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‘Doctor Sleep’ Review: A Wildly Thrilling Ride Through Stephen King Country

It’s not ‘The Shining’ and never tries to be, but it is one of the best Stephen King adaptations yet.
Doctor Sleep
By  · Published on November 9th, 2019

It’s not news to suggest that Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining (1980) does a questionable job adapting Stephen King‘s equally brilliant novel (1977) to the screen. King is famously on record as not being a fan due to the filmmaker’s numerous changes to its story and characters, and when he released his 2013 sequel novel it was clear he was ignoring those changes completely. Pity writer/director Mike Flanagan then for wanting to tackle an adaptation of the sequel by somehow acknowledging elements from both King’s original novel and Kubrick’s film. That he succeeds in this precarious balance is no small success, but more than that, Doctor Sleep is a thrilling, surprising, beautifully affecting look backwards at grief and forwards toward healing.

Danny Torrance was just a boy when he escaped his homicidal father and the haunted halls of The Overlook Hotel with his mother and a handful of ghosts in tow, but years later he’s a broken man. Like his old man before him, Dan (Ewan McGregor) is an alcoholic prone to bouts of aggression, but he works his way towards a peace of sorts when he settles in a small New England town and makes a friend (Cliff Curtis) who introduces him to AA. He settles into a calmer life as a hospice orderly, and while he keeps his “shine” — his psychic abilities — in check he uses it to help the dying pass peacefully into death. He’s not alone in his abilities, though, as elsewhere a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) is coming into her own and crossing psychic paths with a roving band of human monsters who feed off those with the shine and are led by the cruel but fashionable Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). The same abilities that connect them all might just be destined to destroy them too.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but Doctor Sleep is not The Shining… but it never wants or tries to be. As with King’s novel, Flanagan’s film is a continuation of characters and ideas into an entirely new story, and while it features iconic images and locales from the earlier classic it uses them the way any of us use traumatic touchstones from our own past. Sometimes those memories hold us back, but if we’re lucky enough and strong enough we’re able to visit them one last time to close that door forever. Doctor Sleep is a gloriously dark adventure chronicling that collision of past and present horrors in the hopes of coming out the other side, and it’s an immensely entertaining ride through Stephen King’s America.

McGregor is earnest and affecting as a man who settles into a long overdue quiet and calm, and when Abra comes calling — initially via a psychic link but eventually in person — Dan is understandably hesitant in his desire to get involved. After years of suffering and even more spent smothering the terror in alcohol, the thought of confronting more monsters is far from appealing, but his conscience and a ghostly visit from Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) push him into helping Abra. Their contrasts play a role in the narrative, and they also enhance the film’s themes.

Danny’s early experiences with the shine were caked in horror, but while the Overlook’s ghosts were the showiest the boy’s violently unpredictable home life is more responsible for shaping his response. Abra, by contrast, comes from a far more stable family built on love and encouragement, and while Dan wants to retreat from monstrous threats she’s compelled forward by equal parts curiosity, bravery, and naivete. She’s yet to encounter the violence of life while Dan’s seen too much of it, and it’s only together that they’re able to face down this new threat. Their relationship is a warmer, more fleshed-out variation on the one Dan had with Dick as a child, and it’s one of the film’s many strengths. His insular cynicism is warmed by her presence and optimism just as the film as a whole is warmed by Flanagan’s.

From his first true horror film (Absentia, 2011) forward, Flanagan’s output has more often than not been focused on the emotional power inherent in family — both the darkness it can fuel and the love. The former is a fairly common element in horror, but the latter is frequently and conspicuously absent. It’s something that Flanagan uses to perfection, though, in making viewers not only care about characters but also recognize themselves in these people despite the fantastical circumstances surrounding them. Last year’s The Haunting of Hill House is his masterpiece in this regard as it blends an engaging tale, a family we love and worry about, and some intensely terrifying scares. Doctor Sleep lacks that limited series’ depth (and 600-minute running time), but Flanagan uses the same tools to deliver an emotionally affecting and beautifully grim experience.

The film isn’t a scare-fest necessarily, but its horrors are plentiful and fantastic starting with the creepy cult at the center of it all. The True Knot is a traveling group of nearly immortal psychic vampires who feed off “steam” — the visible essence that leaves the body of people with the shine in their moment of death. That steam is enhanced when the death is violent and painful, and we’re witness to one of their captures and kills that delivers a truly harrowing and horrifying watch. (As someone who champions when horror films kill kids, this scene is an all-timer for several reasons, with the most notable being the beloved child actor who’s being viciously slaughtered.) There’s a menace to the group’s normalcy, but it ramps up in scenes showing them rush in to feast on someone else’s suffering.

The entire group is effective, but Zahn McClarnon is especially memorable in what could have easily been a forgettable sidekick role. He’s dedicated and loyal but still capable of his own violent intent. Ferguson, meanwhile, is in a class all her own as the hat-wearing Rose who exudes a hippie vibe that can turn instantly into something terrifying. (Well, more terrifying.) She’s a frighteningly charismatic presence and a real threat, and the film gives her further agency by pulling back the curtain on her own confidence. It’s rare for a movie monster to show weakness — that’s typically a trait reserved for the ending as the hero finally gets the best of them — but here she’s allowed a greater depth as “good” and “evil” alternate wins and losses. Abra sets a mental trap for Rose at one point, and the look of confused terror on Rose’s face as she finds herself challenged for the first time in decades raises the character stakes and catharsis potential in exciting ways while also hardening her for their next encounter.

Doctor Sleep is a fantastically entertaining film that does a fine job adapting King’s novel and acknowledging both iterations of The Shining (along with some sneaky nods towards King’s Dark Tower universe) while still delivering an experience all its own. It argues that while some are capable of overcoming their traumas others might not be so lucky. Our odds increase, though, when we’re no longer alone in fighting those battles. For some the welcoming circle of an AA meeting is enough, for others it takes a friendship built on a psychic connection, but the bottom line remains the same — communication and kindness towards those around us. The alternative is far, far too frightening to even consider.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.