Doctor Sleep: A Horror Sequel That Tries to Do the Impossible

Warner Bros.

Let me try to sum up Doctor Sleep as simply and sanely as possible: The film, written and directed by the emerging horror maestro Mike Flanagan, is based on Stephen King’s 2013 novel, which is itself a sequel to King’s 1977 classic, The Shining. King’s Doctor Sleep pointedly avoided any reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, an adaptation that the author has frequently decried, despite its lofty status in the horror-movie canon. In taking on this follow-up, Flanagan has attempted to combine King’s world-building and Kubrick’s departures from it. On one hand, Doctor Sleep is a long, measured, and fairly faithful adaptation of King’s work. On the other, it’s a loving homage to Kubrick’s film, one that painstakingly re-creates the look and feel of its most famous location, the haunted Overlook Hotel.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, given both the strangeness of King’s original book and the impossibility of following up one of Kubrick’s most legendary films. Flanagan actually succeeds as well as he can on both fronts. Over its 151-minute running time, Doctor Sleep floats between the bleak and mournful themes of King’s writing and the chilling, inimitable dread of Kubrick’s filmmaking. But it never quite figures out how to bring the two styles together.

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Doctor Sleep follows Danny Torrance (played by Ewan McGregor), best remembered as the psychic little boy of The Shining who was tormented by the Overlook Hotel’s visions of death and eventually chased around the building by his mad father, Jack. Now all grown up, Danny is an alcoholic, drinking to ward off the demons of his past; eventually he finds a stable job as an orderly at a hospice and works on conquering his problems through a 12-step program. Flanagan doesn’t give this material short shrift: McGregor is convincing as a tortured soul dragging himself toward stability, a crucial arc for King (whose Shining novel was far more about Jack’s struggles with addiction than Kubrick’s movie was).

Alongside that narrative of redemption, though, is an arcane and sometimes tedious attempt to delve deeper into the extrasensory “shining” power Danny was born with. He meets another psychic, a teenage girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), on the astral plane. Together, they run afoul of a smoky-eyed cultist called Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who dresses like Stevie Nicks, leads a band of drifters around the country in a horde of RVs, and wears a black flat-brimmed hat that I can only describe as jauntily foreboding.

Rose, an immortal psychopath whose eyes glow in blue pinpricks, loves to consume psychic energy, which is released as steam anytime someone who “shines” like Danny dies. She is practically the co-lead of the movie, a confident and cold-blooded demon played with aplomb by Ferguson. But despite all her hard work and elegant choice of headwear, Rose isn’t as compelling as the siege of apparitions that made The Shining so horrifying. Kubrick’s slow build and his emphasis on symbolism—think of the elevator of blood, or the man in the bear costume—made his film indelible.

Doctor Sleep is, meanwhile, too wrapped up in lore, too interested in explaining the mechanics of how Rose’s troupe of soul-eaters do business, and the ways in which Danny and Abra can track them and stop them. Where The Shining derived its sense of anxiety from claustrophobia—the idea that Danny and his family couldn’t leave the Overlook, even as its ghostly visions got worse—Doctor Sleep can’t stop roving around the country as Danny and Rose circle each other in preparation for a final showdown.

When the final showdown comes, Doctor Sleep embraces familiarity. Despite King’s apparent initial objections, the grand finale takes place inside the Overlook, a departure from the book (since the novel The Shining ends with it burning down). The sets of Kubrick’s film are re-created on-screen with incredible care, and that unsettling sense of something lying in wait around every corner is palpable. Flanagan clearly understands how Kubrick’s adaptation eclipsed King’s attachment to the original story and became entrenched in the broader culture. But this movie is still just a very good facsimile. Doctor Sleep is wonderfully reverent when it comes to Kubrick’s film, but that means it can’t escape The Shining’s shadow, no matter how much King might have wanted it to.