When we first get a glimpse of young Danny Torrance in Doctor Sleep, a crafty and surprisingly moving sequel to The Shining, he is riding his tricycle once more through the windy hallways of the Overlook Hotel. The details are uncanny and instantly transporting: the boy’s overalls, his red shirt, the hexagonal pattern throughout the carpet, the gliding prowess of the tracking shots. For a quick moment it’s as if nothing has changed, even though something clearly has. Writer-director Mike Flanagan fully commits to the illusion he’s conjured, so much so that you may not fully register the difference until Danny stops and turns his head revealing the profile of the actor playing him (Roger Dale Floyd). It’s a cleverly timed little reveal: The flashback we’re seeing is not spliced footage from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film but a meticulous recreation, displaying the meticulous details that helped define the film and the devotion of its fanbase. Not among those many fans famously is Stephen King, who has been outspoken in his dislike of this famous adaptation of his work. Decades after its initially divided reception, Kubrick’s The Shining is now widely revered as one of, if not the, greatest horror film of all time, as well as a useful reminder that a great movie isn’t always a model adaptation (and vice versa). And while King’s and Kubrick’s sensibilities may seem at odds, their legacies, now intertwined, have undoubtedly nurtured one another over the years. So much so, that those legacies account almost entirely for why this new movie exists.
Adapted from King’s mythology-expanding 2013 novel of the same title, Doctor Sleep follows an older, present-day Dan Torrance (a sensitive and disheveled Ewan McGregor) after surviving the horrific events that took place at the Overlook. Adult Dan has grown into a tortured alcoholic drifter who’s soon brought into a world of bright-minded children and nomadic child killers, all of whom share some version of his psychic gift. And thus Flanagan’s movie faces the difficult challenge of both faithfully adapting King’s story and maintaining consistency with the pop-cultural colossus that is Kubrick’s film. And in a way this film poignantly echoes the plight of young Danny himself, feeling like a child caught between two disputing parents, and attempting to stage a reconciliation. For a large chunk, Flanagan pulls that reconciliation off, imperfectly but intelligently. And that’s no easy feat, for reasons that have as much to do with basic plot structure as with conflicting aesthetic sensibilities. The iconic Overlook Hotel was destroyed at the end of King’s novel but left still standing at the end of Kubrick’s movie. The opposite was true of Dick Hallorann, the kind Overlook chef who first taught Danny about his extraordinary perceptual powers. Flanagan’s narrative takes these conflicts and works around them both smartly and fairly intuitively: Death, King’s work has so often reminded us, is seldomly the end of story.
So at the beginning of Doctor Sleep, when young Danny receives a benevolent visit from the deceased Hollorann (Carl Lumbly), who teaches him how to cope and deal with the various demonic residents that have followed him through the boarded-up Overlook, all drawn to him by his “shining” capabilities, it’s not quite shocking. Even as he and his mother, Wendy (Alex Essoe), try to recover from the trauma of his father’s terrifying rampage and untimely death, Danny is still haunted by the specter from Room 237 — a problem he learns to solve by envisioning an enormous lockbox, a kind of imaginary Pandora’s box, into which the malevolent apparitions can be lured and then shut away for good. This solution, while effective, amounts to a kind of sustained psychological repression that takes an enormous toll on him. So when we catch up with Dan years later, he’s now lost his mother, inherited his father’s alcoholism and just hit rock bottom in general. And eventually he moves to a small town in New Hampshire where he draws the kindness of strangers (Cliff Curtis and Bruce Greenwood), attends AA meetings and gets a job as a hospice orderly. It’s at that job where, with the help of a cat with some rumored extrasensory abilities of its own, that he puts the shining to humane use, easing the souls of the sick and earning himself the moniker of the title.
But not everyone with the shining shares Dan’s sensitivity. Enter the film’s villain and secret weapon, Rose the Hat, named for the black Pork pie hat she wears and played with terrifying poise and malevolent hunger by a remarkable Rebecca Ferguson. Both ruthless and seductive, Rose leads a death cult of semi-immortal beings called the True Knot (who include Zahn McClarnon, Carel Struycken and Emily Alyn Lind) who prey on shining children by inhaling their psychic essence, or “steam.” In a truly sadistic twist, that steam can only be harvested when the children feel extreme pain, which is demonstrated in a mid-movie feeding frenzy that is all the more upsetting for how precisely it’s staged. A mix of Danny’s alcoholism and his mastery of his own gift has kept him off the radar of the True Knot, though another child we meet, Abra Stone (a spirited Kyliegh Curran), isn’t quite so lucky. Revealing her shining abilities, Abra uses her mind to forge a connection with Dan, whom she ultimately eclipses in terms of sheer psychic potential. Which makes her both the True Knot’s most coveted target and their gravest threat, and one of the chief satisfactions of Doctor Sleep is the spectacle of Dan and Abra conspiring to turn the tables in a story that slips playfully in and out of the maze of the subconscious.
Flanagan has become a fast-rising name in modern horror, and for good reason: Having delivered the recently acclaimed Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, and films like Oculus, and one of the better King adaptations in recent memory, Gerald’s Game among others. Where so much of horror cinema often wields the sledgehammer, Flanagan consistently applies a scalpel. His work here is notable for its visual control, backing away from the jump scare, and diving into the delicate richness of its world building. (He as well serves as his own editor here, where he delivers cross-cutting with remarkable focus across the film’s two-and-a-half-hour sprawling runtime.) But beneath the film’s slick surfaces there is also a determined, pulsing humanity, an understanding of the deep emotional underpinnings of King’s work. Doctor Sleep may have a vaster narrative than The Shining, but it returns to many of the same themes: the innocence and mischief of childhood, the protective and predatory dimensions of adults, the vulnerability of the family unit.
But as the film progresses things can’t help but circle back to The Shining itself, foreshadowing the endgame of it all with its menacing overhead shots of cars traveling through the landscapes. (Michael Fimognari’s cinematography is both dynamic and precise in its blue-hued menace and sensitivity.) But as we enter the film’s final thirty-minutes it begins to lose a bit of gas, running into amass of extravagant, fetishistic fan service that nearly entirely tarnished the film’s landing for me. But it’s in that final thirty-minutes that we’re also given a particular scene at a bar, that was partially distracting, partially a bit ham-fisted, but remained emotionally potent and thematically rich. Though Doctor Sleep may struggle in its pointless nostalgia tendencies, it still delivers in its poignant, sincere display of childhood trauma and the way it echoes and cements through one’s life.