Erupting from beneath bitter ground, Mike Flannagan’s Doctor Sleep attempts to amend the creative crevice between the minds of Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King with its own. But in trying to moderate the two poles of one of horror’s great clashes, it unnecessarily and unintentionally undercuts its own artistic journey. Ironically, in doing so, its biggest fault in entering an arena of bickering and strong-minded visions is that it only offers a few of its own. And that’s a shameful fact, given that the ones on display are actually worthy of substantial, stimulating, and sometimes shocking merit.
Needless to say, Doctor Sleep was never meant to stand on its own. However, donning the difficult, practically unheard-of role of half-sequel to two important works brings with it an allowance of acceptable allusion. After all, both King and Kubrick had more than torn apart this film’s foundation, diverging at integral scenes and mismatching several fates, leaving Flanagan in the inherently awkward position of trying to piece the two back together. The filmmaker and Haunting of Hill House creator had to find some way to alleviate that burden. Unfortunately, he found the easier one.
Danny, who once ventured the Overlook Hotel on his big wheel and outwitted its looming threats, is now Dan, played by Ewan McGregor. After a quick prologue that shows the recently promoted man of the house taming his “shining” abilities and seizing the ghosts who haunt him, we come to find him in an apt loop of despair as an adult. He has inherited his father’s alcoholism, though his drinks are used to silence both his powers and his traumas, of which, as we all know, are plenty. And after reaching a very decipherable rock bottom, he hops onto a bus and into New Hampshire, where the search for stability begins.
Stepping directly into the snow prints of its icy predecessors, Doctor Sleep’s viciousness is far more immediate; it’ll later engross child brutality and bleeding, as well as terrifying thievery, but whereas Kubrick’s film blended the artifice of the atmosphere with the ghoulish trepidations of its central figures, Flannagan’s rather imposes meaning and definition onto the titular powers to establish threat.
We learn that the “shining” is capable of leaving a dying body; its steam perspires off final breaths and last yelps that can be consumed by particularly malevolent beings. Beings like Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and the True Knot, a creole band of vampire-like creatures that seek and survive off of the steam, particularly that of children. Their hunts, sometimes coddled by the script (“it’s like he can read the pitcher’s mind,” one man tells the group’s scout), are the thematic kin of King’s adult-loathing mantra, and Flannagan doesn’t hold back on their brutish reality. That young ball player (Jacob Tremblay) is soon kidnapped and very viciously hashed.
Bridging the narrative gap between Rose the Hat and Dan is Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran, in her big screen debut), a young girl whose powers are so mighty that she can attract the interest of the True Knot from thousands of miles away, and still find a peculiar way to communicate with Dan. The soul-snatchers could feed off of her for generations, or they could turn her into one of them. But once Abra and Dan’s powers bring them together, a war of trickery and magic wages on whose final chapter can only happen in one place: The Overlook Hotel.
This finale is particularly starch in terms of Shining odes – and will undoubtedly act as its most polarizing sequence – but the entirety of the film breeds heavily off of Kubrick’s iconography. While your heart may pound at the recreation of and initial reunion with these iconic specters, these relations are not always well greeted. Often, there’s an uncordial mismatch between the steadily goofier nature of Abra’s powers and the cloaked uncertainties of the 1980 classic. And there are also plenty of times where Doctor Sleep’s agenda seems set on running down a list of easy crowd-pleasers rather than making its event a bit more accessible (it sits at a trying 151-minute runtime).
But while it may be difficult for the strongest Shining buffs to look past the often trepid, fan club-finale nature of this movie, Flannigan has undoubtedly crafted a well-performed – specific nods to Ferguson are not only deserved, but demanded – entertaining-enough sequel to a film that never really felt like it needed a second go-around. While I would never say that I was sorry I watched this, I sincerely hope that my future viewings of The Shining are not met with memories of Doctor Sleep; I don’t think it’s earned that sponsorship.