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Non-Review Review: Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place, between Stephen King and The Shining.

Of course, Stephen King wrote The Shining. The book belongs to King. It is a profoundly personal work, dealing with his own feelings of inadequacy as a young writer and father, and documenting his own struggles with addiction. Indeed, a large part of the tension between Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick over the cinematic adaptation of The Shining was the way in which it largely eschewed any interiority in its handling of Jack Torrance. In some ways, King has been awkwardly trying to reassert his authorship of The Shining for decades, through works like the television miniseries and the sequel Doctor Sleep.

It’s a hungry world…

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Doctor Sleep is that it has found a director half way between the sensibilities of King and Kubrick. Flanagan is a very precise visual director, with an eye for compositions and an understanding of slow methodical build which makes him a good choice as a director to follow Kubrick’s work on The Shining. However, Flanagan is also a writer who is much more interested in the literary themes of King’s novel than Kubrick was, with Flanagan’s filmography dedicated to exploring the themes of trauma and addiction that wed King’s work on The Shining and Doctor Sleep.

The resulting film still occasionally feels caught between two masters, struggling to satisfy both King and Kubrick’s version of The Shining. It’s to Flanagan’s credit that the film strikes as effective a balance as it does, resulting in a film that manages to work both as a reasonably satisfying sequel to one of the best horror films ever made and as an engaging movie it its own right. Doctor Sleep has some minor problems, but succeeds make an impossible mandate look like child’s play.

Corridors of power…

There is no escaping Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. The movie has a huge cultural footprint. Even people who have never seen the film know the film. It has been spoofed and parodied, homaged and referenced, reproduced and reconstructed countless times in popular culture. It pops up where it is all but expected, like one of the best and most beloved instalments of The Treehouse of Horror. It pops up in places where it is completely unexpected, providing a weird blockbuster set piece in Ready Player One.

Flanagan understands this. Doctor Sleep cannot ignore The Shining, as much as King might remain uncomfortable with it. Although adapted from King’s sequel to its own novel, Doctor Sleep is very explicitly a sequel to Kubrick’s film. Flanagan dramatises sequences from Kubrick’s film that were absent King’s novel. The climax of Doctor Sleep hinges on the ending to the film rather than the novel. The score by the Newton Brothers draws heavily from the iconic soundscape of Kubrick’s American nightmare. Production designer Maher Ahmad lovingly reproduces a lot of Roy Walker’s work on The Shining.

We can’t Overlook the excellent work of the production design team.

Even even Doctor Sleep escapes the Overlook Hotel, Flanagan understands that the previous film is inescapable. Flanagan lovingly references Kubrick throughout the film, often borrowing camera angles and framing to underscore the connection. Certain sets look uncannily like those from The Shining, even when located on the opposite side of the country. It isn’t entirely fair to dismiss Flanagan’s work as a pastiche of Kubrick. Flanagan has his own sensibility and his own eye. However, he also understands that the audience has a primal connection with King’s film, and so there’s no escaping it.

This is a double-edged sword. It would be impossible to ignore The Shining, and Flanagan is clever not to try. Indeed, Flanagan is cleverly able to use the audience’s intimacy with The Shining to fold these references into the core themes of Doctor Sleep. After all, Doctor Sleep is a story about lingering trauma and the difficulty of escaping the darkness in one’s past. As one of the most iconic horror movies ever made, The Shining works well as a metaphor for those character and thematic dynamics. Danny Torrance cannot escape the Overlook Hotel, and Doctor Sleep cannot escape The Shining.

“What’s up, doc?”

Flanagan leans into the uncanny nature of his reproduction of The Shining. The costuming, set design and framing all faithfully reproduce Kubrick’s original film. However, Flanagan eschews the sort of digital recreation of actors employed by films like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story or Terminator: Dark Fate, instead opting to recast pivotal roles from The Shining. Alex Essoe steps into the role of Wendy Torrance, previously played by Shelley Duvall in the original. Carl Lumbly takes on the role of Dick Hallorann, played by Scatman Crothers nearly forty years earlier.

Flanagan does not attempt to disguise the recasting, which creates an interesting internal tension. Doctor Sleep is quite intentionally an imperfect recreation of The Shining, the decision to prominently feature new actors in old roles skillfully contrasting with the otherwise immaculate recreation of the look and feel of the original film. There is a wrongness to this which is deliberately uncomfortable and unsettling. It is “off” in a way that makes Doctor Sleep‘s invocation of The Shining feel even more like a haunted house.

Trying to make a sequel to The Shining is going to be murder.

Doctor Sleep occasionally feels a little bit too beholden to The Shining. There are points at which the invocation of The Shining feels more like a simple party trick than a profound statement. When the characters inevitably visit the Overlook Hotel, it feels like they have wandered into a “greatest hits” performance, their befuddlement at the building’s malevolent performance playing more as bemusement rather than abject terror. The blood gets off at the right floor, perfectly on cue. “Great party, isn’t it?” asks the ghost of Horace M. Derwent, raising his glass in a toast, nailing the beat after decades of rehearsal.

These small moments undercut the more effective and unsettling homages that run through Doctor Sleep, the way that certain sequences effectively replay beats from the earlier film in order to underscore the vicious cycles of abuse. Perhaps the most effective homage in Doctor Sleep is one of the most subtle, Danny Torrance staring at an empty whiskey glass on the surface of a bar, the camera positioned as it was when his father faced the same temptation in The Shining. This is arguably as unsettling and uncomfortable as any cameo from old women lurking behind bath curtains or twins standing in the hallway.

“We’ve been considering the prospect of a sequel to The Shining for a while, and there’s just no way to make it economically feasible.”

Despite the debt that Doctor Sleep owes (and that it pays) to The Shining, Flanagan’s never loses his own voice. Doctor Sleep is more than just a work of homage. It is an expression and exploration of ideas that are important to Flanagan. More than that, Flanagan never lets his abiding appreciation for Kubrick prevent him from framing his own striking and memorable compositions. Doctor Sleep is a stunningly beautiful film to look at, the camera offering breathtaking views of the American wilderness; a lonely road amid the corn fields, a campfire on a dark beach, a predator lurking by the edge of a lake.

Indeed, there are points at which Doctor Sleep actively benefits from the fact that Flanagan is a much more emotionally open film maker that Kubrick. While its texture owes a lot to Kubrick’s film, its substance owes more to King’s book. Doctor Sleep is a story about addiction and trauma. It is very invested in the idea of coping mechanisms, of the things that make people human even as they find themselves caught in toxic cycles of dependency. It is a surprisingly warm and humanist text, focusing on Danny Torrance’s life after the horror that he experienced at the Overlook Hotel.

Into darkness…

King’s version of The Shining was much more invested in Jack Torrance’s struggles with his alcoholism than the film adaptation, and this carried over to his sequel. Doctor Sleep features Ewan McGregor as an adult version of Danny, who has retained his supernatural gift while also inheriting his father’s temper and his vices. The film opens with Danny at his lowest point, and features the adult trying to pull himself back up from rock bottom. The film repeatedly emphasises how Danny’s journey mirrors that of his father. When he visits the Overlook, he even finds himself standing his father’s place in familiar shots.

“Man takes a drink,” Danny muses at one point. “Drink takes a drink. Drink takes the man.” King’s biggest problem with The Shining was that he felt it struggled to properly articulate the battle within Jack Torrance, that it treated his descent into madness and violence as an inevitability. Doctor Sleep is a much more compassionate narrative. Flanagan allows the film to build slowly enough and meticulously enough that recurring dialogue takes on weight. Characters often repeat and echo one another, to create a sense of contrast and juxtaposition. The most important question in Doctor Sleep is, “Do you care?”

The writing is on the wall.

Doctor Sleep argues that empathy is what makes a person, and that the lack of it makes a monster. When Danny connects with a young girl who has similar (and greatly amplified) power, he discovers that she has become a target for a sinister cult of hedonists that would literally consume her. These predators stalk the country, killing with impunity and indulging their worst impulses with little care for others. “They’re not people,” Danny warns the young girl. “Not any more.” These outcasts live for nothing but their own satisfaction. “Eat well and live long,” their leader urges.

This is the life of a remorseless addict, the addict who has given themselves over completely to their lusts and appetites to the point that the pain of others is irrelevant. When Rose tries to tempt Danny to her side, she offers him a life without guilt or shame. “No hangovers,” she promises. Like all good horror stories, the monster at work in Doctor Sleep is a very human and relatable one. It is one that is easy to recognise, but much harder to fight. It is a monster that King recognises and has fought, and has explored throughout his writing. The reintroduction of that monster into the world of The Shining feels appropriate.

Wild Rose.

This is a comfortable fit for Flanagan, who has dedicated a large portion of his career to exploring the lingering effects of trauma and abuse. These themes resonate in films like Oculus and television series like The Haunting of Hill House. Flanagan feels comfortable here, perhaps because he already has some experience adapting King’s work with Gerald’s Game. It probably also helps that Flanagan a number of long-term collaborators in key supporting roles, including Bruce Greenwood from Gerald’s Game and Jacob Tremblay from Before We Wake.

However, it is the casting of Henry Thomas in a small but key row that feels like the smartest sleight of hand from Flanagan. Doctor Sleep is about the pains of growing up, of a character journeying from child to adult on screen. Thomas is a frequent collaborator with Flanagan, having worked on both Gerald’s Game and The Haunting of Hill House, but is still perhaps best known for playing the lead role in E.T. As an eighties child movie actor, Thomas provides an interesting thematic counterpoint to Danny Torrance, an eighties child movie character. The way in which Flanagan uses Thomas is very clever.

The family that slays together stays together…

Doctor Sleep does suffer from a somewhat slow start, largely a result of having to work through a lot of baggage and back story very quickly. Flanagan has to open Doctor Sleep by acknowledging the events of The Shining and dealing with their aftermath. Once he has done that, he has to actually set up the story that Doctor Sleep is trying to tell. The first forty minutes or so of Doctor Sleep feature two significant time skips, jumping from Danny’s childhood to Danny’s recent past to Danny’s present. While setting all this up, Flanagan also has to introduce the movie’s villain, Rose the Hat.

The film struggles to find the right tempo for a little while, as these various elements all come into focus. However, Flanagan trusts his material, his performers and his own abilities. The Haunting of Hill House made a compelling argument for Flanagan as the master of a slow build, one of the rare horror directors who actually benefited from having ten hours to fill. The opening half-hour of Doctor Sleep relies on some of the faith and goodwill that Flanagan has built, the film gathering momentum slowly but surely across its first act.

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Indeed, it’s to Flanagan’s credit that the film largely earns its length. Flanagan is surprisingly interested in and engaged with his characters, particularly Ewan McGregor’s beaten-down Danny Torrence and Rebecca Ferguson’s ravenous Rose the Hate. The film never rushes, which allows it to build genuine dread and anxiety. One of the movie’s most harrowing and unsettling sequences is grounded in a very mundane short of evil, allowed to play out with grim inevitability. Flanagan understands the flow and rhythm of horror, the importance of letting certain emotional beat swell and others simmer.

Doctor Sleep is a movie that sets itself the impossible task of being a worthy successor to one of the best films ever made. It’s to the film’s credit that it works so well both on its own terms and in the context of what came before. It’s a fascinating, compelling and humanist horror film that very carefully balances the competing demands of two very different takes on the same source material, reconciling them into something that is at once distinct and familiar. Doctor Sleep is a little rough in places, particularly towards the start and the end, but that it works at all feels like a minor miracle.

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