Published Nov 04, 2019Director Mike Flanagan has made a career out of emotionally intense, thrillingly atmospheric ghost stories, from the classic horror throwback Ouija: Origin of Evil to the chilling psychological drama of The Haunting of Hill House. Having previously directed Gerald's Game, another adaptation of Stephen King's work, Flanagan has some familiarity with how to tell tales woven by horror's most beloved author.
But Doctor Sleep, the film based on King's fascinating-but-flawed continuation to the iconic The Shining, has another, bigger challenge to tackle: honouring the legacy of the massive Shining universe that includes Stanley Kubrick's also-iconic film adaptation. It's a huge undertaking, but one that Flanagan nails, mostly due to his own honed sense of how to use aesthetic and tone to tell impactful human stories. Like his previous films, Doctor Sleep is chilling, haunting, and incredibly intense. It can't fix all the problems of the book, but it tries its hardest to at least make them compelling.
Decades after the frightening events that occurred to the Torrance family at the Overlook Hotel, a grown-up Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) struggles with alcoholism to forget his traumatic past. Seeking some semblance of peace, Dan moves to a small New Hampshire town and attempts to put his life back together, attending AA meetings and taking on a job as a caretaker in a hospice, where his "shining" gives solace to dying patients.
However, Dan's new, orderly life takes a peculiar turn when a strange force starts contacting him psychically. We learn that this "force" is actually a teenage girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who possesses an incredibly strong version of the power Dan shares. Meanwhile, a cult of drifters called the True Knot, led by the charismatic and remorseless "Rose the Hat" (Rebecca Ferguson), have been feasting for generations on children like Abra, whose "shining" provides fuel for immortality. Rose and her cadre have picked up on Abra and won't stop hunting her down until they devour her whole, and Dan is the only one who can save her now.
There's only so much the film can do when it faithfully adapts the plot of a book that's really more like three different books. It moves incredibly fast, and it's hard to guess whether someone not familiar with the source material would have a hard time understanding what's going on. It all has the effect of making Doctor Sleep feel like two engrossing, but ultimately unrelated movies smushed together into one.
But the breakneck pace of the film helps somewhat in connecting the story of the True Knot and that of The Shining thematically and narratively. The film takes King's themes of loss, addiction and traumatic memory and, instead of literalizing them, gets the creeping dread of these themes under our skin through an incredibly strong sense of atmosphere. Nearly the entire film is shrouded in dense mist that creeps across moonlight forests, snow-covered mountains, and desolate highways, and the score is pulsated throughout by an eerie heartbeat that also recalls sound motifs in Kubrick's film.
The film version of Doctor Sleep also succeeds in making the True Knot scary, rather than steampunk-esque drifters in funny hats. Several scenes in which we see them feast on children with the shining are shockingly dark and violent. Flanagan's version makes them deeply inhuman, not in their appearance, but in their utter callousness for any life outside theirs. A huge amount of credit is also due to Rebecca Ferguson, who, as Rose the Hat, projects hypnotic menace, danger, and graceful poise that befits the ageless leader of this psychic vampire caravan. Overall, all the performances in Doctor Sleep are right on the money, from Ewan McGregor's damaged, shaky Dan Torrance to newcomer Kyliegh Curran as the fearless and wise-beyond-her-years Abra.
A large amount of Doctor Sleep's action takes place entirely within dreamscapes and the labyrinthian interiors of the mind, and Flanagan makes these places seem dynamic and real by playing with the concept of physical space using shifting sets and subtle CGI. It's a smart, interesting, and creepy way to show a concept as abstract as psychic warfare. It's a summation of what makes all of Doctor Sleep work: as a retelling of a dense and somewhat freewheeling novel, this adaptation grounds its myriad, often-displaced themes in human emotion, making them tangible and terrifying.