Review | ‘Doctor Sleep’ Didn’t Snooze on the Story, Homages Were a Little Tiring

Creating a sequel to a great film is already a tall order to fill. Add to the mix, following up Stanley Kubrick is a burden of expectation that seems doom to fail from the beginning. Lastly, this film had to adapt a book that is a sequel to a very different ‘Shining’ novel. This challenge was accepted by screenwriter and director of Haunting of Hill House and Gerald’s Game Mike Flanagan.

It seems so simple at first glance: just adapt Doctor Sleep but given Kubrick’s cinematic legacy, you can’t ignore that either. How could Flanagan possibly make something cohesive out of this creative predicament?

Mike Flanagan treats us to a tension-filled exploration of trauma, guilt, and family. The movie stumbles once it gets to its third act in the Overlook Hotel, over-calculating how much homage it needed to pay to the original but sacrificing some sight for its own story.

The vast majority of the film is well done and is a loving adaptation of one of Stephen King’s best novels. The performances are excellent, the imagery is memorable, and Rebecca Ferguson steals the show. Flanagan’s awareness of Doctor Sleep needing to be its own cinematic experience allows the film’s horror to work even as it follows the shadows of one of horror’s greatest films.

So, what is Doctor Sleep?

Doctor Sleep picks up the story as Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor), who finds himself dealing with the same issues of alcoholism that plagued his father. As he struggles, a gang of quasi-immortals called “The True Knot” roam the nation tracking those who have “The Shining” to feast off their gifts as a young girl named Abra comes to the attention along with Dan.

Horrific Characters

the true knot

I wrote extensively about the differences between Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick’s approaches to storytelling in a “Take Two” article. Once you read there, you’ll know Flanagan’s voice works feel far better suited for a faithful adaptation of King than Kubrick.

TheShiningDoctorSleepStanley Kubrick was interested in the environment of the Overlook Hotel, using the characters as a vehicle for that exploration. Any sort of humanity or connection to the characters feels incidental and not purposeful.

Flanagan’s voice, although a big fan of Kubrick’s film as well, is more in line with King’s. Throughout his filmography, we see strong attention and connection to character.  The horror in Flanagan’s films aren’t always ghosts jumping out at you (although he has some of that). It stems from the thematic underpinnings and having intensely strong empathy for those you are watching in front of you.

Flanagan understands the horror genre better than most directors and throughout his career has worked confidently in it. His respect and admiration for the genre show through his fearlessness to keep things at a slower pace, allowing drama to build before the horror.

doctor-sleep-abraAt 152 minutes long, this isn’t a short movie but I never found myself finding the film to drag. Flanagan’s drama and attention to the exploration of Dan Torrence (along with inter splicing the journey of Abra (played by Kyliegh Curran) and the villain Rose the Hat (Ferguson) provide plenty of interest even without the ghosts. In it, we get to see some heavy scenes dealing with death and seeing Dan trying to make up for past mistakes.

This isn’t to say there is no horror or atmosphere, but a less confident writer or director might be inclined to speed through these scenes or skip a lot of the drama in favor of getting more quickly to the scares or to the hotel. Flanagan takes his time and the story is richer for it.

The movie tends to relay on imagery and atmosphere. Wisely, Flanagan doesn’t attempt to replicate Kubrick’s assault on the senses through sound sight.

Flanagan keeps to his strengths, which tend to be suspense intermingled with a slowly building sense of dread. His horror tends to linger and is less terrifying at the moment but you’ve always left with something after. He has a great eye for imagery — a stark visualization someone psychically traveling across the U.S. with their mind that is both beautiful and haunting.

Rose the Hat

rose the hatAnchoring much of the horror is the film’s antagonist, Rose the Hat played wonderfully by Rebecca Fergurson. Rose the Hat leads the True Knot against Abra and Dan and commands every frame of the screen. Ewan McGregor gives a deeply somber performance as Dan Torrence. He was perfectly cast along with Kyliegh Curran and Rebecca Ferguson.

As wonderful as those two are, Ferguson is the person most will come out talking about. The undead leader oozes with intoxicating charisma and power. There is a kill scene somewhere around the middle of this movie that is truly terrifying. The scene is expertly edited and shot by Flanagan, and in the middle of this scene is Ferguson, carrying every horrifying action with such command and power.

She might be one of the best-acted villains to grace our screens in a while. I want to go back to see the movie again just on her talent alone.

The Overlook Hotel

The Shining - 1980

This isn’t a spoiler to say that the characters eventually find themselves back in the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s The Shining. This is where I found the movie to stumble a bit. The first two thirds or so, I thought the movie was near masterful, wonderfully constructed, and had a great sense of its own story and tone. But, this is where the movie didn’t seem to know exactly how to handle the Overlook Hotel.

This isn’t to say it’s all bad because the struggle I find myself doesn’t lie until the action starts in the hotel. The initial re-entering of the hotel is given such weight and foreboding nature.

shining-doctor-sleep-comp-featuredThen, the homages and the reconstructions of old scenes (with new actors filling the roles) started to overtake everything else around it.

The small flashback scenes don’t work and aren’t needed. Flanagan does pay homage to Kubrick throughout the movie with one scene replicating Jack Torrance’s job interview at the beginning of The Shining.

But that homage works because it is a homage communicating and comparing where Dan is in relation to where Jack was at the same point in life by way of job interviews. Replicating a few of the shots from The Shining in the Overlook Hotel didn’t really add much.

This leaves us to the difference in the ending between this movie and the book’s ending.

doctor sleep coverI prefer the book’s ending because thematically, I think it works better when considered as cathartic. However, that doesn’t mean this new ending doesn’t work and isn’t consistent with the movie’s story.

It just feels a bit more reactionary to Kubrick than to King (or maybe King’s reaction to Kubrick) in a meta-textual way. If you’re a book fan like me, you’ll probably like the book’s ending more, but I have grown to appreciate this ending more as time continues to pass.

The third act does stumble and left me a little uneasy about how the Overlook Hotel was handled. It was a little too much of “remember this” for my taste.

However, I also find myself far more happy with the film as a whole as the days have gone by since watching it. I still wish they went with the book ends, but the ending works well. While I might not love many of the Overlook Hotel sections, I do love the vast majority of everything leading up to it.

The acting, drama, and exploration of Danny’s next stage of his life is masterfully handled by Mike Flanagan and easily earns the title of best King adaptation of the year and will sit comfortably as a worthy addition to The Shining story despite a few misgivings.

 

 

 

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