Come play with us, Danny
Doctor Sleep is directed and written by Mike Flanagan and stars Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, and Cliff Curtis. The film is based on Stephen King's 2013 novel of the same name.
It is almost natural instinct to start a review of Mike Flanagan's 2019 film Doctor Sleep with some brief talk of The Shining, both the 1977 novel by Stephen King and the 1980 film by Stanley Kubrick. While I will not fall under the same trappings, it will be impossible for me to go about this review without talking at least a little about The Shining and how it compares to what transpires in Doctor Sleep. We all knew Doctor Sleep would not in any shape or form surpass the masterful film-making of Kubrick; Flanagan's film just needed to be, at the worst, a decent continuation of the pure terror put on display by Kubrick's film. The good news: Flanagan has proven to be one of the most promising horror film-makers of this day and age, with successful films like Oculus (one I personally was not a fan of though), Ouija: Origin of Evil, and the Netflix hits Gerald's Game and The Haunting of Hill House. Flanagan's films have had a history of addressing themes about childhood trauma, addiction, and families coming apart, and since Doctor Sleep addresses these very themes, Flanagan looked like a perfect fit.
The end result is a satisfying, albeit flawed, follow-up to The Shining, offering up strong thematic content and several well-constructed thrills. Doctor Sleep is more of a fantasy-based thriller than it is a pure horror film; this is simply a matter of what the plot entails and how it unfolds. Trying to recreate the scares of The Shining would be lazy and make it seem like Doctor Sleep is just trying to be a nostalgic cash-grab. Flanagan understands this, though I'd be lying if I said the movie doesn't take at least a little bit of time to go through some nostalgic beats, evident by scenes of Dan Torrance at the Overlook Hotel (no, this is not any kind of spoiler). What's important this time is to expand upon the mythology of The Shining and not try to strictly use it to terrorize us again. Familiarity kills fear in horror movies, so for Doctor Sleep, the story should not ask, "What is this shining?" but rather, "What are people going to do with this shining?" The latter question is the direction that Doctor Sleep goes and is more suitable for a thriller.
The film opens in 1980, starting off with a scene in which a little girl wanders off into the woods and encounters a woman named Rose the Hat (Ferguson). Rose is the leader of a vampire cult known as the True Knot, and they live by feeding off the "steam" of anyone (mostly children) who have used the shining. Meanwhile, Danny and Wendy Torrance, following the events of The Shining, have moved to Florida to start a new life. However, the past wont' go away, as Danny is still troubled by his psychic "shining" ability, particularly in his recurring visions of the rotting old woman from the Overlook's Room 237. Danny also spends time talking with the ghost of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), who teaches Danny how to suppress ghosts by using imaginary boxes in his mind. This is a truckload of backstory that the movie dumps on you, so it's no wonder that Doctor Sleep takes an awfully long time to get started.
Flash forward then to 2011, when Danny (or just "Dan") is now an adult. Dan still struggles with his childhood trauma, and he is also a struggling alcoholic. He has a one-night stand with a single mother, steals her money, and then moves to a New Hampshire town, where he meets and befriends Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis). Billy helps Dan clean himself up and get back on his feet: he gets Dan set up in a new apartment and takes Dan to AA meetings. Dan also secures a job working at a hospice, where he uses his shining to help patients die peacefully. The patients give Dan the nickname, "Doctor Sleep", and for the next eight years, all seems well with Dan both at home and at work. During those eight years, Dan telepathically communicates with a girl named Abra Stone (Curran), who also has a shining ability, but one far stronger than Dan's. Abra's shining, naturally, gets the attention of Rose the Hat and the True Knot, who are starving and looking for new sources of steam.
I find it a bit strange that Doctor Sleep makes The Shining mythology look like a battle between psychics and vampires. Are psychics and vampires meant to represent good and evil? Or perhaps is it something along the lines of spirituality versus materialism? The shining psychics learn how to use their shining to better themselves and the world around them, just as spirituality would teach people to discover their own gifts and use them to better both themselves and the world around them. Meanwhile, the vampires represent people who only wish to pursue material gain: money, fame, or anything else they believe will give them true happiness, regardless of what their actions do to others. The True Knot will go as far as to deceive and kill innocent children, because anything and everything goes if it means getting some of that heavenly steam. I think part of The Shining's allure is the pure mystery behind its title and what exactly are the supernatural forces at the Overlook that influence the Torrance family. It's clear that the young Danny/Dan has some kind of telepathic power, and figuring out how that telepathy relates to Jack's descent into madness offers some neat food for thought. In Doctor Sleep, I wouldn't say it goes so far as to ruin the mystery of The Shining; it's more so the sequel is giving us a direct answer that will likely affect the way we go back and view its predecessor. In other words, that food for thought about the mythology of The Shining might taste a little dry the next time we try it.
- For as much as Doctor Sleep can't help but accept its inferiority to The Shining, it certainly works as a thriller, in due part to how brutal the film is. There's a scene (one I was surprised didn't generate a lot of controversy), where the True Knot kidnaps a young boy named Trevor (Jacob Tremblay) and brutally murders him. Unlike the opening scene where we see the True Knot just swarm around the little girl, Flanagan shows every little gruesome detail with this murder: the boy screaming and pleading for his life, Rose the Hat eyeing the boy like he was a delicious piece of meat, and Rose stabbing the boy repeatedly with a knife until he finally succumbs to his wounds. The True Knot then suck up the boy's steam like a starving pack of wolves that just found their first delicious meal in ages. It's the most unsettling scene I've seen in a movie this year and makes Pennywise killing children look tame by comparison. Flanagan uses a similar sort of method with nearly every other death scene: the person lies on the ground, writhing in pain, reaching death slower than usual. Almost nobody dies in Doctor Sleep without making dying look very, very painful.
For as much flak as Doctor Sleep has received for its lengthy run time, the film is always doing something with its characters and moving in a forward direction, translation for, "The film is never boring." There's an excitement that matches the kind of excitement you'd get from an episodic TV series, in which characters talk about what they will do when they reach this place or meet this person, and you are eager to see what unfolds when characters go to that place or meet that person. Rose the Hat meets Abra and learns of her incredible psychic powers midway through the movie, and it lays the groundwork for an inevitable confrontation that you can look forward to, because it's never clear as to how Abra is going to defeat Rose, with the added bonus of trying to figure out what Dan's role in the confrontation is going to be. There are no dumb plot twists that you can see coming from a mile away; every unexpected course of action achieves a plot twist sort of climax without twisting the plot at all. The setups are expected, but the results are anything but.
- I don't know how much ties back to Stephen King's novel, but Doctor Sleep suffers from a rather frustrating screenplay, highlighted by nostalgic overload, spotty characterization, and some cheesy dialogue. It's hard to call it much of a spoiler, but Dan does eventually make his way back to the Overlook Hotel, and the mini-tour he takes through the hotel is an annoying little stroll down memory lane. The scene is basically an unnecessary summary of The Shining's most famous moments: the wave of blood coming through the hallway, Dan sitting at the bar and getting a drink of bourbon, a look at room 237, and the "REDRUM" writing on the door that Jack had smashed through with an axe. The scene of Dan at the bar where he discusses his parents is the most justified of this memory tour, because it at least makes a conceited effort to connect the trauma of childhood Dan with the struggles of adult Dan. The rest, however, is just there to be nostalgic for the sake of nostalgia, and it continues throughout the remainder of the film. The Overlook sequence is frustrating also because the movie never really takes the time to establish Dan as the focal point he seemingly should be. Dan struggles with alcoholism, but the character development stops dead in its tracks there. Once Dan gets his alcoholism out of the way and Abra enters the fray, the screenplay reduces Dan to little more than a supportive father figure, which makes it tough for us to buy into what happens to him when the movie reaches the Overlook.
As for the cheesy dialogue, it takes a few teeth out of the film's scare factor and takes some menace out of the True Knot. No one gets it worse than poor Rebecca Ferguson, who is truly giving it her all as Rose the Hat. Rose's greeting card when she goes almost anywhere is, "Hi there", and while there's nothing inherently wrong with the word's 'hi" and 'there', there's something about the way those two words are put together that just sounds out of place here. I think it's mainly that the words 'hi' and 'there', are not all that intimidating, which is what you don't want in a horror-thriller like Doctor Sleep. There are other lines sprinkled throughout the film that sound awkward and out of place, but it's near the bottom of the list of issues with this movie.
In conclusion, Doctor Sleep is a successful follow-up to Kubrick's infamous Shining, working as a robust thriller in exchange to trying to be another round of pure terror. It's a forward moving film that prevents the bloated run time from feeling like a long day in the cubicle, earning extra points for putting emphasis on simple brutality. 2019 sure seems to love Stephen King adaptations where children are brutally murdered. Anyway, the main downside is an underwhelming screenplay, which includes a climax far too heavy on nostalgia, a lack of character depth for Mr. Dan Torrance, and some wonky dialogue. I imagine Warner Bros. thought Doctor Sleep could have been the start of a Shining franchise, but seeing the film's disappointing box office results, that's not going to be happening anytime soon. For me, I'm left unsure about how to feel, in regards to what this film has added to The Shining mythology. Has it enhanced the mythology or just made it look silly? I guess I'll have to go back and watch The Shining a couple more times, and maybe even read King's books to boot. Final answer: to be determined.
Recommend? Yes. It's worth watching despite how long it is.
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