Doctor Sleep Featured

I recently read that critics should admit their biases from jump street lest we mislead our readers. I confess that I don’t know about all that but it feels like a good place to start when it comes to the new Stephen Kind adaptation DOCTOR SLEEP. So here’s my bias.

I’m not a big fan of THE SHINING.

Wait, let me clarify.

THE SHINING, the movie, as an independent object is a well-made haunted house (well, hotel) film with stunning visuals and a work of art score. As an adaptation, however, it is somewhat faith to the text but not at all faithful to the themes. King’s SHINING is a tale of a man losing himself to his inner demons but saving his family in a single moment of clarity. Kubrick’s SHINING is a tale of a man who is nothing but demons terrorizing his family unrelentingly. You can love both works, but you cannot love them for the same reasons, alas.

Ultimately, I’m just more of a source material guy on this debate.

With that in mind, who did the latest King adaptation, one set explicitly in the SHINING film continuity, go down?

Doctor Sleep: Abra
Kyliegh Curran tries out some new contacts during a moment in DOCTOR SLEEP. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

The Idea Behind DOCTOR SLEEP

In the years since THE SHINING, Dan “Danny” Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has spent years locking the escaped ghosts of the Overlook away in psychic coffins and drinking his Shine to a dull glow. After a drunken night nearly leads to him robbing a single mother of her remaining cash, he runs to New Hampshire and gets clean. Seemingly having beaten both the literal monsters of his childhood and the inherited monsters of addiction, he begins to find himself once more. As an overnight staff at hospice care, he soothes — via his Shine –the minds of the dying during their last moments. This is where the title of the movie comes from, a resident’s nickname for Torrance’s way with sending them off to the proverbial big sleep.

Meanwhile, The True Knot, a collection vampiric like creatures who feed on the “Steam” — a combination of fear and pain — of children with psychic gifts struggles to get by on a world where such people are seemingly fewer and fewer. While killing Bradley (Jacob Tremblay) — a boy who used his gift to become a baseball prodigy — Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the group’s defacto leader and guide, senses the most powerful child she has ever experienced.

The girl, Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) has been “talking” to Dan since he got sober. Moreover, she “senses” Rose right back. The die is cast, will Rose and the True Knot feast on Abra or will Dan be able to help the teen bring an end to the Steam-hungry cult?

Doctor Sleep Tease
A familiar message in DOCTOR SLEEP. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

Writing DOCTOR SLEEP

Mike Flanagan has a difficult assignment here and, as a result, delivers something of an odd duck script. DOCTOR SLEEP, the novel, unfolds in a world where THE SHINING unfolded and ended in ways that the film does not. However, Flanagan, perhaps recognizing what huge cultural cache the film still wields, wants this film to occur as a natural extension of Kubrick’s movie. And yet, he wants to maintain King’s humanistic tone over Kubrick’s more pessimistic vision.

Interestingly, he largely manages to hold the disparate elements in harmony for a majority of the film’s running time. He uses the distinctive images of Kubrick’s interpretation to populate Torrance’s waking nightmares while keeping the present recognizably in King’s voice.

Things, however, slip in the film’s final act. Returning to the Overview — in the film, it survives as opposed to the book that leaves it in rubble — derails the film’s disturbing and contemplative tone. A movie that somehow managed to be both King and Kubrick becomes neither.

As with his adaptation of GERALD’S GAME, Flanagan proves a surprisingly nimble cut and rearranger of King’s dense plot work. But, as with GERALD’S, he struggles with the endings. When the film should be at its most tense, it suddenly deflates. The entire movie builds to a moment that feels over just as it arrives.

The brief epilogue only serves to punctuate the sense of stakes dissipation. A bit of bittersweetness at the end of the source it was pulled from — one familiar to King fans — here it feels empty and inconsequential.

Doctor Sleep: Rose the Hat
Rebecca Ferguson contemplates her next meal during DOCTOR SLEEP. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

Directing DOCTOR SLEEP

Flanagan has proven time and again to be a surprisingly strong director. I suppose at this point, we should just start calling him “strong” and drop the “surprisingly”. As with the script, he generally does well utilizing familiar SHINING symbols in new setting during the first two-thirds.

Additionally, his vision of the True Knot is suitably creepy. They read as both elite and as a class that has fallen between the cracks, making each appearance unsettling.

Flanagan’s vision of the world, overall, feels lacking in a way his previous films have not. The New Hampshire town where Torrance lives feels more backlot that organic. The Stone family home might be one of the three on the block or one of a hundred. There is a generic quality to every that undermines the movie’s weight.

The hardest part, returning to the Overlook, gives Flanagan his biggest stumble. The hotel feels small. And not in a claustrophobic “the walls are closing in on our heroes kind of way”. Small in a “you could walk all the way through the place in under 5 minutes” sort of way. This thing of hulking hungry evil that the film has been driving towards, that Torrance has tried to escape for his entire life feels utterly unimpressive upon arrival.

If the point was something about our fears growing larger when we don’t confront them, it may have worked. However, there is no text to support this. Instead the movie tells us over and over how dangerous the place remains while presenting us an image that makes a lie of that assertion.

Doctor Sleep- Dan
Ewan McGregor revisits his childhood haunts (PUN INTENDED, NO REGRETS!) in DOCTOR SLEEP. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

Casting the Leads of DOCTOR SLEEP

McGregor is decent throughout, but, with the exception of a speech about his sobriety and his dad, rarely knocks it out of the park. He doesn’t “feel” like an adult Danny to me, but I think there is something to be said for that. It’s an interpretation of the character as a man who has drifted so far from himself that even when he is “healed” he no longer resembles the child he was. I just wish McGregor got a bit more to bite into.

Rebecca Ferguson is arresting as the boho chic Knot-er who sure does love his Tom Petty-esque stovepipe hat. As her best purring like the cat who caught the canary, she is largely responsible for the otherwise generic (save one character I’ll talk about below) Knot who are all spooks, zero sparks.

I don’t believe I have seen Kyliegh Curran in anything prior to this. However, at just 13, she inhabits the empathetic Abra who still has a gift for that very teenage sort of cruelty. She holds her own in repeated confrontations with Ferguson. You really can see how she could be so much stronger and more well-adjusted than her either her “uncle” Dan or Rose the Hat.

Doctor Sleep Snakebite Andi
Emily Alyn Lind takes a moment before making a deal she can’t refuse in DOCTOR SLEEP. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

Emily Alyn Lind as the newest member of True Knot — “Snakebite” Andi — has a wonderful on-screen presence. At first the narrative seems to be setting her up as a sort of parallel figure to Curran’s Abra. As Abra grows in her role and powers, you expect to see Andi do the same with the Knot. Alas, this promise is quickly abandoned and Lind’s early work largely goes to waste.

The rest of the Knot, as mentioned above, makes little impact. Even after Flanagan cut their numbers down significantly from the novel, there still feels like too many to give any of them strong characterization.

Jacob Tremblay plays terror with surprising acuteness in what is easily the film’s darkest and most disturbing scenes.

Doctor Sleep Danny
Roger Dale Floyd works that big wheel in DOCTOR SLEEP. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

Casting the SHINING Flashbacks

While all of them are decent at capturing the look of their predecessors in long shoots or well framed closeups, almost none of them recall the same gravity and performances. Henry Thomas is effectively unrecognizable as Jack Torrance, but it never proves enough to make him FEEL like Jack, movie or book version.

The exception is Carl Lumbly as Dick Hallorann. I have long maintained that Hallorann was the worst served by Kubrick’s adaptation, making him race to save the Torrances only to immediately, literally, cut his heroic act short. Here, as a ghost, Lumbly gives Hallorann back a measure of the dignity and quiet heroics he lost in that film. Gentle, kind, and wonderfully patient, Lumbly does right by both the character and Scatman Crothers’ warm performance.

Dan and Halloran
Ewan McGregor and Carl Lumbly catch up a bit during DOCTOR SLEEP. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

The Tone of DOCTOR SLEEP

If you’ve read any of my review of other horror films you know there is the moment where I proclaim myself not much of a horror guy. This is kind of that moment.

I did not find SLEEP particularly scary. I did, however, find it disturbing and troubling at times. The aforementioned Tremblay scene is so long and framed so tightly that I could feel it in my skin. While never gory, it turned my stomach in ways a movie has not in a long time.

Some of this might be something I call sympathetic parenting. If you ask your friends with kids, a lot of them will admit to this. Kids in peril stories in TV and movies just become harder to take.

Some of it, though, is I think exactly what Flanagan is aiming for. So it is remarkably good at landing the moment but if you are susceptible to “sympathetic parenting” be warned now.

Doctor Sleep: Abra and Rose
Kyliegh Curran and Rebecca Ferguson engage in some mean mugging in a scene from DOCTOR SLEEP. (Courtesy of Warner Bros)

That’s a Wrap!

DOCTOR SLEEP is no classic. Flanagan’s mission to deliver King humanism to Kubrick’s world was probably too tall an order. However, it is 2/3 of a very good movie, more than enough to recommend it in good faith. Before it spins out in its final third, SLEEP, powered by Ferguson and Curran especially, proves a compelling vision of the literal and metaphorical threats to childhood that walk amongst us. When Flanagan aims to disturb and unnerve, he delivers.

However, that final third still exists. So, temper expectations accordingly. Know that when the Overlook looms large in the car’s front windshield, SLEEP’s spell is over.

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