Doctor Sleep (2019)
Written & Directed by Mike Flanagan
Two things are pretty hot right now. Adapting Stephen King novels & reboots of 1980s stuff. So what if you combined the two? You’d end up with Doctor Sleep, a direct sequel to King’s novel The Shining and, as a movie, a direct sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, two very different animals. Mike Flanagan isn’t what I’d call an inspired choice, he did a decent enough job with The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, but I haven’t been overly impressed with his feature film work. For some reason, some people see him as some sort of horror auteur, which I assume is how he got this gig.
In the wake of the events in The Shining, Danny Torrance and his mother move to Florida, where he finds the specters of The Overlook Hotel still haunting him. The ghost of Dick Halloran guides Danny on how to trap these beings in his mind so he can have some peace. As he grows up, Danny becomes an alcoholic like his father and drifts from town to town, taking whatever work he can find to keep buying booze. After a particularly unfortunate incident with a one night stand and her infant child, Danny heads north and ends up in finding some peace working in a nursing home. He’s visited through the telepathy of a young girl, Abra, who has the Shining and has become aware of the True Knot. This clan is composed of vampires who feed off people like she and Danny. The True Knot knows about Abra, and they are coming for her; only Danny can save her.
There is literally no way a sequel could be made that lives up to the atmospheric eeriness and horror of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. So, Doctor Sleep is obviously mediocre in comparison. That doesn’t mean it’s terrible. There are some genuinely horrifying moments in the film, particularly a murder committed by the True Knot in the second act. They prey on children because the Shine is fresher in them, and Flanagan doesn’t pull back from showing just how animalistic these creatures are. I was pretty disturbed by it, so there is some real horror in the picture.
The character development here is sloppy and uninspired. With over an over two and a half hour runtime, you think there would be space to let characters breathe and to build relationships. Instead, Flanagan insists on slamming down on his Shining nostalgia button over and over again. We see recreations of scenes from the 1980 film, Danny revisits the hotel, the ghosts from the original pop up, we have lines from the original movie. Doctor Sleep is so obsessed with reminding us that it is a sequel to The Shining; it never devotes enough time to the elements that make it its own movie.
I do applaud Flanagan for not merely using computer tricks to lift scenes straight from Kubrick’s original. His production team meticulously recreated the Overlook Hotel, and his cinematographer mimics the Steadicam movements of Kubrick’s camera. I think there is merit in exploring Danny’s adult life and the trauma inflicted on him by this event, but Flanagan doesn’t seem to be able to get past the window dressing of it. The film comes dangerously close to and then falls right over the edge of “Hey, remember this” territory in its third act. The conclusion with the antagonist happens so quickly that I didn’t realize it was over. It’s a lot of build-up and then little pay off between Abra and her adversary.
Doctor Sleep is not a film that has much weight beyond a first watch. It will never linger with you the way Kubrick’s movie does with its provocative ambiguity. Flanagan’s script is full of exposition that doesn’t give the audience a moment to meditate on anything and makes sure to explain exactly who we are looking at and what is happening. Flanagan even goes so far as to clarify that the Overlook Hotel is a location that behaves like the True Knot, devouring those with The Shining. Less is often more.