The most important thing you need to know about Doctor Sleep is that it’s the sequel to an all-time classic book and an all-time great movie. Stephen King’s The Shining came out in 1977, and Stanley Kubrick’s film “adaptation” followed in 1980. And adaptation is a loaded word.
Kubrick made drastic changes to the source material and created a film that pissed off King. Kubrick trolled King by killing off Dick Halloran and casting actors whose performances didn’t align with their characters in the book. The most significant change, though, is the fate of The Shining’s ghost-infested setting, The Overlook Hotel. King blows it up at the end of the novel, whereas Kubrick leaves the nightmare factory intact.
The magic of writer/director Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is that he takes the best bits of each story, and blends them into a beautifully twisted hybrid. Doctor Sleep will thrill fans of both versions of The Shining (as well as its 2013 follow-up, Doctor Sleep) and entertain moviegoers who just want a fun time at the theatre.
Doctor Sleep takes place decades after the events in The Shining. The story focuses on Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who now goes by the name Dan. As a child, Dan’s family lived in a haunted hotel called The Overlook. And this cursed residence drove his father mad and inspired him to try and kill his family. Naturally, Dan grew up with loads of trauma.
Making matters worse, Dan has a special gift known as the shining, which grants him psychic abilities. And these abilities draw supernatural beings to Dan like nerds to Comic-Con. To dampen his powers, Dan exists in a constant intoxicated fugue. He’s a raging alcoholic and drug addict who drifts from state to state.
When Dan finally sobers up, the shining connects him with a young girl named Abra (a sensational Kyliegh Curran). If Dan’s shining powers are like a raging fire, Abra’s are like a nuclear blast. And Abra’s shine attracts a group of mysterious beings known as The True Knot. Lead by Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), The True Knot are like vampires who find children with the shining and feed off their psychic energy. When Rose The Hat discovers Abra, she makes it her mission to capture the child and feast off of her. It falls on Dan to protect Abra and stop these hungry marauders before they get their hands on her.
Here is a bit of disappointing news for The Shining die-hards: Doctor Sleep feels closer to a Mike Flanagan movie that a Stanley Kubrick movie. Flanagan is one of the finest directors working in the horror genre. And over the past several years, he’s carved out a niche for himself by making terrifying films that engage the audience on a visceral and intellectual level. Doctor Sleep is no different. Rather than going all Tarantino and making Kubrick pastiche, Flanagan sticks to his own tried and true affectations.
But this doesn’t mean the director doesn’t lean on the source material. The film features plenty of call-backs to Kubrick’s classic. And the third act of the film takes the audience back to The Overlook Hotel and recreates many of the chilling moments that scarred generations of horror fans.
The big difference is that Doctor Sleep isn’t scary. Not really. The Shining is a horror movie through and through. It unnerves people like few other films and made countless viewers spend their nights sleeping with the lights on. Doctor Sleep has other intentions. It’s gruesome at times and features gory imagery, but it doesn’t track as a flat-out horror flick. This entry into The Shining canon expands the mythology and introduces a world full of psychic children and supernatural beings. I would class the movie as a supernatural thriller because it feels more in line with an X-Men movie than Kubrick’s 1980 film.
You can read this film as a horror movie when you look at it from the perspective of its villains, The True Knot. Once they set their sights on Abra, it’s clear they’re unprepared to deal with her immense power – they’re like toddlers poking at a bear. Once Abra sets sight on them, the hunters become the hunted to the point that it’s not even fair. And examining the subtext of what Flanagan says through their confrontations is fascinating.
This is a story about givers and takers. The True Knot has been at the top of the pecking order for generations. They live hundreds of years, feed off whomever they want, and they’ve amassed wealth and influence. They take what they want, when they want it, and their lifestyle isn’t sustainable. In the story, they are running out of resources and getting desperate. Abra is a young “black” girl with infinite potential. She is so powerful, that should The True Knot capture her, they could feed off her indefinitely. By teaming up with Dan and fighting back, Abra threatens to destroy their way of life. What does that sound like to you?
Flanagan makes the best out of a no-win situation. It takes guts to tackle a title as revered as The Shining. The book and the film both said everything they needed to say. So much so that even King’s follow-up novel steered the story into vastly different territory. It’s a miracle that Flanagan delivers such a worthy sequel.
Doctor Sleep is a haunting supernatural tale that astutely reflects how trauma plants the seeds of addiction. The film works as an eerie ghost story and as a meditation on the life-long effects of our emotional wounds. Flanagan does as well as you could hope, given the series’ impossible expectations. Doctor Sleep pays tribute to The Shining without falling prey to slavish devotion. But there are more than enough call-backs to satisfy long-time fans. The result is a smart, atmospheric, and thrilling film that explores The Shining’s mythology in exciting new ways.