One of the reasons I enjoyed Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep so much was it told a really good story.
As the sequel to The Shining, it told a tale which was far removed from the one told in King’s iconic novel, yet it retained elements from the first novel to satisfy King’s faithful readers. Better yet, its attempt to tell what happened next in the life of young Danny Torrence, seen in Doctor Sleep as an adult, was spot on.
On the strength of its story, I felt pretty confident that the film version of DOCTOR SLEEP (2019) would be a success, especially since it was being directed by the talented Mike Flanagan.
The good news is I was correct. Not only is DOCTOR SLEEP a really good horror movie, it’s also a worthy sequel to Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980).
Let’s start with that story.
Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is now an adult, and he’s been spending his life bottoming out, an alcoholic, who has turned to booze to block out the awful events of his childhood at the infamous Overlook Hotel. But when he meets Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) his life turns around as Freeman helps Danny get a job and more importantly get sober as he invites Danny to AA meetings.
His mind now clear, Danny is contacted by a young girl Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) who shares his gift for “shining” and the two become psychic “pen pals,” as Abra wants to know more about her gift. All is well, except it isn’t, because there is a group on the prowl known as the True Knot that go around killing people who possess the shining power. They do so because they live off the “steam” or breaths released when their victims are tortured and killed. The True Knot are led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and they are always on the lookout for shining victims to consume.
When Abra psychically witnesses the True Knot kill a young boy, she tries to stop them, but in doing so, makes her presence known to Rose, who feels the young girl’s strength and decides the True Knot has to have her. Abra reaches out to Danny for help, and it’s at this moment that he realizes his purpose in life: he has to be the one to step up and not only save Abra but put down the True Knot.
It’s a battle that eventually returns Danny to the place of his childhood trauma, the Overlook Hotel.
As I said at the outset, I really like the story told in DOCTOR SLEEP, and the film takes this solid tale and has no trouble putting it on the big screen. The account of what happens next to Danny Torrance makes perfect sense, and the chemistry he shares with new character Abra Stone is genuine and moving. In fact, another strength of both King’s novel and this movie is the characters are fleshed out and compelling.
The only issue I have with these characters, and it’s one I had with the novel as well, is that ultimately, the True Knot are not as omnipotent and deadly as first thought. It’s a case where the duo of Danny and Abra pretty much have the upper hand. I wish their struggle to defeat the True Knot had been a bit more challenging.
The acting is great. Ewan McGregor is perfect as Danny Torrance. It’s interesting that for the role, McGregor said he tried to capture how the voice of Jack Nicholson’s son (Nicholson, of course, played Danny’s father Jack in THE SHINING) would sound, and he didn’t want to completely mimic Nicholson. I’d say McGregor was successful here.
Kyliegh Curran is excellent as Abra Stone. She’s completely convincing as the powerful young teen. Rebecca Ferguson is enticing as the True Knot leader Rose the Hat, but I was disappointed there wasn’t a stronger sensual element to the character. Cliff Curtis adds fine support as Danny’s friend Billy Freeman.
Of course, the question on everyone’s mind is how does this compare to THE SHINING? And the reason this is such a burning question is that the movie THE SHINING was directed by Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest film directors of all time, who put his own visionary stamp on the tale, which is why it is so unlike other movie versions of Stephen King’s works.
Conventional wisdom is that since the late great Stanley Kubrick is not at the helm here, there’s no way DOCTOR SLEEP will measure up. Maybe not, but DOCTOR SLEEP was written and directed by Mike Flanagan who is an exceedingly talented guy. Flanagan is the man behind the superior Netflix show THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018) which was based on the Shirley Jackson novel. It’s one of the scariest TV shows I’ve seen in a while.
Flanagan has also written and directed some really good horror movies, including GERALD’S GAME (2017), another Stephen King adaptation, and HUSH (2016). Now, I’m not arguing that Flanagan is Stanley Kubrick, but you can add DOCTOR SLEEP to the list of high quality horror movies by Mike Flanagan.
The film is strong throughout, and it saves the best for last, when for the film’s climactic battle between Danny and Abra and the True Knot, the characters return to the Overlook Hotel. Flanagan and his crew painstakingly recreated the interiors of the hotel to look exactly like the original in THE SHINING. The result is both chilling and nostalgic.
Incidentally, the name Doctor Sleep comes from the part of the story where Danny works as an orderly at a hospital, and he uses his gift to help dying patients navigate their final moments in this life to the next, and so he earns the nickname “Doctor Sleep” as he helps these folks relax as they enter their final “sleep.”
I really liked DOCTOR SLEEP. Not only is it a worthy sequel to THE SHINING, but it’s also a superior horror movie in its own right.
It’s that rarity among sequels in that it’s more than just a follow-up to the first story. It stands on its own.
It is so rare that a director keeps that “secret ingredient” of King’s books… Kubrick’s Shining managed that magic, so I am glad that the sequel will follow suit…I have had the impression that reviewers who did not like this sequel were more likely to be fans of “canned” Horror — the very approach that dooms so many Stephen King movies in the eyes of his fans…