Well. I paid $15 for the privilege of seeing it, so I guess we have to talk about ‘Doctor Sleep’…
Let’s start with I wanted to like this movie. Genuinely. I haven’t read the book, but I was intrigued by what I knew of the plot, cast, and director.
I was skeptical of ‘Doctor Sleep’s intent to craft itself into a hybrid sequel to ‘The Shining’ the novel and ‘The Shining’ the movie. But I was also excited to see The Overlook and its ghoulish horde return to the big screen.
I like Mike Flanagan as a director, and he is a good horror director. He has done good work on ‘Hush’ and the ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ series. He’s even done a good Stephen King movie ala ‘Gerald’s Game’, and that is no easy task.
But the king of King movies is, indisputably, Kubrick—and that’s because Kubrick made it his own twisted nightmare rather than leaning hard into the source material.
Mike Flanagan learned half that lesson—he made good plot adjustments from the source novel. But he totally forgot about being inventive when it came to tying the ‘Doctor Sleep’ movie to ‘The Shining’ movie.
I understand that Flanagan was walking in to a difficult situation. ‘Doctor Sleep’ the book is a sequel to ‘The Shining’ novel. But when making a movie tied to ‘The Shining,’ it’s required to tie primarily to Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ because of its greater prominence in pop culture. And ‘The Shining’ book and ‘The Shining’ movie are very different animals.
That film is one of the greatest movies of all time made by one of the greatest directors of all time. Who would be up to the task of following that up? No one. But I do admire Flanagan for having the moxie to try it.
There is a very basic rule true to all film-making: Don’t make the audience wish they were watching a different, better movie.
And unfortunately, Flanagan directly recreates so much classic imagery from ‘The Shining,’ you have that wish repeatedly.
Remember in ‘The Shining’ when the haggard woman corpse rises from the bathtub in Room 237?
Well if you don’t, good news: you will see that scene cloned no less than 4 times in ‘Doctor Sleep.’
And if you liked Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duval’s performances in ‘The Shining’, I am very sorry to tell you that ‘Doctor Sleep’ features two lookalike impersonators reprising those roles.
You know what I think when watching someone impersonate Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining?’
IT MAKES ME WANT TO GO WATCH ACTUAL JACK NICHOLSON IN THE ACTUAL ‘THE SHINING.’
If nothing else, it is an eerie experience to have the specter of Stanley Kubrick so potently haunting the film…
Strong homages here or there would be great and necessary for ‘Doctor Sleep’s’ purposes. But this was over the top to the point of being cringeworthy. Even intended, welcome sequels don’t have this many “Hey! Remember this! Remember how cool this was!” moments.
And it sadly screams two things about the director:
1) They are too much of a nerd about this thing to actually let it breathe and be inventive with it. They are so loyal as to be blandly loyal.
2) They don’t have enough faith in their own project and must insecurely glomp on to an incredible thing they happen to be attached to.
And it’s unfortunate because there’s rich potential here. You are never going to make Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ your own thing. But you could treat The Overlook like a great horror monster that keeps coming back with familiar schtick but also inventive ways to terrify you. That is not what ‘Doctor Sleep’ chooses to do.
Yes, I have seen the little girls saying “Come play with us.” Surely after a few decades of haunting, they have one or two new tricks? No? Well then the only thing scary about it is the predictability.
As far as plot, we have something more akin to a superhero story than a horror tale. It is dark and entertaining, but it also has a little too much going on for a horror vehicle.
Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is all grown up and an alcoholic. He has been spiritually exhausted by internally battling the trauma and literal ghosts of The Overlook. But he turns his life around to become sober and work at a hospice in a small town.
He is reached out to by Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl with immense ‘shine’ power. Abra is targeted by a roaming band of psychic vampires who sadistically feed on ‘shine’, particularly that of children.
Danny and Abra team up to fight the True Knot (as the vampires are known). Eventually, only one remains: their powerful leader, Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Danny and Abra lure Rose to a final showdown at the abandoned Overlook, hoping to pitch monster against monster.
Ewan McGregor does pretty well as this adult version of a child character we’re very familiar with. Kyliegh Curran is fantastic in this part, especially considering she is very much a newcomer to being on screen. Cliff Curtis is really good as Billy Freeman, a friend of Danny’s who grows as an important ally.
Also: a shout out to Emily Alyn Lind, who plays Snakebite Andi, a newly turned vampire. Andi is a great character. She’s menacing but carries a youthful air that is deceptively sweet. We don’t get nearly enough of her in the film, so enjoy her when you can.
But then there’s our main antagonist: psychic vampire leader, Rose The Hat. I was so interested in this character walking in. I wanted Rose to be scary.
Stephen King villains are great villains! Sadistic and rotten to the core, unhinged and dangerous. Carrie’s mother or Annie Wilkes are characters that make your blood run cold. If any character would be all these things, it should be Rose the Hat. She’s ancient, she survives by torturing and killing children, she must rule over creatures as desperate and soulless as her.
I don’t know how the character reads in the book. But in the film, Rose just ain’t scary. This must be a villain to match The Overlook and she just isn’t. She has a little too much humanity in her. In many scenes she’s afraid or sad.
Rebecca Ferguson is a great actress. She is able to have an otherworldly air about her like an ancient psychic vampire. But she wasn’t given enough to work with as a full-blown monster.
A clear distinction that the film doesn’t pick up on is that Rose doing terrible things and Rose being a terrible thing are separate elements that must be achieved.
If your name is ‘Rose the Hat’, you better work hard to be intimidating. And the whole ‘Karma Chameleon Lite’ look she has going just doesn’t scream ‘menacing’ to me. It’s hard to see someone as threatening when they live out of a glamping trailer. And I’m not going to be very scared of any vampire doing grocery shopping like any other basic bitch.
If Rose were an X-men villain, she’d be great. But that isn’t where we are. This film is being released the same year as ‘IT: Chapter 2’—and if you’re also in the arena of child murdering monsters, you better make my skin crawl like Pennywise.
And speaking of Pennywise: ‘IT’ and ‘Doctor Sleep’ offer an interesting comparison in dealing with violence against children.
Both rely upon monsters that literally, brutally consume children. And the audience is subjected to watching that. But in ‘IT’, you take that horror and you ramp it up to a level of the fantastical. That makes it easier to swallow, and doesn’t take you out of the experience. You can remember that this isn’t real, and you can engage more with the horror as a ride.
But in ‘Doctor Sleep’, you watch a kid get tied down and tortured by a bunch of very human looking villains. It feels real and sadistic on the level that seems to be too close to reality, and too removed from the imaginative elements of the rest of the film.
Let’s address a different sort of ghost haunting ‘Doctor Sleep’ from ‘The Shining’…
Lest we forget, The Overlook is one fucking racist haunted house.
But then in ‘Doctor Sleep,’ Abra Stone is a biracial child and a rising psychic powerhouse. Her race is never addressed in any way.
In the world that ‘The Shining’ and ‘Doctor Sleep’ share, it’s disingenuous to suddenly have no comment on race. In ‘Doctor Sleep,’ suddenly race doesn’t matter to The Overlook or anyone else. Bullshit. 40 years of distance doesn’t erase racism. Required trope point: surely the Trump years have proven that.
See, those racist elements had a place in Kubrick’s ‘The Shining.’ Kubrick’s film has a lot of allusions to how American history is built upon racist, violent suppression of minorities. For example, in Kubrick’s vision, The Overlook is built on Native American land and then appropriates tribal imagery for its decor.
In ‘Doctor Sleep’, Danny could address his father’s racism in some way. Jack, after all, used the vile phrase “white man’s burden.” Jack’s racism and The Overlook’s racism are intertwined—Jack is a creature of that selfishness and darkness.
Since Danny and Jack have a scene together to discuss Abra anyway, why not use that as an opportunity to draw that line between condemned father and reborn son? Jack could try to dissuade Danny from helping Abra, including through racist rhetoric and Danny rejects his father’s dogma of hatred. It could further highlight how Danny is a very different person from his father and recall the depth of evil that The Overlook embodies.
But ‘Doctor Sleep’ just isn’t that complex (or, arguably, brave) enough a movie to match the demons that Kubrick dug up in ‘The Shining.’
I don’t want to call the film ‘bad.’ It isn’t bad. It has a good, entertaining story. There are beautiful shots in the film. Flanagan knows how to make imaginative scenes and captivating imagery. Also it features a very cute cat.
But there are real eyeroll moments that take you out of that enjoyment. And for me, those are the more memorable moments, not the actually well-executed moments.
Maybe the best lesson here is: if you love something, let it go. Maybe your love for something as excellent and iconic as ‘The Shining’ should let it lie untouched or let it become something new. Otherwise, we wind up with a reanimated corpse. Not alive, and not allowed to rest in peace.