Mike Flanagan is a brave man. The director of last year’s amazing Haunting of Hill House on Netflix follows that up with a monumental task of making a sequel to arguably one of Stanley Kubrick’s best films. Oh, and it also happens to also be based on a Stephen King novel, adding even more pressure. But Doctor Sleep, the follow up to The Shining (both the book and film), succeeds in matching up the two versions of the story and reconciling them into one cohesive narrative. Flanagan is not only brave; he’s also very, very talented.
Doctor Sleep stars Ewan McGregor as an adult Danny Torrence. Dan — as he goes by now — is a raging alcoholic, using that and other substances to try and keep the shine at bay. After hitting rock bottom, he decides to try the sober life, and the shining begins to wane naturally with age. But he is not alone, as Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a powerful girl with her own shine, has been born and her gifts are attracting the attention of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her followers, The True Knot.
The True Knot feed on “steam” which is the shining essence after it leaves the body at death. This merry band of ageless psychopaths criss-cross the country in a caravan like gypsies looking for kids who shine, only to kidnap and kill them for food, which keeps them all young and alive. The film hints that The True Knot has been around for a very long time in some form or another, and there are also ties to The Dark Tower for astute King fans to pick up on.
Abra and Dan have to team up to stop them before they can get to Abra, and to do that, Dan will need to face the ghosts of his past, including the infamous Overlook Hotel, to save the girl and stop Rose and her followers.
Flanagan, who writes and directs (and edits, which actually plays a role here) is not afraid of the subject matter. The book and the movie of The Shining are very different in key places. For instance, in the book, Dick Hallorann (originally played by the incomparable Scatman Crothers, and here played by the equally stellar Carl Lumbly) lives and the hotel blows up. In the film, Dick dies and the hotel lives on after the Torrance’s had their nightmare winter there. Doctor Sleep reconciles all of that in some very smart ways, which allows the story to be told without disrupting either version that came before. It’s particularly astounding that Flanagan and his team could pull this off.
Doctor Sleep is not so much a “scary” film as it is a true horror film, if that makes any sense. It has a few cheap jump scares, usually dealing with sudden uses of loud noises, but it finds its effectiveness much like Hill House did. It creates discomfort by what you see — or don’t see — on screen. This is encapsulated by the image of a dead toddler, well on his way to rot. Other directors would have possibly kept that offscreen and only implied it, but not Mike Flanagan. I will be haunted by that image for weeks to come.
McGregor and Ferguson are both outstanding as Dan and Rose, two sides at war for the shine of Abra. The events at the Overlook are meticulously recreated, and there is some inspired casting in the iconic roles. I very much prefer that to some cheap CGI that would have made the characters look as bad as Henry Cavill’s upper lip in Justice League.
The music in Doctor Sleep calls back to the original score for The Shining by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. And it sure is incredibly effective. The Newton Brothers created the score here, and they nailed it. The music is as much a part of the overall atmosphere as the action on screen.
I was apprehensive when King published Doctor Sleep originally, as I felt that the story he told in 1977 was complete. Kubrick made it his own (even if King hated that version) in 1980, and it was remade for ABC in 1997 to more closely follow the book. In other words, it was done to death and should have been left alone. I was wrong. Doctor Sleep, both the book and the film, are stellar stories that expand the world that King created over 40 years ago, and in a post-Dark Tower timeline, everything takes on a new importance.
Mike Flanagan proved that he could do the impossible when he updated Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece into a Netflix series, and it is only fitting that he would take on this project, since Stephen King has always said The Shining was his homage to Jackson’s novel. Doctor Sleep is a magnificent film with possibly the best third act since April’s Avengers: Endgame. I do not say those words lightly. For fans of Kubrick’s film and of King’s original novel, this movie does them both right, and I can’t wait to see what Flanagan does next, as he has catapulted himself into the upper echelons of horror storytelling.
Doctor Sleep is rated R and is in theaters on November 8, 2019.
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