It doesn’t matter how much I like The Shining and doesn’t matter how much you like The Shining. These are sensible things to consider under the circumstances, both for good or for bad, because we have all rushed off to see sequels because we loved the first movie and we have been cautious of other, often belated, ones for the same reason. Doctor Sleep certainly picks up on characters and events from the 1980 film but it doesn’t feel like a regular part two though. Certainly it is not in any way trying to recapture the magic or imitate the style of Kubrick’s classic horror. Doctor Sleep feels like it is entirely its own thing and the two films feel as related as X-Men and Deadpool or Dr. No and Skyfall. You definitely don’t need to love, or even to have seen, The Shining to appreciate Doctor Sleep (in fact Ready Player One tells you most of what you need to know) and loving it and having seen it repeatedly will not affect your enjoyment. It doesn’t matter how much I like The Shining then; what matters, to me at least, is that I really liked Doctor Sleep.
Actually I think that title says it all. Doctor Sleep is not what they would have named this film if they were looking to cash in on The Shining. Even if they’d not gone for The Shining 2, the original legend would have featured in it somewhere, probably before a colon and a subtitle. The Shining: Return to the Overlook maybe or The Shining: Ghost Boxers. How about The Shining: Here’s Danny concentrating on the son as it does this time. Of course none of this started as a movie. The title comes from Stephen King’s novel which he wrote as a follow up to the book that was the source for Kubrick’s film. The connecting tissue is, as I say, Danny Torrance, the little kid who croaked Redrum over and over and was chased down by his axe wielding father in the first book/film. Danny is now all grown up but still struggling with demons yet around him and his magic sensibilities there is a whole new story. His problem last time was a spooky hotel built on a Native American burial ground but now he’s dealing with nomadic soul sucking vampires. Last time he was triking around orange carpeted corridors, this time he’s driving around large sections of the American Midwest. It is a very different set up.
Doctor Sleep is over two and a half hours long but the extended running time allows space for the story to establish itself in the way that genre cinema rarely does. We spend a lot of the first half with the three main elements running separately to one another but this is great and only adds to the pay off when it comes. The narrative feels well developed in a way that significantly is typical of the best of King’s page to screen adaptations and isn’t at all typical of Stanley Kubrick. With the possible exception of Spartacus but absolutely in line with undemonstrative astronaut Dave Bowman, comically buttoned up Captain Mandrake, chatty psychopath Alex and all work and no shades of grey Jack Torrance, Kubrick doesn’t allow his audience to get to know his characters as real people but from Shawshank to Stand By Me to It and to Carrie King generally does and Doctor Sleep fits in with this well.
Ewan McGregor is Danny and as ever the actor gives a compelling everyman quality to even the most exceptional protagonists. He is well supported by Cliff Curtis, teenager Kyliegh Curran and a few other actors playing people we’ve met before including one icon of 80s cinema appearing as another icon of 80s cinema. Young Jacob Tremblay turns up in a small but significant part that demands all of the acting prowess he displayed in Room and with a performance that will break your heart just as much. The star of the movie is probably Rebecca Ferguson though whose antagonist Rose the Hat is a creepy and relentless villain to rival any previous Stephen King monster, despite her being a lot more dialled down than Pennywise or Annie Wilkes. She isn’t massively scary but neither is the film. Doctor Sleep is more of a supernatural thriller than an out and out horror film, which is another way it nicely sits apart from the movie it follows.
This is an interesting movie that sits nicely alongside a range of genre classics then, not just the one, and plays with the conventions of those films a little. It has refreshing ideas about hunters and prey and victims and heroes. Forget about this living up to The Shining; in the end it manages not to invite overbearing comparisons (even though the marketing can’t help itself). The only question is whether it justifies its own existence and it most certainly does. Kubrick’s style stamped all over King’s but director Mike Flanagan, while having plenty of his own tricks up his sleeve, works with the source material skilfully. Doctor Sleep may need the light from another film to allow it to shine but it wouldn’t be able to do if it was not so polished itself.
The Ripley Factor:
Certainly women are key to the plot and they are not objectified or cliched in how they are portrayed. There is an interesting thread toward the end where the the two females, one righteous and one evil, are shown to be potentially more similar than you’d think and even though one of them ultimately defeats the other the very last shot seems to suggest that normal notions of good and bad may be blurred. This in itself may be presenting untypical versions of cinematic femininity but that is a whole other more spoilery discussion.