While Doctor Sleep – Mike Flanagan’s hybrid sequel to both Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation – received mostly positive reviews (as of this writing, it sits at a 7.7 on IMDB and a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes), it was overshadowed by other Memorial Weekend releases, resulting in an underwhelming performance at the box office. Being a major fan of Kubrick’s film, I had to find out for myself how it stands up against its predecessor.
Much like the aforementioned box office returns, I found Doctor Sleep disappointing.
Doctor Sleep‘s release comes nearly 40 years after Kubrick’s masterpiece – a tense, chilling look at a man driven insane by his own inner demons, as well as those lurking in the walls of the hotel in which he and his family are staying. For most horror fans, Kubrick’s film has stood the test of time, but Flanagan’s sequel posed a couple of big questions – namely “Why?” and “Why now?” Unfortunately, the film’s answers are not so satisfactory.
To begin with, at its most basic level, Doctor Sleep lacks focus; despite its best attempts, it spends more time on Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of adult Danny (now Dan) Torrance than on Kyleigh Curran’s supernaturally gifted Abra – which is not an inherently bad thing, but the lack of focal commitment to a a central character often mars the early portion of the movie.
At first, Doctor Sleep feels like it takes place in a very post-Shining world. Sure, Dan has REDRUM literally plastered on his walls, and Dick Hallorann shows up to discuss Abra’s shine abilities… but the events of the original film are treated as supplemental at best. The primary focus is the threat of Rebecca Ferguson’s “Rose the Hat” and her antagonistic connection to Abra. This renders a great deal of the first act a fairly goofy – though at times highly creative – action-horror blend, with Dan providing flashes of past trauma.
Then Dan and Abra arrive at the Overlook Hotel. The location is lovingly recreated and properly aged, down to its last detail, the hotel is as beautiful and haunting as ever, and the entire production design team deserves praise. With that said, the treatment of those who step inside suffers. Dan takes a walk through the hotel upon arriving, briefly recreating the iconic “Here’s Johnny” bathroom shot and strolling up to the bar in the Gold Room… and this scene is where the axe-cut cracks start to show.
Great potential is squandered here by poor execution; Dan confronts his childhood demon, his own dead father Jack, in a near-perfect recreation of Jack Nicholson’s cinematic encounter with Lloyd the bartender in Kubrick’s film. But “Jack” doesn’t look like Nicholson here; the elder Torrance is instead played by Henry Thomas (who previously worked with Flanagan on Gerald’s Game and The Haunting of Hill House). Instead of working around this look-alike performance, Flanagan makes a point of showing the “close-enough” Torrance head-on, in full view. This causes a strange “uncanny valley” effect: everything looks like Jack except his face. The character, actions, and locations are all there… but oddly different and distorted.
This distortion is carried over later on, when Rose the Hat catches up with Dan and Abra, who in the final act are holed up in the Overlook – by the famous staircase, to be exact – with Dan holding the axe that his father used to torment him and his mother years ago. As the tension mounts, Rose takes a moment to deliver fan-service: as she’s walking through the halls of the Overlook, she approaches an elevator. We see it’s not just any elevator, obviously, when a near-exact recreation of the blood-flood bursts from behind the doors. Rose only smirks and carries on – and the audience has gained nothing, beyond being mildly impressed at the re-enactment of this indelible image.
In fact, Doctor Sleep rounds up nearly all the notable iconography of Kubrick’s film – and uses it to overpower and corrupt Dan, literally beating him and the audience over the head with recognizable faces. The Grady girls? They’re still standing at the end of that hallway. The woman in Room 237? She’s lurking in not one, but two bathtubs. These obvious connections and references become tiresome, and the only interesting shots in this stretch are direct homages to Kubrick’s vision. Eventually Dan becomes a shallow imitation of his own father, and makes the choice to destroy the Overlook with himself inside… but it feels hollow, a cheap stunt that tries too hard to trigger horror fans’ sense of nostalgia, while ignoring the major ramifications – both internally, as a haunted beacon for those that “shine,” and externally as a symbol of the hotel builders’ lack of respect for the dead and indigenous lands that The Shining established.
Much like Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, Doctor Sleep is more interested in the archetypal symbols of the hotel than the narrative weight it holds. As a result, the Overlook’s thematic purpose is ignored in favor of fan service – confining the universe to just a few recognizable figures from the original. Where The Shining suggested the hotel as a sprawling maze of various travelers condemned by their own sins, Doctor Sleep characterizes the Overlook as a cold and impassive gallery, consisting of a few rooms where elevators bleed on cue and familiar ghosts pop up at the expected moments.
Too wrapped up in self-referential pandering to be truly new, and creating too many changes and deviations to feel classic, Doctor Sleep squanders the gift Kubrick gave us in The Shining – which is apparently okay by Stephen King, who says the film “redeems” the adaptation he once hated. But as a self-contained film, much of Doctor Sleep comes across as disjointed. Much like Dan Torrance’s own realization in the story, maybe it would have been better to leave the Overlook in the rear view.