn by some unknowable force, I surged towards the latest Stephen King book store standee. What stood there was a scary proposition indeed. “Doctor Sleep” the novel, the follow-up to King’s 1977 novel “The Shining,” which was adapted by Stanley Kubrick into one of the most frightening and iconic horror movies in the history of cinema.
Such a seemingly unfollowable vision to revisit in both written or cinematic form, especially since King did not approve of Kubrick’s vision. For King, Jack Torrance – a struggling writer with alcohol issues – relented under the psychological vacuum of the isolation and spiritual pollution.
Kubrick, ever the cynic, often painted the demons that plague human experience so close to the surface of that to dance with them only takes the slightest nudge. Kubrick eventually relented the rights for King to remake it as a television feature to address where the adaption failed. That remake is bad.
In a raw, enriching way, writer/director Mike Flanagan (“The Haunting of Hill House,” “Gerald’s Game”) has done the seemingly impossible and found a way to bridge the gap between Kubrick’s menace and King’s in-depth examination of trauma, fatherhood and viscous forces that consume innocence.
“Doctor Sleep” follows Danny Torrance (played by Ewan McGregor) in the years after the traumatic events that took place at the Overlook Hotel. Burdened with the “shine” that tethers him to spiritually to the ghouls at the Overlook, Dan has turned to a life of excess and addiction. Drinking, doping, fighting and fooling around to repress his shine and the ghosts that lurk around it like moths to a flame.
When this life leads Dan to a gnarly rock bottom – recovery beckons (in the form of a helping hand from Cliff Curtis’ Billy Freeman). Dan, by chance, is led into a profession and purpose; an orderly in a hospice helping the elderly go graciously into that long night. During a stable recovery, he develops a remote telekinetic connection with a powerful young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran).
Meanwhile, a caravan of magical cultists known as The True Knot led by the seductive Rose the Hat – the hypnotic Rebecca Ferguson – discovers Abra. They thrive on literally consuming shine for their own nefarious near immortality. Dan must intervene.
Flanagan and the King’s novel are not interested in a “Ready Player One” style house of horrors with new characters stuck in the Overlook. This film asks if you’ll let the sins of your upbringing destroy your life. McGregor’s Dan Torrance is insular. A life defined by performing his father’s chaotic masculinity under the influence.
This behaviour isn’t McGregor in “Trainspotting” Renton mode – nihilism incarnate, with a tongue like a fencing foil. This is a wounded addict, racing away from himself to apathetic and self-destructive ends. In his older age though, there are hints of that impossibly bright goodness of Shelly Duvall and now Alex Essoe’s Wendy Torrance.
Essoe is the first instance in “Doctor Sleep” where Flanagan chose to cast an actor to reprise the role of a long-deceased/elderly actor rather than turning to technology for ‘de-ageing’. Allowing a great actor to put their take/spin on an existing character or to compliment the work of another great actor is always better than digital grave robbery (I’m looking at you “Rogue One”). Carl Lumbly steps in for the deceased Scatman Cruthers as a ghostly projection of Dick Hallorann. He helps the Doc/Dan with some additional insights and techniques to ward off spirits; before warning Dan about Abra’s impending threats.
Kyliegh Curran’s Abra Stone is excellent in her ability to portray innocence and creepiness. Curran’s Abra is wrestling with unfathomable power, but no instruction booklet. Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose is a sexy manipulative being. Her telekinesis has probes and scouts different abilities in her troupe, in potential recruits and her prey. It’s a real delight to see Ferguson flex different and devious muscles. The whole True Knot gang – especially Zahn McClarnon’s Crow Daddy, Carel “Lurch” Struycken’s Grampa Flick and Emily Alyn Lind’s Snakebite Andi – provide a menacing and unsuspecting bohemian face to this factor of famine minded vampiric force.
Flanagan makes the crystal clear air flex with the threats of invisible tormentors. The Newton Brothers’ score howls like wind through a crack, and chimes and creaks like someone is trying to make their way into your house in the dead of night. Throughout the film, the score incorporates a metronomic heartbeat. The sound penetrates your mind and makes you feel like you’re experiencing what the characters are on screen.
Flanagan is especially bold in the construction of the True Knot’s vile actions. In so many films where cultish figures do heinous things to vulnerable children – especially under the banner of ‘supernatural’ filmmakers pause to infer said acts. In “Doctor Sleep” shows the mysterious, sexy, bohemian allure of this troupe contrasted with some of the most heinous and jarring violence against innocence that I can remember.
The Overlook Hotel, in “The Shining” and now “Doctor Sleep” is terrifying in its magnification of internal turmoil. The demons that tormented and manipulated Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”) reverberate with ferocious frequency in the space. The rate of those shock waves echoes through time and space. “Doctor Sleep”, in both the novel and especially the adaption, revisit the universe of ‘The Shining’ from the trenches trauma. King and Flanagan too cut profoundly deep in their construction of traumatic spaces.
Watching “Doctor Sleep” has the power to whisk up one’s traumatic memories. There’s a moment that I’ll never forget — sitting in a spare room at my grandmother’s house. Door shut. I was sitting in the dark, waiting for my brother to rescue me – driving from nearly an hour away late on a Saturday evening. I was sitting in the dark, on a single-seat white couch with a floral pattern you might imagine on a Taika Waititi shirt.
I remember shaking, crying, trying to wish away the brunt of a cyclone of verbal and emotional abuse. For years I remembered the vivid splashes of colour. There was a sense of memory every time I stumbled along with something psychologically similar; I was back there – I was in that room – I was small. Years later, I saw the couch again. This time it had withered, faded and lost its crisp shape. The more I stared though; my mind would add a filter, my memory would make it shine.
In the opening of “Doctor Sleep”, we revisit the brightly lit heyday of Dan’s “The Shining” vision of the Overlook. The power of Flanagan’s adaptation is not only in the “quotes” from its predecessor – but it’s in the way that you engage with space as an adult. With the miles of life, failures, regrets and mental deficiencies of all shapes and sizes. “Doctor Sleep” is a worthwhile cinematic sequel, that improves on the source by refracting it through Kubrick’s superior vision.