2019 | rated R | starring Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Clifton Curtis | directed by Mike Flanagan | 2 hrs 32 mins |
The release of Doctor Sleep seems to mark the beginning of the end of a Stephen King renaissance that has spread through pop culture for the last 3 years, reviving interest in everything the prolific writer touched from the success of It to not-as-successful stabs at The Dark Tower, Pet Semetery and a The Mist TV series. It Chapter 2 popped the nostalgic bubble, now to go back in the crypt until another generation discovers the author’s knack for mixing real world misery with cheesy monsters. It’s too bad, under the direction of King faithful Mike Flanagan, Doctor Sleep is inspired in parts, making one of the better, more ambitious King adaptations in this recent run of adaptations.
But first, like Doctor Sleep does itself, let’s flashback to 1980. Few movies have been re-evaluated over time quite as favorably as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. When it first came out The Shining was considered a failure for the director. It was too long, anti-climactic, robbed King’s book of it’s scares and dragged down by a laughable, overly campy performance from Jack Nicholson. In 2019, that’s cinematic heresy. We’ve swung entirely the other way, as Room 237 attests. People are wild for The Shining, hold it up as an example of horror as art, praise Nicholson’s performance and obsess over the multiple meanings that may or may not be hidden in it. What’s also known is that King notoriously hates Kubrick’s film and Kubrick had no regard for King’s book. Which prompted King to write the sequel expanding on his version and now leaving Flanagan the unenviable task of picking up the batton on a story that exist in different forms in different mediums and tying it into a cohesive whole.
Flanagan steps up to the big leagues with this film after cutting his teeth in horror with Oculus, Hush, the King adaptation of Gerald’s Game and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House – all of them worth seeing. Even his Ouija sequel is far better than the original film with virtually the same material. Doctor Sleep is as grand and epic as a movie built around 3 characters gets. While it isn’t going to be seen as the masterpiece of raw unnerving dread that The Shining is, it’s far too plot-driven, it is quite the achievement, with Flanagan channeling King’s wackiness (the arch protagonist in this film is named “Rose the Hat” for God’s sake) and Kubrick’s style – the film is washed out with a flat 70s celluloid look. It’s long at 2 1/2 hours, but is exactly the definition of well paced. Flanagan takes the time to set the table around our three leads and then moves them toward conflict. It’s delicious, more detached than a King adaptation normally is but warmer than a Kubrick movie would have been.
As mentioned, the film surprisingly picks up in 1980 very shortly after the events of The Shining with young Danny Torrence and his mother Wendy down in Florida and the spirit of Dick Hallorann still advising Danny about his powers to combat nightmarish bathtub visions. In the first of many smart, retro moves, we don’t get CGI digitally aged-down versions of Danny, Wendy and Dick, now played appropriately by new similar-looking actors (Roger Dale Floyd, Alex Essoe and Carl Lumbly, respectively). Through a series of time jumps we meet Dan as an adult (Ewan McGregor, appropriately aloof), a miserable alcoholic looking for a fresh start with the help of Billy (Clifton Curtis). Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) startles her parents with her own shining abilities. Meanwhile, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, chewing the scenery just right) leads a roving band of almost-immortals that feed off of the “steam” emitted by a dying child with the shining. Our entry point into his group, calling themselves “The Knot”, is a “mover” named Andi (Emily Alyn Lind) who can influence people with her voice alone and makes a deal with The Knot for immortality.
Skipping ahead a moment, the third act of Doctor Sleep is going to be divisive, with Flanagan revisiting the Overlook Hotel that was destroyed in King’s book, but still stands in the cinema world, for the final battle. There is no problem with this on it’s face, but the sequence is shamefully chock full of flashbacks to actual clips of The Shining to activate those nostalgic Member Berries. Audiences will either cringe or cheer (and cringe at the cheering). While a less nostalgia-fueled finale would be preferred (frankly, I might have felt better about it had Ready Player One not just recklessly stomped all over this territory last year), Flanagan makes this ultimately fold into the story quite well. More than anything this payoff only works as a testament to the power of a good set-up. Because Flanagan has done the heavy-lifting to set up it’s 3 threads and slowly move Dan, Abra and The Knot toward the final showdown, it satisfies when a less patient movie wouldn’t have. It would have felt like… well, Ready Player One.
Doctor Sleep isn’t going to rattle the fear cages like The Shining did. Come for the story resolution, stay for King’s wacky fantasy novel world-building of Knots, steamers, movers and pushers. It may not be scary, but it does have one of the more horrific child death’s I’ve seen in a long time. Best of all Flanagan pulls of some inspired visual bits, none better than a sequence where Rose astroprojects across the world and into Abra’s room. Flanagan navigates around a lot of potholes here to make one of the best King adaptations in this new King renaissance.