I’ve always had a very strong relationship with The Shining. My adolescent years were spent obsessing over the novel and the iconic (if not highly contentious) film adaptation, looking for every crucial detail, trying to discern what it meant in the grander scheme of what Stephen King was trying to convey with this masterful story of a descent into madness. Nearly forty years later, Mike Flanagan has unlocked the Overlook Hotel, dusted off the furniture and allowed audiences back into the most terrifying vacation resort in horror film history. An adaptation of King’s sequel, Doctor Sleep is a daring and audacious exercise in terror, with the director proving himself once again to be adept at translating King to the screen (as he did with the brilliant Gerald’s Game two years ago). Taking inspiration from the source novel, its predecessor and the extremely divisive film that Stanley Kubrick made decades ago, Flanagan’s film is a faithful return to a familiar location that remains indelible in the minds of all viewers – and the enormous respect the director had for the works that came before show exceptionally well, with this being one of the boldest experiments in unhinged terror to have come out of a major studio in the past few years – horrifying but still remarkably nuanced, Doctor Sleep is exactly the continuation and eventual conclusion this iconic saga so richly deserved.
Taking place in the decades since the events of the original, the film situates us within the mind of Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who has grown up scarred by the traumatic circumstances surrounding the time he spent at the Overlook Hotel as a child. It’s manifested in heavy drinking, self-destructive behaviour, and a sense that he doesn’t quite belong anywhere, which leads him to run from his old life and take up residence in a small town, far from where anyone can find him. However, someone is fully aware of his existence – Abra (Kyliegh Curran) is a teenage girl who discovers that she is able to communicate with “Uncle Dan” through a psychic capability both of them share – the notorious “shining”, which bonds the two strangers together, as well as warning them of the encroaching danger posed by the True Knot, a cult that harnesses the energy of special children like Abra to keep themselves alive. They’re led by the mysterious Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a seemingly ancient being that possesses the same telepathic abilities as others, but chooses to rather use it to wreak havoc and gain dominance than for good. It isn’t long before she becomes aware of Abra, whose powers far exceed anything she or her motley crew of animalistic psychopaths have ever experienced – they’re soon on the prowl for her energy, and with only their shared resourcefulness and dedication to defeating these forces of evil, Abra and Dan do their best to fend off the True Knot, even if it means returning to the most dangerous place of them all.
When it comes to horror directors who seemed to be natural choices for continuing the Torrance saga, few were better fits for the material than Mike Flanagan, who has single-handedly helped redefine horror cinema. His work occurs at the intersections between mainstream terror and more artistically resonant explorations of fear, which makes him a perfect candidate to bring Doctor Sleep to life, as its the precise material that is perfectly suited to his distinctive style. He certainly delivered on this promise, crafting one of the most memorable horror films of the year, one that takes the difficult source material and turns it into a compelling excursion into the roots of what collectively terrifies us. Flanagan truly had his work cut out for him – not only was he tasked with adapting one of King’s most complex novels, he had to work from the legacy of both the original book and its notorious film adaptation, which has just as many detractors as it does ardent admirers. Somehow defying the odds, he makes a film that not only serves as a great piece of horror filmmaking on its own, but it also pays remarkable tribute to the previous iterations of the story, with Flanagan finding the balance between the radically different visions of King and Kubrick in how he approaches the story. The film is brimming with homages to the prior works, and the recreations of various moments from the original are striking without being gauche and feel entirely authentic – this is certainly not a film made to pay service to the fans, but also be a worthwhile successor to the themes the original novel and book set out all those years ago. Flanagan’s work is remarkably lucid, without ever neglecting that while it does have an almost overwhelming legacy to live up to, we still want something original and ultimately terrifying, which the film does brilliantly.
An area that has unfortunately evaded much of the popular discourse surrounding The Shining is that not only is it a brilliant portrayal of terror, its an intimate character study of a set of individuals who find themselves the victim of a kind of otherworldly madness, either directly or by proxy. Doctor Sleep pays tribute to this area of the story by featuring a number of excellent performances from a cast tasked with the intimidating responsibility of not only bringing life to complex characters but iconic literary creations. Ewan McGregor has rarely been better than he is here – perhaps an unconventional choice for the role of the adult Danny Torrance, the actor finds it within himself to give a complex performance that feels thoroughly authentic – every bit of trauma and despair that Danny grew to live with as a part of his personality is reflected in McGregor’s committed portrayal. Much like Jack Nicholson in the original film, there is far more to this character than we see on the surface, and whether in the moments of quiet sincerity, or the third-act breakdown that sees him descending into the same madness that made Jack Torrance such an iconic character, McGregor takes every opportunity to prove himself as an actor fiercely dedicated to exploring the complexities in an otherwise one-dimensional character.
Rebecca Ferguson makes her entry into horror lore as the mysterious Rose the Hat, giving one of the great villain performances of the past few years. Rose is a radically different kind of antagonist – she’s not governed by madness, but rather her sinister ability to harness it into calm lucidity that gives her seemingly boundless power, only matched by the raw energy of Abra, who she sees as the only person who can truly be considered an adversary. Ferguson is terrific in the role, playing it with a blend of snarling intensity and deceptive charm – she works well with what the character is given, and turns in a memorable performance that is bound to become iconic in its own way.
Doctor Sleep is even more effective when you consider how Flanagan, despite the challenges presented to him when making this film, finds the perfect synchronicity between his various sources. The film continues many of the common themes of the previous story without ever relying too heavily on its legacy. Flanagan smartly avoids simply remaking The Shining – while there are some terrific recreations of the Overlook Hotel (and the actors brought in to play character from the original film are excellent, even if they only serve the purpose of being plot devices), this film stands all on its own, confronting the ideas present in King’s sequel in a way that acknowledges previous themes, but also builds on them. Dan’s alcoholism leads to one of the most audacious moments in contemporary horror cinema, whereby his return to the hotel (by far the strongest part of the film, even if it only occurs in the third act) triggers a brief conversation with his father, who has taken on the role previously held by Lloyd, as the bartender in the ballroom. It gives the film the chance to resolve the most complex issue that recurs throughout the novels – trauma. In having Dan confront the spectre of his father, the film allows everything to come full-circle, with the younger Torrance finally addressing the root of his adult dysfunction, and later succumbing to it, just like his father. It would’ve been foolish for Flanagan to attempt to build this film from scratch – instead of trying to avoid the burden of the inevitable comparisons with its predecessor, it openly embraces it, and then when the final moments of the film occur, it becomes clear that this is not a needless sequel, but rather the continuation The Shining has deserved for nearly four decades.
Ultimately, while it does have some flaws, such as a tendency to drag towards the middle, as well as not featuring the astoundingly effective suspense the original was built on, Doctor Sleep is a resounding success. It may not always work as well as it should’ve, and many pivotal plot points are rapidly dismissed, but it overcomes these shortcomings by approaching this story as its own unique piece, while still acknowledging the previous work that has kept it to omnipotent in the artistic zeitgeist when it comes to horror. Flanagan manages to create a film that should appeal to everyone – it gives enthusiasts of the original story the chance to witness a continuation of the saga, as well as being an entry-point for newcomers, or those who were initially reluctant to embrace the original. It’s the rare sequel that is able to stand on its own, even if the recreations of the original are worth the price of admission alone. Most significantly, Doctor Sleep doesn’t avoid the warmth that the original so desperately needed – it may not have a traditionally happy ending, but it does have a resolution that will satisfy viewers, bringing an end to the story of the Torrance family in a way that feels authentic and honest, and far from just an opportunity to capitalize on a beloved story.
Terrifying (but not in a cheap way), and extraordinarily chilling, Doctor Sleep defies the odds and becomes a triumphant return to a setting that has been firmly imprinted into the memories of anyone who had the chance to venture into the Overlook Hotel all those years ago.
Warner Bros will release Doctor Sleep on November 1.