Julian provides deep analysis comparing the theatrical and director’s cut versions of DOCTOR SLEEP
WARNING: The following contains massive spoilers for Doctor Sleep’s Theatrical and Director’s Cuts, and should best be enjoyed after viewing the film.
My first coverage of Doctor Sleep last November was on the whole praising of Mike Flanagan’s adaptation. It did as best it could with straddling King’s original novels and Kubrick’s much different original film — but had its own issues with just how reverent it decided to be towards its source material. As measured as Flanagan’s pacing was for a two-and-a-half-hour horror film, the film’s climax at the Overlook Hotel felt oddly rushed, feeling as obliged to end its story there as a Warner Bros-produced Shining sequel as it was an overly reverential homage to the film that inspired much of Mike Flanagan’s work.
Around the same time the film came out, though, Flanagan’s Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House got an unexpected Blu-ray release featuring several never-before-seen director’s cuts of several episodes. As a Flanagan fan, I was super curious to see what scares would be added. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t what was added that provided the greatest surprises — but what Flanagan altered in coming back to the editing room. In my favorite altered sequence from the pilot, a character’s ghost story is allowed to play out in a single unbroken take rather than filled with cutaways that allowed editors to condense her tale. Now, her story — and the episode at large — played out how it should, free from time constraints or fears of audience impatience.
Much like the new cuts of Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan’s home video Director’s Cut of Doctor Sleep is an abundance of riches for what it alters as much as it adds. More so, the half-hour of restored material adds a serious amount of clarity and depth to the film’s themes of self-improvement. As in the theatrical cut, Doctor Sleep focuses much of its story on Dan Torrance’s journey of redemption — but in order to get to that place of self-forgiveness, the film and its characters must dwell in vile, uncomfortable places — transforming Doctor Sleep into a film more about how we confront addiction as much as we hunger for redemption.
One of my biggest issues with Doctor Sleep was how it drew attention to its replication of Kubrick’s world while quickly cutting to and from wax-museum lookalikes of Danny, Wendy, and others from the previous Shining incarnation. In the theatrical version, these scenes of the Torrance family post-Overlook felt like plot strands that needed to be quickly addressed to justify being a Shining sequel. Here, though, Flanagan spends much more time with Danny and Wendy, allowing these new actors to settle in more with the audience and in turn allow them to better express their relevance to the themes Flanagan explores throughout Doctor Sleep.
In the film’s first major addition, Wendy explores the scene of Mrs. Massey’s return — eventually seeing her wet footprints on the bathmat. Where the theatrical version made it seem that the Overlook’s ghosts were more confined to Danny’s realm of experience, this scene makes it clear that these spirits are very real — and so is the danger facing Danny and Wendy.
This aspect of the ghosts is followed up in an extension of Danny’s conversation with Dick Halloran, where he describes the Overlook’s inhabitants as “mosquitoes looking for blood,” setting up the Overlook as both a thematic equivalent and physical rival to the Rose’s band of steam devourers. Also restored is Danny’s first reckoning with his father’s crazed rampage. Halloran tries to get Danny to understand that both he and his father are made up of darkness as well as light — and that the Overlook is just one of many forces that will try to play to one side to prey on the other.
The last of the major additions with young Danny and Wendy are a scene of the two watching cartoons, much like how we first met them in Kubrick’s film. However, it’s clear that Wendy’s still shaken by her time in the Overlook — as she can’t bring herself to look at her son lest she think about Jack. Sensing this, Danny walks to the bathroom and shines — the effect of which becomes all too clear later on.
Once the film settles into its modern setting, following strung-out grifter adult Dan, Flanagan’s bolstered runtime eagerly explores this character’s rock bottom — and the limits of Dan’s coping methods. When a toddler walks in as Dan tries to steal money from a one-night-stand, Dan now nervously acknowledges the kid before continuing on. When Halloran appears to stop Dan, Dan tries to shut both his ghost and the current memory of stealing from this mother and child. Halloran explains, though, that Dan can’t just lock up memories — “they’re the real ghosts.” With these clear consequences, Dan’s motivation to finally pick himself up has more urgency and potency than in the earlier cut. The film’s chapter — the first of six new title cards dividing the film — now ends with Dan using the same money to buy his bus ticket to Frazier, New Hampshire, where he’ll literally start the next chapter of his life with the help of Billy and AA.
Much of Doctor Sleep’s new additions are focused in the film’s first half, actually, as the films three leads (which they totally are now) of Dan, Abra, and Rose are caught in the same mix of thematic concerns. Abra has a new introduction as her parents first experience her burgeoning powers via a self-playing piano while 4-year-old Abra sleeps — and further scenes feature David and Lucy as they reckon with and tentatively accept Abra’s powers for what they are. In many respects, David and Lucy are the parents that Dan never had — open and loving with each other, and accepting of the strange rather than seeking to immediately explain it away like imaginary friend Tony.
Rose also cultivates an ersatz family of her own as she draws in Snakebite Andi into the True Knot — which in this cut is given not just its name, but a further explanation of their methods. Rose clearly sees them as a family — “what is tied can never be untied.” A brief beat also sees Andi post-initiation being welcomed into the daily routine of the Knot with open arms by Grandpa Flick. Much like Abra’s family, the True Knot is a haven for those who have powers and want to be accepted for who they are rather than hide their abilities.
In this same sequence, Dan finds his new family — and purpose — in AA, and his new role as infirmary angel of death Doctor Sleep. Flanagan extends one scene to include Dan divining detailed memories from his patients’ minds, helping them feel at ease towards their impending passing.
The best addition in this first half, though, comes just after Abra connects with Dan for the first time. Here, Flanagan fades to the ruins of the Overlook, and peers into the dilapidated Gold Room…where a certain bar flickers to life, and a fresh glass of whiskey waits to be consumed. Where the Overlook felt like a random necessary evil by the end of Doctor Sleep, this small addition makes the Hotel feel like an overarching participant throughout the film — influencing how Dan sees certain scenes, and eagerly awaiting the arrival of its next victims. The scene also ends with a wonderful match fade as Dan’s eight-year sobriety chip puts a stopper on the glass — for now.
Where much of Flanagan’s dread and suspense comes from his restraint, the freedom of this director’s cut allows him to heighten the more viscerally disturbing sequences of the film. None more so than during Brad Trevor’s death, the most memorable scene in this section of Doctor Sleep (or, at least, the one we wish we could forget the most). Where the theatrical cut often cuts away to the scene from a distance, much of the director’s cut plays in a paling close-up on actor Jacob Tremblay’s anguished face.
As the film’s main conflict kicks into high gear with the True Knot’s pursuit of Abra, more sequences are included devoted to Rose’s increasing recklessness. Her plans for Abra are made more explicit, where they were once hinted by Halloran in the original version. Rose plans to keep Abra alive, a prisoner to siphon off steam from when necessary like psychic livestock. Crow’s function in the group as a searcher is further deepened, as is his role as a skeptical confidante to Rose.
In one scene, an online article that Crow’s found gives Rose better clues to Abra’s location. Crow’s more aware of the dangers someone with Abra’s power poses to their group. Rose, obsessed with the fix waiting at the end of pursuing that same danger, pays him no mind — actions that’ll have major consequences for the Knot. A fun added detail in these sequences also notes just how the Knot gets some of their supplies, hinting at the vast web of connections that keeps these modern nomads going.
Rose’s deepened reckless pursuit of her “whale” provide a great thematic counterpoint to Dan’s straight-and-narrow path of sobriety, which Doctor Sleep dovetails with his reluctance to Shine. In that same emotional arc, Flanagan counterpoints Dan’s reluctance to Shine with the tentative nurturing approach of Abra’s parents — so that when Dan and Abra finally meet, these cumulative themes come to more of an emotional head halfway through the film. When Abra and Dan finally meet, Flanagan extends their scene to hint at what happened when Danny last shined — and Dan’s subsequent plea for Abra to shut off her powers naturally meets resistance from this girl who is coming into her own psychic abilities in a rational, confident way unmarred by trauma.
This scene also better solidifies Abra’s unwavering dedication to finding justice for Brad Trevor’s killers. Brad may have been the Knot’s previous victim, but he was far from the first; Abra may be next, but she’s far from the last. With the powers she possesses, who else but her needs to put a stop to Rose?
We eventually return back to Anniston, New Hampshire, where Abra’s father David is given more screentime. David takes a further protective stance towards Abra when Dan asks to help them, and while Abra still psychically downloads her father on what’s going on, she resists until Dan instructs her to tell him about Brad’s death.
We also see David’s final confrontation with Crow in this cut, giving one last beat for the film to show a father figure who is protective of his child until the very end — which remedies the all-too-disposable way the theatrical cut treated him in this sequence.
With the added time to breathe, Flanagan’s themes of familial bonds, the lasting impact of how familial bonds, trauma, and addiction shape our decisions in similar, cyclical ways feel more nuanced and in reach with each other. The chapter-divided structure makes the film’s time skips feel less jarring and convenient to the plot, and more deliberately paced than its breakneck counterpart. And the sequences of young Danny and Wendy feel much more integral to the plot the more they’re spread out through the film, allowing the past to feel that much more impactful on the present.
Most importantly, Doctor Sleep’s added material lays important thematic groundwork for the film’s most faithful tribute to what came before — the showdown at the Overlook Hotel. With extended, lingering shots, Dan’s exploration of the Hotel in these sequences feel less like fan service and more like the reluctant exploration of the site of past horrors that it should be.
The climactic sequence — where Dan confronts the ghost of Jack Torrance, now “Lloyd the Bartender” — feels like an equally climactic dovetail between Dan’s traumatic past and the crippling toxic methods he used to overcome it. Here, Dan owns up to what the film has alluded to throughout — that he used his Shine to erase Wendy’s memories of what happened at the Overlook, so that she’d finally look at her son again. However, as Wendy approached death, the “Death Flies” that only Dan could see eventually covered her so much that he could never look at his mother without knowing what was going to happen. Flanagan finally roots Dan’s reluctance to Shine in something more immediately gripping and personal for Dan — one that illustrates how the traumatic events of the Overlook resulted in equally traumatic actions and consequences for Dan and Wendy throughout the rest of their lives.
“This drink will cost a lot.”
“Your money’s no good here, Mr. Torrance. Orders from the house.”
“It’ll cost more than money. It’ll cost me eight years. Eight behind me, and who knows how many in front of me.”
Dan’s decision at the bar then becomes not just a final confrontation of this trauma — but a final test for the latest methods he’s used to deal with his past. Will he shut out his past like he did his ability to shine, in increasingly self-destructive ways? Or, in trusting his abilities like Abra can Dan finally trust — and forgive — himself?
The film’s last added sequence further dovetails the choices of Dan Torrance with that of his father, as a spilled drink leads Jack to clean up Dan in a very iconic red bathroom.
Jack mentions that “Management” has concerns about Dan’s situation with Abra — that he shouldn’t have been pulled into someone else’s mess, and that the solution is to wash his hands of the whole ordeal by letting Rose and Abra play out “what’s meant to happen” within the hotel. Perverting Dan’s AA lessons, the Overlook frames this as “accepting the things we cannot change.”
This is a fantastic sequence that’s so damn key to elevating the Overlook sequences beyond justifying Doctor Sleep as a Shining sequel, painting the Overlook’s insidiously manipulative nature akin to the alcohol that’s given Dan just as much trauma in his life. But as Dan says earlier, it’s not our beliefs, but our actions that make us better people. Dan chooses to continue to protect Abra, even if it’s to his detriment — doing anything less would mean giving into the same traumatic beliefs that led him to his earlier rock bottom. It’s not enough to cope with or accept trauma — it’s having the wisdom to overcome it that matters most.
When it came to The Haunting of Hill House, it was how what was altered led to a greater emotional impact. While the rest of Doctor Sleep plays out as originally edited after this sequence, it’s how this added material gives greater context to the film’s closing moments that seals the deal for this being Mike Flanagan’s best film.
Danny erased his mother’s memories to earn her gaze again, only to find himself unable to look at her in Wendy’s own dying moments. Here, in a sequence that rectifies Kubrick’s biggest departure from The Shining, finally giving Stephen King the ending he always wanted, Flanagan also gives the dying Dan Torrence the one thing he always wanted…
It’s a fantastic beat that sends Doctor Sleep to an heartrending conclusion — one rooted in Flanagan’s patience and devotion to the emotional cores of his characters, even if they’re not originally his own.
I wholly meant it in my original review when I said that Mike Flanagan creates some of the most compassionately terrifying horror films out there. This director’s cut of Doctor Sleep is certainly a labor of love for Flanagan, and the end result is a film that most definitely earns the title of the best recent Stephen King adaptation, and most importantly a damn fine horror film that’s as empathetic and engaging as it is absolutely chilling.
Doctor Sleep is now on 4K UHD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD courtesy of Warner Bros.