I wondered why Warner Bros. didn’t release Doctor Sleep before Halloween. It seemed pretty obvious to release a sequel to one of the greatest horror films of all-time at a time when people are craving horror movies. But after seeing Doctor Sleep, the decision makes sense because Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel isn’t really a horror movie. It has some horror elements, but it plays more like harder-edged superhero story where people with special abilities are duking it out to protect or conquer other people with special abilities. The conflict almost plays like an X-Men story, and that’s fun for what it is. And yet the movie frequently hints at something deeper with a story of how the older generation preys on the life and emotions of the young. This exploration is where Doctor Sleep is at its most captivating, but then it returns to Shining Wars, which offers nothing even close or as rich as the story’s towering predecessor.
After surviving the horrible events of The Shining, young Danny Torrance has grown into tortured alcoholic drifter Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor). After getting some help from the kindly Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), Dan finds sobriety and peace working as an orderly who’s able to use his special ability to help hospice patients peacefully die. But Dan’s comfortable existence is shattered when he receives a plea from help from fellow Shiner, Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran). Abra and kids like her are being tracked by a nefarious group of nomads called the True Knot led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). The True Knot suck the lifeforce from people with the shining in order to extend their own lives. Dan must overcome his own trauma to help Abra and put a stop to the True Knot.
The people-with-powers vs. people-with-powers story that runs through most of Doctor Sleep is pretty fun. Flanagan must think it’s a pretty good hook since he uses that to start his story as we see the True Knot devour a young girl, which establishes them as a threat and captivatingly mysterious. And to be fair, watching this kind of psychic battle is really entertaining, especially when you’ve got strong characters like Rose the Hat and Abra squaring off. It’s the kind of film almost made for one-liners and I was surprised at how often the audience was cheering when the good guys were able to get one over on the bad guys. This whole good-vs-evil conflict entertaining stuff, especially in Flanagan’s hands.
I hadn’t seen any of Flanagan’s work before Doctor Sleep but had heard nothing but good things from fans of The Haunting of Hill House and Oculus. He lives up to his reputation here with imaginative visuals that show he’s not trying to do a riff on Stanley Kubrick and instead wants to acknowledge the 1980 classic without trying to do a slavish imitation of it. Flanagan crafts his own world here while walking a delicate tightrope between Kubrick’s movie (which Stephen King famously hated) and Stephen King’s novels. Whereas Kubrick’s movie is more about the intersection of violence and madness, Flanagan seizes more on how abuse shapes us and what generations owe to each other.
The problem is that his exploration of generational trauma never really comes to fruition. It will rear its head here and there, and it’s obvious in the actions of the True Knot who literally kill children to feed their own longevity (I’m surprised the movie doesn’t make a more overt climate change metaphor), but the emotional hook needs to be in Dan’s trauma, and Doctor Sleep doesn’t quite get there. It seems like Flanagan is trying to cover a lot of story (full disclosure: I’ve never King’s novel), and while the full cast gets a lot of nice character moments, it never feels like Dan’s trauma is a guiding force for the narrative. The abuse he suffered as a child and his relationship with his father leads to some of the best scenes in the movie, but they don’t feel cohesively tied into a narrative where people engage in psychic battles.
However, I am grateful that Flanagan never lets The Shining overwhelm his movie. Yes, there are some overt nods that border on cloying nostalgia, but Flanagan wisely resolves to let Doctor Sleep be its own thing rather than try to get out from the impossibly long shadow cast by Kubrick’s classic. Instead, Flanagan positions The Shining as exposition that we all know and then uses it to power Dan’s backstory and how he relates to Abra. This approach renders Doctor Sleep into a fairly clever sequel that successfully turns its baggage into an asset.
Doctor Sleep is one of those movies that does its job so well that you can’t help but notice when other aspects don’t excel. Flanagan has made a really fun movie that uses hints of horror to amplify the drama and stakes. The entire cast is outstanding with Ferguson making a strong case for villain of the year as the unapologetically evil Rose the Hat. But most remarkable is how the film has created a bridge from both the books and the 1980 movie to create a space where everyone can get on board. It may not hold a candle to the Kubrick movie, but it’s not trying to. Instead, it finds its own place of horrors and brings it back around to generational trauma that can be solved with superpowers.