The Shining sequel pulls double duty as an adaptation of both the novel and film, but plays best when it’s pure Mike Flanagan
It’s a tall order for a filmmaker to tackle properties from either Stephen King or Stanley Kubrick — even more so when King’s severe dislike of Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining has become such a part of both works’ cultural legacy. Doctor Sleep’s timing, though, couldn’t be more perfect. The box office is dominated by sequels, reboots, and re-adaptations that lure in audiences with the nostalgia of past works while desperately promising something new and original. It’s a feeding frenzy of familiarity not unlike the antagonists at the core of writer-director Mike Flanagan’s new film. Doctor Sleep’s mere existence poses some unique and curious questions even before the theater lights go down: to which past work does it owe a greater debt, and how could it mediate the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the two?
While the end results range from the awe-inspiring to head-shaking, Doctor Sleep’s greatest virtue lies in how it confronts The Shining’s dueling past incarnations head-on, engaging in a well-intentioned and at times quite moving conversation about coming to terms with a traumatic legacy.
Forty years after the horrific events of the Overlook Hotel, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is in the midst of recovering from alcoholism and addiction. Both vices, alongside a psychic (and toxic) method of coping taught to him by the ghost of Dick Halloran, failed to fully bury the terrors of Danny’s past. Alongside AA, Danny’s saving grace is his psychic pen-pal relationship with Abra, a teenager coming into her own Shining abilities. Danny acts as Abra’s occasional mentor — but more importantly they find comfort and solace in using their normally isolating powers to connect with other people.
But there’s troubles brewing in the world, arriving in the form of a rival group of drifting Shiners led by the vexing and vicious Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Rose’s clan has spent eons recruiting and preying on others who can Shine in order to unnaturally prolong their lives, but their potential victims are growing few and far between. After Abra’s powers put her on a collision course with Rose’s gang, Danny realizes he must reckon with the ghosts of his past if he’s to save Abra from Rose’s clutches.
First things first: I’m a Mike Flanagan die-hard. From Absentia to The Haunting of Hill House, his horror films are the most compassionately terrifying movies out there, with each chilling moment firmly ingrained with heartrending empathy and deft characterization. I’m excited to say that Flanagan continues to take this trademark approach to horror here, turning what would be a scare-a-minute Shining sequel into a pensive and engaging psychic road movie full of rich and rewarding characters. Ewan McGregor’s Danny is a bitterly human man struggling with how he copes with his traumatic past as much as the past itself, marrying the complex flaws of Kubrick’s characters with King’s earnest belief in potential redemption. Abra is also a wonderful foil for Danny, as a girl all-too-eager to explore the limits of her powers, much to the bewilderment of the adults in her life. Of all things during its nearly three-hour runtime, Doctor Sleep feels most like Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, as Danny and Abra forge a deep parental bond in the wake of their shared supernatural crisis. Rebecca Ferguson, however, is the total standout of Doctor Sleep. There is a vivaciousness to her violence, with her hunger for extending life and its pleasures playing out as its own form of bitterly satisfying addiction.
I also would be amiss if I didn’t mention Flanagan’s incredible use of film grammar during the Shining sequences. Flanagan frequently creates jaw-dropping moments that blend Kubrick’s staccato editing style with modern effects and wildly inventive cinematography, conveying how strikingly different characters’ Shining powers are in as little time as possible. It’s visual horror rich in emotion and beauty.
Doctor Sleep is at its best when Flanagan focuses on the film’s emotional core rather than its origins, creating something that, in another universe, would be naturally appealing as its own standalone work. However, Doctor Sleep is still a sequel to The Shining, and the film more than pays homage to its cinematic predecessor throughout its runtime. Doctor Sleep immediately places audiences in an off-kilter recreation of Kubrick’s film, populating identical recreations of the Overlook with not-as-convincing recast actors playing Danny, Wendy, and other familiar faces. This and other Hotel-set flashbacks feel like bold moves when other films are more than happy to resurrect dead actors or create CGI deepfakes — even if the end result creates more of an uncanny valley than a deeper connection with its predecessor.
Unfortunately, other more deliberate references to Kubrick’s film are nowhere near as successful, and only exacerbate this wax-museum unease. What’s worse, some of the film’s more concerning emotional threads become lost in a climactic conflagration of homages that alternate between the hokey and unnecessary, sapping away much of Doctor Sleep’s goodwill like Shining Steam from Rose’s victims.
However, there are a surprising amount of references that feel wholly earned as a result of the emotional groundwork Flanagan lays throughout Doctor Sleep. A memorable sequence early on in the film sees Danny in his AA leader’s office — one that’s identically modeled after an office at the beginning of Kubrick’s film. It’s an overt yet subtle touch that illustrates the depth of Danny’s lingering trauma: that even though time, distance, and recovery may separate him from the Overlook, the events of Danny’s past still inform the way he sees the world. Moments like this are far more effective in Doctor Sleep, ones that use the film version of The Shining as more of a textual foundation than a nostalgic crutch. These moments also provide welcome opportunities for reconciliation with King’s original novel, especially during the film’s climax.
As a whole, Doctor Sleep acknowledges and reveres The Shining’s film and novel while at the same time refusing to live in either work’s shadow, working best when it’s neither King nor Kubrick, but wholly Mike Flanagan.
Doctor Sleep hits theaters November 8th courtesy of Warner Brothers.