Doctor Sleep (2019)


For years Stephen King was asked about what happened to Danny Torrance once he grew up.  Obviously, spending a winter in a haunted hotel and barely escaping a homicidal father is going to have consequences, and in 2013 we got an answer to that question.  Even without the help of the Overlook he followed the same path his father had been on, eventually hitting rock bottom and coming back again.  Part of that coming back was to help a young girl with her own "shine" who was being pursued by a group of homicidal nearly-immortal nomads who maintained their long lives by torturing children to death who had pronounced psychic ability so that they could ingest the child's "steam" - both a manifestation of their psychic power and their soul. 

King was never a fan of Stanley Kubrick's 1980 movie version of The Shining, and had attempted to undo the damage he thought was done by producing a 1997 miniseries directed by Mick Garris.  While the miniseries was closer in spirit to the book, it couldn't escape the fact that Kubrick's film, as an actual visual telling of the story, was the version everyone knew.  When it came time for writer and director Mike Flanagan to make a movie of Doctor Sleep, it presented a conundrum; make it faithful to the book, with a lot of what occurs (including Dick Hallorann's death) being contrary to a movie that has stood as one of the pinnacles of horror for close to 40 years, or disappoint Stephen King by changing events so that they do not compromise Kubrick's vision.  

Flanagan, to his credit, was able to convince King of the necessity of doing the latter.  The Shining, featuring stellar performances by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, is part of American film history, and not simply another horror film.  Like the movie or not, it is part of our collective consciousness.  Still, a number of nuances and events from the book were left out of The Shining, so Doctor Sleep had space to add some of it back in, even if the sequel still leaves a number of elements from the fist movie unexplained. 

Young Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) is being haunted by the ghosts from the Overlook Hotel, and gets advice from the spirit of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) on how to deal with them.  He and his mother (Alex Essoe) begin to live their lives again.  At this point we jump ahead to 2011, where we find that the grownup Danny (Ewan McGregor) has fallen victim to alcoholism.  In an effort to change his life he takes a bus to Frazier, New Hampshire, where he befriends a man named Billy (Cliff Curtis).  Billy gets Danny into Alcoholics Anonymous and helps get him a job as an orderly at a local rest home.  Danny soon becomes known for comforting the patients as they pass.

Soon after arriving in Frazier Danny is psychically contacted by a girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran).  Eight years later he receives a psychic distress call from her as she feels and witnesses the death of a boy named Bradley Trevor (Jacob Tremley) at the hands of a nomadic group called the True Knot.  Their leader, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) soon realizes that Abra is a danger to her and her group, as Abra is stronger than anyone they have ever encountered.  With the help of Billy and Danny, Abra hopes to end the True Knot once and for all. 

I was curious about how the movie version of Doctor Sleep would handle the fate of the Overlook Hotel.  In the book version of The Shining the hotel is blown up, with Jack Torrance in it.  At the end of Kubrick's movie, Jack freezes to death in the hedge maze adjacent to the hotel, while the building itself still stands.  In both versions the ghosts from the hotel reach out to Danny to feed on him, but in this case it is explained early on by Dick Hallorann that the Overlook was boarded up after Jack attempted to kill Danny and Wendy.  It's an important detail, because the Overlook figures heavily in the climax of both the movie version and book version of Doctor Sleep, and in this instance I think the fact that it was still standing allowed for a better ending than the book did.  It is also important to note that Jack never redeemed himself in the movie version of The Shining, while he did in the book, so King's original ending to Doctor Sleep would not have worked. 

While it wasn't so much of a problem with the written sequel, Doctor Sleep unfortunately has to stand in the shadow of Kubrick's film, and has received its undeserved amount of criticism because of it.  While some scenes from the previous movie are mirrored for dramatic effect, Mike Flanagan never set out to make a movie with the same visual and atmospheric heft as The ShiningDoctor Sleep is strictly narrative and character driven.  That said, it still contains the same set of ghosts as The Shining, and once again fails to provide any real back story for any of them.  It's a mistake, because obviously we're supposed to be afraid of their power to feed on psychic energy, just like the True Knot, but we need some foundation on which to base this.

As for the True Knot, I thought the implications of Rose the Hat and her group were frightening in the book, and there are disturbing and disgusting scenes involving them in both versions.  I am surprised that Flanagan was willing to graphically explore that end of the story, as it involves child murders, but even then the Knot is not explored in any depth.  This results in a group of villains that, though interesting, are more frightening in concept than execution.  Despite their age and their methods all except Rose are dealt with easily, and some of the key scenes that define them (feeding off the collective steam released by the events on September 11, 2001, for example) are frustratingly absent.  They weren't the most developed or greatest villains in the book, and that is even more so here.

I am willing to let that go because both Ewan McGregor and Kyliegh Curran give good performances throughout.  Also Flanagan does not rush the plot.  He lets us get to know Danny once again before the true story starts, and is more interested making us care for the him and Abra.  Danny's meeting with his father (Henry Thomas) in the Overlook is more important to the story than Rose the Hat, even though Rebecca Ferguson gives a nice low-key performance in the role. 

When approaching Doctor Sleep it is important to understand that Mike Flanagan has no intention on being Stanley Kubrick, and the movie is not intended to be The Shining.  This movie gives us a story about a man who ultimately is able to have the redemption his father never had the chance to have in life or death.  It is about becoming his own person and realizing there is more out there that needs to be done than just wallow in his own past.  It is a great piece of modern horror in its own right and, like its predecessor, there is hope that its reputation will grow as time goes on. 

Doctor Sleep (2019)
Time: 152 minutes
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kyliegh Curran, Rebecca Ferguson
Director: Mike Flanagan


 

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