Is anyone else getting a bit sick and tired of Stephen King adaptations? 2019 has seen a rash of them, with the dull-as-dishwater Pet Sematary remake, Netflix’s uninspired In The Tall Grass, and the frustratingly dreadful It: Chapter 2. And now we get Doctor Sleep.
Let’s get this out of the way: The Shining did not need a sequel, novelistic or cinematic. It just didn’t. Still, Stephen King – who famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel, going so far as to make his own comically inferior TV version in 1997 – just couldn’t leave it alone. His resilience has put director / screenwriter Mike Flanagan (Oculus, The Haunting Of Hill House) in something of a tight spot. Indeed, Flanagan has the unenviable juggling act of having to satisfy fans of both SKs, with Doctor Sleep having to serve as an adaptation of the 2013 novel of the same name, as well as the sequel to The Shining, considered by many to be one of the best horror films of the 20th century.
Impressively, he manages both. With mixed results.
Doctor Sleep follows the now adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who is battling his alcoholism and PTSD following his childhood ordeal in the Overlook Hotel. He soon finds a calling as a hospice worker, and uses his “shine” to help the dying patients pass on. Meanwhile, a charming-yet-dangerous Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) leads off a bunch of psychic vampires called The True Knot. These reprobates feast on the death steam released by those who shine, and quickly seek out Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl who shines brighter than most and who has taken to communicating with Danny via their shared psychic gift.
The biggest roadblock Doctor Sleep hits is its tendency to provide too many demystifying explanations for the mythology of The Shining, instead of focusing on the tension. The film never manages to conjure the unpredictable frisson Kubrick so expertly did. And while it’s a fool’s errand to compare The Shining and Doctor Sleep too much, as both function as their own entities, the latter will undoubtedly disappoint those who are looking for suspense and a lingering sense of dread. One scene – which won’t be spoilt here – does deliver some sublimely eerie thrills, but in an overlong runtime of 134 minutes, that might feel a bit meagre.
However, taking these issues into consideration, as well as Flannagan’s nigh-on impossible task, it’s something of a minor miracle that this sequel ends up with more hits than misses. It’s a more contemplative piece, one which truly works when nodding back to The Shining with purpose. The Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s original – and now iconic – synth score makes an appearance, some aerial shots mimic Kubrick’s, and a handful of winks are scattered around. These elements aren’t crafted for fan service, nostalgia points or mere homage: Flanagan adroitly uses visual echoes to highlight that Danny never truly left the Overlook Hotel, that his ghosts still haunt him in everyday life, and that his deep-seated trauma will continue to bleed into his new life until he can confront his demons. Ewan McGregor (who at times looks like he could be related to Jack Nicholson) handles the material well, as does a delightfully chilling Rebecca Fergusson. The standout, however, is young newcomer Kyliegh Curran; she makes Abra touching, snarky and believably dangerous when she needs to be, and her star-making turn keeps the film alive when the pacing falters.
Those hoping that this belated sequel would be a tonally direct or even essential continuation to The Shining might end up disappointed, but all in all, Doctor Sleep justifies its existence and crucially doesn’t betray Kubrick’s film. Decent surprise though it is, maybe it’s time to dim the shine for a while when it comes to King adaptations… One decent adaptation out of four hardly counts as a win.
Doctor Sleep | Directed by Mike Flanagan (US, 2019), with Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Fergusson, Kyliegh Curran. Starts Nov 21.
Check our OV search engine for showtimes.