From the Archives: Doctor Sleep successfully serves both of its legendary masters

From the Archives: Doctor Sleep successfully serves both of its legendary masters

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Stephen King famously did not care for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. In recent years he’s softened his position considerably, and correctly so. Despite the fact that the film and novel versions of King’s story are quite different, few can deny that each storyteller found the correct version of it to suit their chosen medium. King’s source novel is not very cinematic (as proven by the true-to-source TV adaptation that could only be described as “terrible”), while Kubrick’s film would certainly not make for very exciting reading.

 As it were, the two tales co-exist rather nicely, but not content to leave well enough alone, King went and penned a sequel to The Shining, and the world decided that it too needed to be made into a movie. But in making a cinematic version of Doctor Sleep, any filmmaker who takes a stab at it must make a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” decision right at the outset: Hew close to the source material and eschew Kubrick’s film entirely, or embrace the fact that this is essentially The Shining 2 and try to marry the sequel novel to the film it has chosen to ignore.  It’s a tough call, and it’s one made difficult by the fact that Kubrick and King have each ended their version of The Shining in very different places, with different characters having survived the events at the Overlook Hotel.

Enter Mike Flanagan (Oculus, The Haunting of Hill House), a director who shares two traits with King himself: The ability to craft ingenious horror narratives, and he ability to do so at a rate that some would call prolific, and others, myself included, would call impossible. And since Flanagan is in the business of doing the impossible, it’s no surprise that he knocked Doctor Sleep out of the park.


Assuming both writing and directing duties, Flanagan has taken King’s novel and tied it to Kubrick’s film in a way that reconciles the disparate worldviews between the two. You see, King’s The Shining was a story of hope in the face of an invisible monster (alcoholism in the case of both Jack Torrance and King himself), while Kubrick’s take was decidedly more cynical, focusing instead on the effects of generational trauma. Doctor Sleep, by the very nature of being a sequel, finds a way to be about both, showing us an adult Danny Torrance who has inherited his father’s taste for booze and struggles to escape his own traumatic past.

Taking place almost 40 years after the events of The Shining, Doctor Sleep follows Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), now middle aged, through recovery. After bottoming out hard in a cloud of whiskey and shame, Danny, now Dan, takes a bus to New Hampshire in an effort to start fresh. As he chases sobriety and his head grows clearer, his ‘shine’ begins to return as well, which suits him nicely in a job at a hospice center. Having initially taken on an orderly position as a way keep busy, he soon finds that his shine can be used to help the dying as they cross over to the other side. This earns him the nickname Doctor Sleep, as well as the respect of the locals. Meanwhile, a young girl named Abra (Kyleigh Curran) is discovering a shine of her own–a shine more powerful than anyone else’s on the planet. Unfortunately for both she and Dan, their combined abilities have drawn the attention of The True Knot, a roving band of vampire-like creatures lead by Rose (Rebecca Ferguson), who survive by consuming “steam,” a product of the death and torture of those who shine.

It sounds like a lot, and it really is, but Flanagan has paced his film nicely, finding a perfect middle ground between the narrative needs of both text and cinema. At 151 minutes, the film is not in a rush to tell its story, but is always compelling at every turn. This is helped by the tremendous performances across the board. McGregor has aged into an actor capable of showing an incredible range of emotion without saying a word. His Dan Torrance bounces between brooding and enthusiastic, indicative of a man who fears his own needs, and has trouble reconciling his lost childhood with his tenuous grasp on adulthood. Finding himself as a father figure to young Abra is perhaps the most shocking thing Dan must confront, and McGregor wears this responsibility in a way that feels genuine.


Same goes for Curran, whose desire to use her power for good rather than hiding from it speaks volumes toward her character. Typically with super-powered children in film, the performances range from twee to very twee, but that’s never the case here. Curran, despite only appearing from act two forward, is a complete creation whose radiant personality feels to be a consequence of her upbringing and her circumstances, rather than just the flick of a writer’s pen.And Rebecce Ferguson as a gleefully violent creature of he night? Yes please. In fact, between this and The Kid Who Would Be King, Ferguson needs to play all magical villains, thank you very much.

 A fun thing about Doctor Sleep that kinda blows my mind is the way it handles flashbacks to the events in and immediately after The Shining. While modern technology has made it so that computers could give us decent facsimiles of younger versions of aging actors, Flanagan has done away with all of that, instead casting new actors that look enough like those who came before to make it work. Ya know, like we used to do before de-aging became standard. Standing in for Shelley Duvall is Alex Essoe, for Jack Nicholson we’ve got Henry Thomas, and for Scatman Crothers we’ve got Carl Lumbly. These replacements, much like the settings which surround them, are handled with care by a filmmaker who truly appreciates the importance of the Overlook mythos.

That’s really the key to Doctor Sleep. If this were a cynical cash-grab sequel (as we could all reasonably expect it to be), it wouldn’t work. It would, in fact, likely be offensive. But this isn’t the case at all. Doctor Sleep is the perfect marriage of material to filmmaker, and it’s made by a team that isn’t interested in piggybacking for a paycheck. This is a film made to not just honor its own source material, but to do right by the filmmaker who first found a way to bring the story of the Torrance family and their winter at the Overlook Hotel to the big screen, all the while advancing the themes that precede it in both works. Moving, exciting, and often scary, Doctor Sleep is the sequel that The Shining deserves.

Doctor Sleep opens today in Philly theaters.

Leave a Reply