Doctor Sleep marks the fifth major adaption of a Stephen King work in 2019 alone, joining the theatrically released Pet Sematary and It: Chapter Two, Netflix’s In the Tall Grass, and Hulu’s original series Castle Rock. Adapting King novels and short stories to film is far from a new concept, as filmmakers have been doing it for over 40 years, but Doctor Sleep is something of a special case and one that is taking a big swing at a tall order. Doctor Sleep is the sequel to perhaps King’s most recognizable and well-respected adaption and one helmed by the late Stanley Kubrick, The Shining. King published the novel, Doctor Sleep, 36 years after the original publication of The Shining, and now the film is being released 39 years after the original, all looking to see where life had taken little Danny Torrance after the events that transpired at the Overlook Hotel. It’s a hotly debated topic whether Doctor Sleep is a worthy sequel or not, but Warner Bros. Pictures, in their decision to make the film, wanted to hit the ground running to make the best possible product they could. How do you do that with a horror film in 2019?
You hire Mike Flanagan.
Flanagan, known for indie horror films such as Oculus, Before I Wake, and Hush, revived the Ouija series from its dismal first film with the excellent prequel Ouija: Origin of Evil, and crafted the critically acclaimed mini-series and loose adaption of Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House for Netflix. Flanagan is no stranger to adapting King to film either, with the excellent Netflix original film Gerald’s Game showing that he can take an intimate story and stretch it to the greatest of triumphs. Flanagan is, simply put, the master of horror in the modern age, and whether you like his style as a filmmaker or not, you can’t argue with the fact that he fits Doctor Sleep like a glove.
It’s been 39 years since the events of The Shining, and Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is a recovering alcoholic living with his head low in rural New Hampshire. He has spent years recovering from his trauma suffered at the Overlook Hotel and has been trapping the demons of his past in figurative “boxes” in his mind to shut them out, sans the ghost of Dick Hollarann (Carl Lumbly). He shares an anonymous psychic bond with a young girl living in New Jersey named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who is beginning to discover her own psychic ability like Danny’s. All the while, a charismatic cult leader who goes by the name Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and leads a band of psychic soul eaters, preying on the souls or “steam” of psychic children for power and longer life, begins to close in on Abra, realizing her immense power. Together, Abra and Danny must defend her life and psychic abilities to prevent her from suffering the same horrors that Danny did 39 years ago.
It’s hard to label Doctor Sleep as The Shining: Chapter Two, as it so heavily deviates from the style of storytelling that The Shining has, both in content and visual style. This is a much quieter, slower, less horror-focused story that digs deep into both the power and terror that comes with special abilities. It’s the most human story Flanagan’s crafted thus far, and one that could possibly alienate those looking for something similar to that of The Shining. Doctor Sleep feels more like an epic thriller than it does a claustrophobic horror film and, with that, Flanagan finds his stride in being able to make a film all his own, free of the constraints and expectations left by Kubrick’s original vision. This exists as a film that functions perfectly as a double feature with The Shining or just completely on its own as a standalone film. It’s all the same regardless.
McGregor filling the shoes of Danny Lloyd, the original actor behind Danny Torrance who has not acted since The Shining, does a great job in communicating the complexities of trauma that have lined Danny’s life since the last time we saw him escaping from the hands of his murderous father. McGregor brings a tortured, yet strangely lighthearted energy to the character that keeps him accessible, even in his darker moments. Curran is also a great find as Abra, a strong and willful character determined to defeat the evil presented to her without hesitation. She is of pure mind and spirit, and Curran’s performance is equally as special. She is not a shoehorned child that finds no purpose within the story, but is rather an integral ingredient to what makes Doctor Sleep feel so unique. There’s a lack of fear in her, not so much so to where you can’t relate with her, but in that her determination is enthralling to watch.
Yet, despite all this, as well as some very interesting supporting performances and cameo appearances throughout the film, it’s Ferguson’s Rose the Hat that takes Doctor Sleep to the next level. Ferguson perfectly embodies the Irish, Cate Blanchett-esque, bohemian soul-cannibalizing cult leader to a charismatic and sinisterly fun T. This charisma makes her entirely believable as someone who could recruit a group of people to murder children for their souls, and I can’t say I wouldn’t fall victim to her charms just as well. Ferguson as an actress has always been an impressive one, but I’ve always found her to either be the best part of a bad film (The Snowman, The Greatest Showman) or wasted in a good film (Life, Florence Foster Jenkins), save for her breakout role in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Here lies a performance that’s both worthy of her talents as an actress, with a film surrounding it that upholds her to that standard. She makes every scene she’s in absolutely entrancing and beautifully evil, with a strange, intimate tenderness that can only be indicative of someone who is truly *fucking* insane. It’s the best performance of the film, the best performance of Ferguson’s career, and perhaps my favorite performance I’ve seen in a film this year. If someone can make me intensely fear them, while also making me want to share a pint of Guinness with in a Dublin bar, you have something special.
Flanagan, as a director, has his moments of references to The Shining, because of course, he has to, but these flashes are subtle and only seek to complement the Mike Flanagan movie at play here. Perhaps most impressive are the direct callbacks to The Shining, in which Flanagan does not re-use old footage or de-age the actors from the original films, but does a bang-up job in creating his own visions with relatively unknown actors who do some incredible work filling the shoes of those from the original. It’s a really interesting take on something that could’ve easily been tackled in a quicker and more time-efficient way, but he has taken the time to lovingly craft his own vision to keep the film from being too much of an old thing.
And it’s that love that comes out so much in Flanagan’s work, but specifically with Doctor Sleep. Whether he’s adapting material written by other writers or crafting his own material, Flanagan puts his entire heart and soul into the piece that always makes the emotional connection far deeper, resulting in much more effectively dark and disturbing moments throughout his work. This being said, Doctor Sleep isn’t a particularly scary film, nor do I think it really tries to be in most circumstances. It definitely has its creepy moments, and it is plenty disturbing throughout the entirety of the film, but it’s not blatantly frightening. The film is framed far more as a psychological thriller than any sort of horror film, which might prevent it from being as much of a late-night Halloween movie like The Shining. In all fairness, The Shining was actually quite similar, just the time period and the expectation of what constitutes “horror” has changed.
At 153 minutes, Doctor Sleep is a long thriller, much like its predecessor, and for the most part, it nails its pacing. Though I would be remiss to ignore that the second act struggles to sometimes to take hold when it’s taking its time to pair Danny and Abra together. The film has a lot of time to make up for at many moments, and it doesn’t always take the path of least resistance to get there. Most of the time, the film’s slow-burn is for its benefit, but around a third of the way through the film, it slightly sputters. Luckily, it doesn’t stall and keeps moving at an even more breakneck pace than before once it finds its treading.
Is Doctor Sleep Flanagan’s best film? Not entirely, as his first major feature, Oculus, will always hold a place in my heart and mind as one of the finest, darkest and most movingly intimate horror films of the century thus far, but Doctor Sleep is no less exceptional because of it. This is a profoundly successful film that utilizes every single one of its elements to create something truly unique and epic. It won’t hit with everyone, as it does work better as a standalone film than it does in direct conjunction with The Shining, but how Flanagan flips genre conventions on their heads and builds a world of both darkness and hope within three incredibly compelling lead performances is too interesting to pass up. Pull in that the film is visually stunning, thematically satisfying, and features the best villainous performance of the year, if not the past few years, and you have a winner. This film will spark debate and conversation, but I just hope most people can have even just a glimmer of the amount of wondrous fun and involvement with Doctor Sleep as I had.
In theaters November 8th, 2019.
Final score: 4.5 out of 5.