-warning that this review may have spoilers-
For those who are fans of Stanly Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining comes a sequel that does full justice to both the Stephen King original and the Stanley Kubrick adaption. The Shining is one of the most revered horror films of all time, and for good reason. Kubrick took Stephen King’s novel and made it a cold, austere, clinical, and cynical take on the Stephen King classic and it took some time for it to have gained the status it now enjoys among the horror community and the mainstream. I admit to never having read the book, but I did see the television mini-series which supposedly remained faithful to King’s vision and I preferred (and still prefer) Kubrick’s take still. The ending of King’s version was well………just too heartwarming for me. Maybe I had seen Kubrick’s version so many times that I couldn’t conceive of Jack Torrance saving his wife and son? For Kubrick’s Jack Torrance the turn was too dark, too remote, and too isolated for any light to remain or reach our antagonist. The ending of Kubrick’s film always made sense to me in those terms. Moving forward takes us to Doctor Sleep, a film that is impossible to talk about without referring to its lineage. But that doesn’t mean Doctor Sleep has to live in the shadow of The Shining. Indeed, the fact that Doctor Sleep is a very different movie in tone and resolution makes it all the better. In Doctor Sleep, Danny Torrance finds a light Jack could never have though he suffers from past abuse, trauma, and ghosts both literal and figurative.
Doctor Sleep opens by introducing the films villains in 1980. There was a brief time when I wanted to start a metal band called Soul Harvesters and I like to think of these characters as soul harvesters. Essentially, they feed on the essence (called steam in the film) of people, who like Danny, shine and through doing so live extremely long lives. Although they look normal enough the film does well at highlighting their viciousness. In particular, the opening scene has the clan’s leader Rose (portrayed by Rebecca Ferguson) discussing (and consuming) a flower with the films first victim who is a girl around the age of 6-7. It is a strange irony to later discover that the victim’s name was Violet. The fact that the clan most likely knew this in advance adds an uncomfortable weight to the previous scene. The clan, normal looking on almost all accounts, is brutal and unrelenting and on at least one occasion in the film a painfully difficult scene with another child reiterates it.
The film revisits some critical points in the Shining and takes some time to reflect on Danny and Wendy immediately following their ordeal at the Overlook Hotel. It’s at this point that we learn that although they are now in Florida the icy grip of the Overlook and the terrors within have quite simply migrated to sunnier climes. High heat and humidity are definitely not enough to stop the woman from room 237. Danny, still haunted by the ghosts that dwell in the Overlook essentially suffers from PTSD and struggles daily with the hungry spirits that helped destroy his family. Danny is only able to move forward by taking advice from his now deceased friend Dick Hallorann portrayed with pitch perfect precision by Carl Lumbly. In one of the films best scenes, Dick offers Danny some semblance of hope for someone who shines as brightly as Danny does.
Fast forward and Dan Torrance (portrayed by Ewan McGregor) is in his forties and is a wreck of a human being. He is an alcoholic like his father before him and, although he has locked away many of the horrors from his time at Timberline, he still hasn’t escaped his experience. Dan spends most of his time drowning his past in alcohol, drugs, fights, and hook ups. No doubt that the alcohol helps Dan keep his shine on dull as much as possible. In this world, to shine too brightly invites danger. Dan eventually finds some sense of normalcy in a small Edward Hopper-ish town in New Hampshire. At first it seems like just another stop on an endless flight. However, Dan befriends a local named Billy portrayed by Cliff Curtis. Dan even lands a job at a hospice where he finds himself easing the elderly with their transition from life to death which is where the name Doctor Sleep comes from. Helping vulnerable and scared patients move on with death is probably the most meaningful and fulfilling thing Dan has done with his life up until this point.
Dan’s world is changed forever when he begins to psychically communicate with a little girl named Abra. The two develop a friendship or kinship of sorts. Abra is like Dan but apparently stronger than Dan and the film really demonstrates how powerful her shine is when she can psychically manipulate physical matter. The film spends some time getting to know Abra alongside her parents. Abra’s parents are decidedly confused as to the strange happenings that Abra brings about with her abilities. And it depicts well how any parent would be troubled and confused in being witness to such inexplicable abilities by their child. Being so powerful is a problem though when True Knot eventually sense her presence and psychic strength. From this point on a relatively slow-moving film cranks up the tension. Dan takes up the mantle as a protector of sorts for Abra which culminates in a confrontation in one of the most satisfying re-visits of a horror film location I have yet witnessed. I would not be surprised if we see another Abra story in the future and Stephen King certainly hasn’t ruled it out based comments on the special features for the Blu-ray release.
Unlike the books, the Overlook still stands in the movie adaptation of Doctor Sleep. This is one of just a few big divergences between the film and the Stephen King novel. But it serves to make the film better and really highlights how expertly Mike Flanagan navigated the world of both versions of The Shining in order to make Doctor Sleep. The hotel maintains its adherence to straight lines and symmetry and the care that was taken in reconstructing the hotel from Kubrick’s film is remarkable. The hotel lights up with deadly malice as soon as Torrance enters its doors. Arguably the best scene involves Dan making a visit to the Gold Room where he revisits and has a literal conversation with his past. Jack is now permanent fixture of the hotel portrayed by Henry Thomas. Henry Thomas does an amazing job at portraying Jack. All the bitterness and anger that defined Jack in Kubrick’s The Shining are on full display here in his meeting with Dan. The meeting of two really can’t be highlighted enough and the director’s cut goes even further by extending what are arguably the most critical moments in the film.
The director’s cut of Doctor Sleep I found to be an improvement on the theatrical release. For the most part the film industry seems to always go the shorter route when it comes to films and in many cases for the better. This film, along with the Aliens Director’s Cut among others, really helps to show that the wisdom of shorter always being better just isn’t true. The best scenes in this cut are actually the best scenes from the theatrical release but are richer and longer in the director’s cut. The one on ones that Dan has with both Dick Hallorann as well as with his father add more substance to the film even considering how great they were in the theatrical release. It is about a half hour longer than the theatrical cut and is well worth the time when it’s handing out the more consequential bits.
The fine line that Doctor Sleep had to walk to both be a sequel to Kubrick’s and King’s visions for The Shining is handled remarkably well. It’s amazing that the film is as good as it is having to reconcile those two visions. The acting across the board is excellent and Ewan McGregor handles the role of a tired, jaded, and disillusioned Dan Torrance excellently. The care that went into recreating the Overlook Hotel itself is amazing. It’s as if the sets for The Shining were never dismantled and literally left to rot. That’s how amazing the attention to detail is in this film. Doctor Sleep has horror, ghosts, trauma, and continues one of my most loved horror films and the film will always be a favorite of mine. More than that though, I find Doctor Sleep to be about courage, redemption, and acceptance. Some of these themes and its relationship to The Shining in the film echo the real-life realization of this hybrid born out of both book and film. The films, like Jack and Danny, are connected always but not the same. Both films deal with children and the abuses they can suffer and Doctor Sleep even takes it further than its predecessor in some of those respects. Doctor Sleep was given life by two different parents and environments. Kubrick’s The Shining, like Jack, is a dark cynical film and remains as such until its bitterly cold and snowy end. Doctor Sleep, although dark as well, finds its identity in warmth, redemption, and a resolution in fire, and ultimately has a heart, which mirrors King’s vision of The Shining. I love The Shining and it will always be one of, if not my favorite horror films. One can’t really talk about Doctor Sleep without understanding where it came from. But it is its own story and film no matter how good Kubrick’s The Shining is. And so, in that case, much like Jack and Danny, I am glad that “like father, like son” doesn’t always have to hold true