I’ve never read Stephen King’s 1977 bestseller “The Shining” but I’m keenly aware of his displeasure with Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated movie adaptation. King’s dissatisfaction manifested itself through some instances of compelling criticism but also plenty of sour grapes. King even went as far as to release his own adaptation of his novel, an ABC mini-series, which sticks closer to his vision but doesn’t have near the following as Kubrick’s film.
In 2013 King penned “Doctor Sleep”, yet another bestseller and a sequel to “The Shining”. Warner Brothers instantly looked into bringing it to the big screen. Now six years later enter Mike Flanagan – writer, director, editor, and the brave soul willing to tackle such an audacious undertaking. Flanagan sets out to make a film that connects both King and Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” while continuing their story. It’s exciting to see that he is up to the task.
“Doctor Sleep” opens only a few years after the traumatizing events of the first film. Young Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mother Wendy have relocated to Florida but he is still haunted by specters from The Overlook Hotel including the woman rotting away in Room 237 (surely you remember her). Through his telepathic powers that come with having ‘the Shine’, Danny is contacted by the Outlook’s former head chef Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) who teaches him how fend off the evil spirits.
That small opening does a good job of bringing us back to and planting our feet in King and Kubrick’s world. It immediately taps into the tone that Kubrick’s film developed and managed so well while also establishing the strong supernatural angle which was important to King and was one of his big points of criticism with Kubrick’s version of his story.
Jump ahead 31 years later. Danny (a perfectly cast Ewan McGregor), or Dan now, is still wrestling with his abilities and his attempts to suppress them has led to a life of self-destruction and alcoholism. Essentially homeless and with his life in shambles, Dan hops a bus and eventually gets off at a small New Hampshire town where a sympathetic local (Cliff Curtis) helps him get his feet on the ground. He finds a good job, joins an AA group, and even discovers a quiet but thoughtful use for his abilities.
So far so good, but now we get to the film’s ace in the hole – Rebecca Ferguson. The English-Swedish actress steals the show playing Rose, the leader of a gypsy-like vampiric cult called the True Knot. She and her supernatural sect hunt down and literally feed on the ‘shine’ of gifted children. But they’re starving which makes them even more desperate and more dangerous.
Ferguson owns every scene she’s in and imbues her character with a seductive charm but also a blood-curdling menace. Flanagan wisely gives her plenty of meaty scenes that help develop her and her group as a truly terrifying (and mesmerizing) threat. Many of the movie’s most memorable moments feature Rose with her icy confidence and chilling callousness. She’s a great character brought to life through a great performance.
Dan crosses telepathic paths with a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) whose ‘shine’ is off the charts. Rose senses Abra’s immense power which puts the child’s life in immediate danger. Dan is then faced with a dilemma. If he doesn’t get involved he’ll be able to protect the good and stable life he finally has going for himself. But of course Abra will probably die. If he helps her, he runs the risk of losing everything and his own ‘shine’ will almost certainly be exposed. But in doing so he could potentially save her life. Decisions.
I really like “The Shining” despite not quite seeing it as the horror movie masterpiece many do. Still, there is a fascinating pull towards the story and characters that I can’t deny. “Doctor Sleep” builds on that in a incredibly satisfying way. Aside from Flanagan’s impressive balancing act in bringing together King and Kubrick’s visions, I love the attention that he gives to the people on screen. The movie has a hefty running time but it’s in large part due to the story never taking shortcuts and offering up plenty of rich character details.
It’s also refreshing to see a horror film give the fullness of its genre focus to mood and tone instead of jump scares which have become commonplace. In fact “Doctor Sleep” seems to be pushing back on what you could call the horror movie norms of our day. It feels unique and plays out differently than what we’ve become accustomed to. In a nutshell, it’s a very mature slice of horror that is heavily focused on its characters and trusts in its ability to create frights and tension without resorting to gimmicks. I know it really worked for me.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS