A huge portion of this film cannot and should not be discussed in any review, but I’m guessing it will be, and in large quantities. I’m also guessing that different people will consider different aspects of Doctor Sleep sacred ground, and others will assume that maybe it should be. I can easily see this film being one of the most divisive horror offerings of the year, and that’s actually a good sign that director, editor and screenwriter Mike Flanagan is probably doing something right.
In case you hadn’t heard, Doctor Sleep is a sequel to one of Stephen King’s earliest novels (and adapted movies, helmed by Stanley Kubrick), The Shining. King released the book sequel about six years ago, and it traces the troubled life of one Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor in the movie), the grown-up version of that little boy who survived the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel. He still has his psychic powers (which his old pal Dick Hallorann called the “shining”), which allowed him to communicate with the dead but also get into the minds of people who were very much alive. But Danny has been tormented by both real ghosts and the ghosts of his past, including those of his dead father Jack, who attempted to kill him, and his adoring mother Wendy (who is seen in flashbacks to right after the events of The Shining and played by Alex Essoe, who absolutely nails Shelly Duvall’s voice and mannerisms).
But in the wake of the events at the Overlook, Danny was also haunted by the uneasy spirits that he encountered there—the twin girls, the naked woman in the bathtub, and a variety of other spirit guests—and followed him home. But the kindly ghost of Dick (Carl Lumbly in this film) also stayed by his side to show Danny how to lock those beings up in his mind so that they never bother him again. When he checks in on them from time to time, all he sees are a series of trunks, locked tight. As an adult, Danny has largely buried his abilities in a sea of alcohol and bad, destructive decisions. He’s drifted from place to place, and soon after we meet him, he has reached a small New Hampshire town where he immediately meets a man named Billy (Cliff Curtis) who takes him to the local AA meeting. Soon, positive changes begin to happen for Danny—from a place to live to a job at a senior center.
Doctor Sleep moves back and forth from Danny’s story to that of a traveling band of folks known as The True Knot, led by the charismatic Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). It turns out, everyone in this tribe of misfits has abilities similar to Danny’s, with variations. But more to the point, they regularly kidnap children who have the power and murder them slowly and painfully, so their essence—their “steam,” as they call it—leaks from their body and these psychic vampires swallow it up. The process keeps them young and strong and in the constant search for particularly powerful kids whose steam will sustain them and make them, for a time, powerful beyond words.
In one particularly brutal sequence, the True Knot captures a young boy, played with true terrified conviction by Jacob Tremblay (Room, Good Boys), and they gut him mercilessly. They are even able to bottle some of his leftover steam to absorb later, when fresh kills may not be available. While he is being killed, the boy emits a psychic cry that is heard by a teenage girl named Abra (fantastic newcomer Kyliegh Curran), who in turn shoots out psychic darts as far as she can, practically knocking Danny out of bed. The two end up communicating across hundreds of miles, with her trying to make sense of what she experienced, and Danny attempting to tutor her from afar, but it becomes clear that the True Knot are on the hunt for Abra, who might be the most powerful of her kind ever, so much so that she even manages to dislodge Rose from her perch. And with that set up, Doctor Sleep feels like multiple trains barreling toward one another, either to connect or simply smash into each other.
In just a few short years, director Flanagan has become one of the more reliable horror filmmakers working today, with such works as Oculus, Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game (another great King adaptation), and the Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House.” But Doctor Sleep might be his master stroke if only for attempting something that many people thought would make the novel unadaptable. Since Kubrick’s film changed a great deal from the novel (for example, in the novel, the Overlook burns to the ground; in the movie, it’s left standing at the end), people wondered if the film version would be a sequel to the book or the movie. Flanagan’s solution involves a little from Column A and a little more from Column B, and the result is remarkable, in both its effectiveness and its pure, uncut boldness.
There were probably a half-dozen moments in Doctor Sleep where I simply thought “We’re going there?” And once I realized what the almost inevitable final battle ground was going to be (it was not in the novel), I began to imagine the possibilities—and even then, I was still shocked at how far Flanagan pushed the boundaries and made me realize that sometimes the thing that feels like a degree of fan service might also be the best idea for the story being told. My guess is that this point will be debated for some months to come.
One thing Doctor Sleep isn’t is scary, nor is it really designed to be for most of its two-and-a-half-hour running time. Normally for a horror film, this would be deadly, but what Flanagan is going for is sustained tension and incredibly impactful atmosphere (quite purposefully like The Shining, which many consider one of the scariest films ever made, but I never did). There isn’t a great deal of gore—even during the death of Tremblay’s character, the worst is kept off screen.
McGregor and Curran are fantastic together as psychic partners, with both bringing something unique to the film. Danny’s quiet desperation and fear of the known forces at place work well with Abra, who doesn’t know what she doesn’t know and thus is afraid of almost nothing. It makes her both reckless and powerful, since she’s constantly testing her limits as a person with seemingly limitless power. I should also mention Zahn McClarnon, playing Rose’s right-hand, Crow Daddy, whose controlled menace is a great counterpoint to Ferguson’s more theatrical presence.
Doctor Sleep is one of the few horror films this year that I immediately wanted to see again, because I believe things would be revealed with repeated viewing that I was frankly too shocked to see the first time around. The more I considered what Flanagan and his team did with this story, the more impressed I became.
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