There’s something about Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining that’s gripped audiences for nearly four decades despite factors which one might presume would detract from its popularity. Kubrick quite famously tortured Shelley Duvall on set to a degree that the terror on her character’s face is more real than audiences may ever know. Also, there’s the fact that King’s been exceedingly public regarding his grievances with the final product. And yet, Kubrick’s translation of King’s imagery has become something of cinematic legend: the twins, “all work and no play,” the chilling score from composers Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, “Here’s Johnny!,” and, of course, the bloody elevator. Individually, each of these things are chilling, but Kubrick crafted a feast for the senses, making one of the most disquieting descents into madness in cinematic history. So why would anyone want to revisit this? What more could possibly be explored? In 2013, King answered this question with Doctor Sleep, a novel which follows Shining survivor Danny Torrance into an adulthood plagued by the trauma of his childhood. This time, the adaptation is handled by writer/director Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House) who beautifully marries the film universe of Kubrick’s making with the written universe King created. It’s a Herculean feat to be sure, and it’s yours to enjoy on home video digitally beginning January 21st, 2020, and on 4K UHD Combo Pack and Blu-ray Combo Pack beginning February 4th, 2020.
Doctor Sleep picks up shortly after the events of The Shining. Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mother, Wendy (Alex Essoe), now live in Florida, hundreds of miles from their nightmarish experience at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. Despite the distance, the ghouls that haunted Danny there continue to hunt him, longing for a taste of his shine. With help from the spirit of Overlook chief Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), Danny manages to protect himself from their attacks. After years of quiet, a new threat emerges in the form of a psychic-vampiric group calling themselves the True Knot: beings who feast on the psychic energy released from people who shine upon their death. With True Knot’s attention set on a powerful young girl named Abra (newcomer Kyliegh Curran), she reaches out to adult Danny (Ewan McGregor) for help, setting him on a cathartic collision course with his past.
As advertised, the home release of Doctor Sleep comes with two versions of Flanagan’s film: the theatrical release and a director’s cut. The 4K release only includes the theatrical, while the Blu-ray contains both editions. If accessing the film digitally, both versions are readily available. If you want to know about the theatrical release, head over to EoM contributor Hunter Heilman’s review. As for the director’s cut, it’s nearly 30 minutes longer than the theatrical release thanks to footage picked by Flanagan, who also served as editor for the theatrical. According to the press release, the footage is a combination of new, alternate, and extended scenes, but only those who’ve seen the theatrical will really know for sure what was trimmed, changed, or completely removed. Unequivocally, the director’s cut is a riveting piece of cinema which should be the version audiences see from here moving forward. One could argue this because it’s approved by Flanagan, with the support of Warner Bros. of course, but mostly because there’s not a single thing in the film (from the editing, the updated score from The Newton Brothers, the direction, or the content) that could or should be removed. There’re many moving pieces and Flanagan slowly and patiently works each one into its prime position before the story gels into its most propulsive form. Like Kubrick before him, Flanagan’s pacing is always in service of the story, seeking high emotional reaction over cheap thrills in every single scene. Not only that, Flanagan manages to seamlessly work Kubrick’s changes for The Shining into Doctor Sleep will such ease, you’d be forgiven for presuming that the adaptation was entirely and completely built off the film and took no cues from the novel Instead, Flanagan crafted a tale that’s true to the heart of King’s work while being entirely and completely his own.
Considering Flanagan has previous experience adapting King’s work (see Netflix’s 2017 Gerald’s Game), there should be little surprise that he could pull off Doctor Sleep will such perceived ease. There is violence within Doctor Sleep that King fans expect, except, what makes Sleep so powerful isn’t the murder and mayhem, but the exploration of trauma and healing. By all accounts, Kubrick’s The Shining is a supernatural thriller in which a man goes berserk at the behest of evil spirits and tries to murder his family, except the film is actually an explorative look at alcoholism, the nuclear family, personal responsibility, and how an unwillingness to seek absolution will only lead to greater pain. Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance isn’t a cosmic entity feasting on fear, he’s a man whose inability to communicate with his wife, to acknowledge his own short-comings as an individual, bred within him a festering pain that the spirits took advantage of. Building off of these themes, Flanagan creates a film which explores catharsis and forgiveness, leading to a place of healing. This is most prominent in the relationship between adult Danny and young Abra, a simultaneous flip on the relationship between Hallorann and Danny, as well as Danny’s childhood versus Abra’s. Danny grew up fearful of his father’s anger, survived the Overlook, and then became haunted by spirits who want his power. Conversely, Abra grew up with loving parents and without creatures on the hunt for her…until now. As Flanagan moves his three pieces into active position (the True Knot, Danny, and Abra), he explores what Danny might’ve been like had his abilities been unhampered by trauma and offers the audience considerable opportunities to see what shine can really do. In one particularly glorious moment in the film, True Knot leader Rose the Hat, played with delicious maliciousness by The Greatest Showman’s Rebecca Ferguson, uses her shine to search the globe for Abra. The search is psychic in nature, yet Flanagan shoots the sequence in a seamless mixture of physical and CG that depicts Rose flying rapidly over great distances, the screen split horizontally to show that Rose appears still as the world spins beneath her. Upon touching down, things seem back to normal until Rose finds Abra’s home and leaps to a window where the camera stays locked on Rose, the whole house swirling and twisting until Rose slips through a window. Kubrick didn’t have the capabilities to pull off moments like these and, if he had, would’ve likely rejected them, opting for something less grand or showy. This sequence is, by itself, breathtaking and absolutely showcases just how strong Rose is, while also offering a glimpse of how she sees herself. See, unlike Kubrick’s consistent direction in The Shining, Flanagan shifts his style based on character need. The slow, deliberate direction akin to Kubrick is present with Danny, but it becomes far more active, more fantastic when presenting Rose, Abra, or other individuals with shine.
Admittedly, sequences like this wonderfully make manifest the rule-defying world of Stephen King, but it’s also how Flanagan puts his own spin on Kubrick’s work that makes Doctor Sleep feel like an organic, intentional, and connected film. The most obvious is the near-exact replication of the Overlook set, created in conjunction with the Kubrick Estate. It’s clear, in Flanagan’s direction, when he matches the use of the locked perspective, slow moving camera that tracks character movement, only to leave them and keep moving independently. Kubrick’s direction created tension through extending takes without cuts, by showing us just about everything, and never utilizing jump scares as what’s known is often more terrifying than what’s not. Flanagan maintains this as well, which is why one of the most terrifying sequences is just past the middle of the film as the audience is shown what the True Knot do to their victims. The horror comes from Flanagan’s unflinching direction and focus, making the audience an unintentional observer in the malicious act. It’s a scene more violent than anything even hinted at in The Shining, yet through Flanagan’s skill, it still feels like an extension of the experience. To a lesser extent, it’s also apparent in the way Flanagan uses title cards over scenes throughout Doctor Sleep to signify new chapters akin to Kubrick’s all-black cards to indicate changes in time. Kubrick made sure to keep time throughout The Shining, and Flanagan does so within Doctor Sleep, enabling the film to feel as close to being a novel as it can within the medium. One might wonder if this would diminish the connection, the reality, if you will, of the storytelling for the audience with each new chapter number and name, but it doesn’t. Instead, it simply makes you feel like you’re pushing deeper into story, pushing you toward some inevitability that neither the audience nor the characters can foresee.
There are two significant drawbacks of the experience and neither of them truly rest on Flanagan. The first is the cast. While superb all around, in order to recreate flashback sequences, new actors were cast in the roles from the first film. Evidentially, options ranging from bringing back Nicholson and using de-aging techniques, hiring lookalikes, and other ways of making the flashbacks as close to the original cast as possible were contemplated. Considering the film is being released so long after the original, it makes sense that Flanagan found new actors who could take on young Danny, Wendy, and Jack. The downside is that the original performances are so iconic — especially Duvall’s and Nicholson’s — that the new actors don’t feel as organic within their scenes. This doesn’t diminish the emotional weight of their inclusion, of which there is a create deal as the story goes deeper into Danny’s journey of healing, but it does create a slight jolt each time they appear. The second comes in the technological aspects of watching the film. For the sake of ease, the director’s cut was screened using a current generation 4K Apple TV. In the aforementioned sequence with Rose searching for Abra, the beautiful yet haunting imagery of Rose floating above Earth is interrupted by the blacks of the sky surrounding Rose presenting with a strange distortion that ebbs and flows with the scene. In other scenes where blacks are heavily present, the same visual distortion occurs, effectively ruining the ambiance of the scene. None of this distortion is present on the Blu-ray or the 4K UHD discs, so the issue comes down to the streaming device and the digital compression of the film. Again, this isn’t something to hang upon the film, or even Flanagan, but it’s something to be aware of before blaming WB for a poor digital stream presentation.
As far as the technical side of the home release goes, the first thing to know is that the Blu-ray is only the director’s cut. The digital option does offer the ability to select one or the other, but if you pop in the physical Blu-ray, only Flanagan’s final cut is what you get to watch. This leaves the supposed best visual version of the film, the 4K UHD edition, which only includes the theatrical edition. Oddly, using the same sequence of Rose as the benchmark, the Blu-ray director’s cut is both the easiest to see and the most attractive. The blacks in the scene, while lacking the distortion of the streaming edition, are so deep in the 4K UHD version as to make Rose completely unidentifiable against the dark sky backdrop. The colors are, by far, the most vivid in the 4K UHD edition, enabling the film to feel the most lived-in; however, sometimes making colors their most pure do come with drawbacks. If you’ve got the system for it, Doctor Sleep in 4K UHD features both Dolby Vision HDR and HDR10+, as well as Dolby Atmos support.
As for the special features themselves, this is a real treat for longtime fans of Stephen King or The Shining as each one offers a little insight into the production, the concept, the themes, and far more. The shortest of them, “From Shining to Sleep,” is more about Flanagan and King as they discuss the connection between the books and their respective cinematic adaptations. If you’re aware of King’s previous thoughts on The Shining, this’ll support that, just with less vitriol. In “The Making of Doctor Sleep: A New Vision,” Flanagan, King, and the cast offer their thoughts and insights into the film. What’s particularly interesting is King ascertains that he never provides character descriptions, but in watching McGregor as adult Danny, all you see is Danny. Given the actor’s lengthy career and never as a character actor, it’s always impressive how McGregor disappears into every role he plays. One of the great strengths of Doctor Sleep is how the performances by the entire assemblage of actors casts a spell on the audience to forget it’s all fiction, almost forcing us to buy-in immediately, making each choice and each consequence weighted. This featurette gets into this a bit by showcasing not just McGregor, but Curran, the True Knot actors, and even Jacob Tremblay. If you’ve seen Doctor Sleep by this point, you’ll likely tremble at the discussion here for Tremblay’s inclusion, but it’s well-worth the listen. The last featurette, and the longest, is “Return to the Overlook,” which is exactly what you expect. It’s all about Flanagan’s experience with the original, how they acknowledge Kubrick’s visual design, and the process of building the entire Overlook in six weeks. While the special features are limited to three featurettes, there’s a great deal packed into them.
If you’re like this reviewer and missed seeing Doctor Sleep in the theaters, but was mildly curious about how the whole story goes down, don’t wait. Go track down the director’s cut and watch it ASAP. You won’t regret a moment of it. From the beginning of Doctor Sleep, Flanagan builds toward an ending which is decades in the making. It’s not just that audiences get to see what became of Danny Torrance, it’s that there’s a true resolution which most horror films don’t typically provide. Yes, the scars of trauma remain long past the point of initial marking, but a healing can occur. We can allow the pain of the past to stay there if we take the time to address it, acknowledge it, and treat it, not bury it. Most of all, if we work with the next generation, care for them in ways we wished we were cared for, then there’s a greater chance that the cycle of pain and dysfunction can truly be broken. There’s an honest to goodness real sense of healing throughout Doctor Sleep that’s as unexpected as the exquisitely paced, delectable third act. From the moment the film begins, we the audience know where it’ll end, but it’s in the execution that audiences are reminded why King is king and Mike Flanagan is the man to honor his work.
Available on digital beginning January 21st, 2020.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD beginning February 4th, 2020.
Doctor Sleep 4K UHD Combo Pack, Blu-ray, and digital Special Features
- Return to the Overlook (14:58)
- The Making of Doctor Sleep: A New Vision (13:57)
- From Shining to Sleep (4:56)
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.