Written, directed, and edited by Mike Flanagan, Doctor Sleep stars Ewan McGregor as Dan Torrance, last seen as a child in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and now a middle-aged alcoholic who has been constantly tormented by his “Shining” powers and the ghosts of the Overlook hotel he has been trying to lock away. Dan must now face his fear rather than run from then again as he is being contacted for help by Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a powerful girl with “the Shining”, who is being hunted by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her cult of power hungry predators called the True Knot.
No version of The Shining was never meant to have a sequel, not Stephen King’s novel nor Stanley Kubrick’s loose yet masterful adaptation. The book ends with the Hotel burning down, which is a pretty clear-cut end if you ask me. The film is something Kubrick made and was as a truly Kubrickian film, putting his own unique take on the text. I cannot think of one director out there who has ever thought or successfully made a sequel to one of Kubrick’s films. And yes I know 2010: The Year We Made Contact exists. That just proves my point.
However, King still had an idea of seeing where Danny Torrance would go in his adult life, becoming another atypical Stephen King-character: middle aged and abusing drugs and has inner gifts. The book “Doctor Sleep” was released to positive reviews in 2013, generating interest from Warner Bros. in doing an adaptation. The big problem being that more people have seen The Shining than read it. What do you do when people’s understanding of the story is blood pouring out of elevators, hexagonal carpets, creepy twins, and a Johnny Carson joke that was ruined by countless parodies? The answer: you get the king of modern horror Mike Flanagan to tackle it.
That title may sound controversial to the fans of filmmakers like Jennifer Kent, Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele, and Ari Aster, but I mean it. Flanagan’s record of movies like Oculus, Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game, and the TV series The Haunting of Hill House speak for themselves. Flanagan is a filmmaker who is deeply inspired by both King and Kubrick, always melding the ideas of both and forming his own distinct voice in the horror genre. When it was announced that he would be making Doctor Sleep, I was over the moon. I didn’t care how faithful it would be to either version, it would still be him. To my absolute horror fan delight, Doctor Sleep is the perfect combination of King and Kubrick but with more than enough of Mike Flanagan to be the glue between.
The film, akin to The Haunting of Hill House, instantly feels like deeply personal work from Flanagan, another way of dealing with his addiction past, something he openly discusses in interviews. Dan Torrance is destroying himself from the inside out with alcohol, trying to lock up and push away the horrors of his mind, much like how some real alcoholics are trying to destroy something terrifying inside. The way the movie deals with addiction and consequent rehab is frank, to-the-point, and vitally real, but more importantly it’s woven perfectly into the wider plot of what happened after The Shining and the wild mythology of psychic powers and vampiric cults. You have to deal with your demons, rather than run away from them or try to lock them away. It might as well be mental illness or a metaphor for PTSD, the realism is effective and sells you instantly into the world even as things get supernaturally crazy.
The performances across the board are fantastic, which is to be expected from anything Flanagan makes at this point. Ewan McGregor is tapping into something deep inside himself, playing a lost man struggling to stay sober and maintain a normal life. McGregor has given his fair share of standout performances before, but this one just feels different, something stronger is pushing him to be better and explore darker territory, bringing out a sympathetic and real character you want to support.
Young Kyliegh Curran is like a sledgehammer, not only working with great material, but making you believe in her torment and wide-eyed faith at the potential of using her powers for good and stopping evil. Real Jedi shit right there.
Rebecca Ferguson is playing a role that might have been easily filled by Flanagan-favourite Carla Gugino, but does it so well that by the end I can only see her as the eternally seductive, charming, free-spirited yet totally ruthless and vicious demon that is Rose the Hat.
Just like with Gerald’s Game and Haunting of Hill House, Mike Flanagan does adaptations in a different way than most, and this is no different in Doctor Sleep. Though it’s not as wildly different an adaptation as Hill House, Flanagan still chooses to cut to the core of the story and its important themes, retaining significant characters and some of their motivations, but cutting away unimportant details or things too strange to be done properly in a movie. This film does go headlong into the supernatural, like whole psychic battles fought between characters and involving ghosts and astral projection, but it is all necessary to the characters and the overall story. This is a two and a half hour film and I wouldn’t take out a single moment.
Another thing to be expected from Flanagan’s filmography is a terrifying score by the Newton Brothers, some truly beautiful and haunting cinematography from Mike Fimognari, and some of the best production design I’ve seen all year. Yes, Doctor Sleep does recreate moments from The Shining and they completely reconstruct the Overlook hotel set, which might seem gratuitous, maybe similar to the level of nostalgia-push that Ready Player One had with its Shining homage. But like the cinematography using harsh strong and dynamic lighting, and the score featuring a beating heart throughout that slows towards the end, it is all necessary. Having the Overlook look and feel exactly like it once did, with all the ghosts and creepy stuff lurking around the corner, it’s as if Kubrick himself has left all of this waiting for someone to come and wake it all up again.
While it gets crazy and might dip too far into the strangeness of Stephen King’s mind and the ideas he puts on paper, Doctor Sleep is an outstanding, thrilling, sickening at times, intense, and riveting horror film that becomes more. Mike Flanagan will never cease to stun and entertain me in more ways than one would usually be entertained, his eye being so precise and keen to show you stories in the world of horror that you haven’t really seen before. The camerawork is some of the best of the year, the score is the best you can ask for in the genre, the production design deserves an Oscar, McGregor, Curran, Ferguson and other actors like Cliff Curtis, Jacob Tremblay, and a surprise cameo from Henry Thomas give brilliant performances that floored me on every level. You need to see and support Doctor Sleep. This is the kind of story I crave and one we deserve all year round forever.
Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran
Writer: Mike Flangan, (based on the book Doctor Sleep by Stephen King)