If you’re a film fan, then you probably know about The Shining, one of the best horror movies ever made. You probably also know that it was based on a Stephen King book that was very different in story, characterisation and tone. The choice to do a film adaptation of King’s sequel to his own novel has ultimately merged these two takes on the same universe together. Whilst this prospect and generally making a sequel to a Kubrick film might seem like a heavy feat, director Mike Flanagan is one of the strongest modern horror directors, having directed Oculus, Oujia: Origin of Evil and King adaptation Gerald’s Game. The result is somewhat of a success, though it is also a mixed bag as a film.
Decades after the events of The Shining, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is still somewhat haunted by his traumatic memories and has become an alcoholic. He moves into a town and starts using his “Shining” abilities for good, including becoming friends with another child who has the same powers named Abra (Kyliegh Curran). But on her trail is a cult of people with similar psychic powers named the Knot, lead by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) who all feast on the souls of humans, particularly children.
Trying to take the vague and simple story of The Shining and expand it might seem challenging, but this approach does work because Flanagan balances telling a totally different kind of story whilst continuing the narrative that The Shining began. Both ambitions pay off nicely, as the narrative manages to expand upon plenty of things that the previous film set up whilst still being self-contained enough to not destroy the mystique of the original film. Whilst the return to the Overlook Hotel in the third act falls into heavy handed referencing, there are some great moments that make it worthwhile and the final note is a solid bit of closure.
However, the thing that brings down Doctor Sleep is that story, especially with it’s tone. Despite being played totally straight and often going for horror, the story elements are so inherently goofy and bizarre that the film is often hard to take seriously. Certain scenes fall into unintentional comedy because the tone is so serious. That overly serious and straightforward tone also makes it hard to have emotional investment in Danny’s story. Despite a couple of strong scenes, I didn’t feel much emotion towards his plight, nor did I feel particularly emotionally engaged in the film overall. This wouldn’t be an issue if Doctor Sleep was not dealing with plenty of heavy themes, but it is. It tries to be about alcohol, addiction, trauma and fear, with the final film not bungling them but not making them powerful either.
Flanagan’s moody and intense direction is a strength and he does manage to bring a lot of life, even if he does fall into jump scares quite a bit. The cinematography is gorgeous and often very creatively handled, especially when Rose or Abra use their psychic powers, but the editing is an issue. The runtime is 150 minutes and at least 20 of those minutes could be removed, as whilst the pacing is suitably slow, the story is weighed down by too many scenes that do not need to be there. It’s an improvement from the bloated mess that was It: Chapter Two and more eventful than the disappointing Midsommar but considering all these films I think that future horror cinema should stick to 2 hours or less.
As for the acting, that is also major benefit. The three main leads are all great, Ewan McGregor delivers a remarkably understated yet still compelling performance, Rebecca Ferguson is charismatic and creepy and Kyliegh Curran manages to thankfully match them in her film debut. The actors that replace Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall and Danny Lloyd for flashbacks are also spot on in. Also, whilst Jacob Trembley is given a pretty thankless role, he does sell one of the hardest to stomach scenes I’ve seen in a long time.
Doctor Sleep succeeds at continuing a film that raised such a high bar, but it is simply not as good as The Shining, nor is it a great film on it’s own. Whilst not a huge disappointment, the fact that this is technically the best of the Stephen King adaptations that came out this year really is not saying much, as they have all been underwhelming. Not a miss but not a must-watch either