[This review was originally published on 1st November, 2019]
It’s not easy to one-up the horror work of an auteur like Stanley Kubrick. But it’s easy to change direction just a mite and make a sequel that neither imitate nor duplicates.
That’s what director Mike Flanagan did with the 2019 sequel to The Shining. Doctor Sleep (out 7th November in Malaysia) combines a simple tale of redemption, trauma, and torch-passing with his touch of horror and atmosphere-building. This is coming from the guy who did the well-made Haunting of Hill House Netflix series, so expectations are high.
While a few key moments feel a bit manufactured for the sake of homages, everything else about this film mixes drama and chill-inducing moments.
While Doctor Sleep starts off in the 80s with stand-ins for Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd (same time as The Shining’s plot, FYI), it quickly flash forward to a number of years when young Danny Torrance is all grown up – played by Ewan McGregor. He succumbs to alcoholism and vagrancy throughout his years, but sobers up after being visited by the show’s spiritual Magical Negro trope (already established from the first film). Oh, and he still has his telepathy “Shining” tricks from the first film.
As he adjusts to his new life and his new job as a hospice in a new town, where he provides comfort to dying patients pointed out by the cat Azzie, he ends up talking telepathically to a young girl named Abra who has great Shining powers. And then there’s also a group called the True Knot led by cult leader Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) who kidnap and kill children with The Shining for nefarious reasons.
These plot threads tie together into quite an adventure that explores Danny’s fears and reawakened ghosts. Though most of them are trapped in his “mind boxes” courtesy of a technique from the aforementioned Negro, he still is unsure of himself and wants to maintain his tranquil lifestyle.
Props to the always-talented Ewan McGregor for portraying this version of Danny as the reluctant hero with a fulfilled character arc we can all relate to. He also excels in the third act where it all comes full circle to the series’ point of origin.
Kyliegh Curran as Abra Stone also does a bang-up job in playing the telepathic kid who may come off as too smart for her own good. Is this an almost unrealistic portrayal of a kid her age? Sure, but most children with these kinds of powers in these films aren’t known for living as the norm, right? If anything, this “flaw” makes her a tad more captivating as she gets most of her problems sorted through teamwork with Danny and her use of her powers.
But the spotlight goes to Rebecca Ferguson as the eccentric-and-downright-chilling Rose the Hat. The character herself is charismatic, insane, devoted, and devious: everything a cult leader in these films should be and then some thanks to Ferguson’s portrayal.
Every time she’s on the screen, you just want to hang onto her every word and just see her manipulate people to her cause, watch her plans go into motion in outwitting the heroes of this story, as well as witness her eventual downfall as most charismatic villains experience.
Coupled with lovingly-recreated visual tributes, some tense moments (re: on how the True Knot get fed), and great acting from both the main and supporting cast, and you pretty much have a well-put-together horror film that’s leaning more on atmosphere, for good or ill.
Still, I wished Flanagan didn’t have to make the third act of the film very on-the-nose with its homages. I’m all for references that make sense to the story, but part of me didn’t buy the last act.
While the third act has its surprise moments coupled with strong performances from the trio, some of it feels like unwarranted fan service minus the original moments and talent that made them chilling and attention-grabbing in the first place.
Sure, the film could speed up its pacing by a tad and adheres to the whole “build up then topple it” style of storytelling, but that can be solved if they trimmed the third act to a tad.
Take Two Pills & Call Me In The Morning…
Doctor Sleep is going to be divisive among purists and horror fans. But at the same time, it’s a worthy adaptation that stuck true to the tone and narrative of the 80s prequel that treads the fine line of homage and new interpretation well. I really don’t see any other director pulling this creepy sequel off like Mike Flanagan would that gives justice to the original book of the same name.
He made damn sure Doctor Sleep kept to the creepiness and surreal moments from Kubrick’s vision but also remember that the film is supposed to progress through Danny’s life and times alongside his new predicament. The fact that it doesn’t come off as goofy as most Stephen King adaptations do means that this is a rare case where you’re laughing along with the film, not at it.
For what it’s worth, he succeeded. It’s not the crowning achievement of horror this year (that one goes to Midsommar), but it damn well stuck the landing.