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Review: Doctor Sleep

November 8, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Despite receiving mixed reviews upon its release in 1980, and famously being disavowed by Stephen King himself who felt that it wasn’t an accurate adaptation of his book, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is now rightfully regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time and is seen by most as a crown jewel in the iconic director’s filmography.

The film has a legacy that is almost unparalleled, both in an out of genre circles, and now it has gotten a belated sequel in the form of horror director Mike Flanagan’s new movie Doctor Sleep, which serves as both an adaptation of King’s literary sequel, published in 2013, and a direct follow up to Kubrick’s film.

The result is a fairly decent King adaptation that often copies the aesthetic of Kubrick, while also having Flanagan’s fingerprints all over it. This trio of influences is simultaneously felt throughout the film, and we are left with a final product that is generally good if a bit mixed, featuring some clashes in tone and a slightly bloated running time, but also a mostly compelling human story at its centre.

The story catches up with Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor) as an adult, decades after his father went crazy and tried to kill him and his mother at the Overlook Hotel. Danny is now a recovering alcoholic who is still dealing with the residual childhood trauma of these events, moving around the country trying to get away from himself. Danny starts being telepathically contacted by Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), an adolescent girl who shares his supernatural gift of the “shining.”

Abra is haunted by visions of a group of ancient, vampire-like beings called The True Knot, who travel around the country with their leader Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) – so named for the “magic hat” that she wears – kidnapping children who have “the shining” and feeding off their energy as they torture and kill them. Danny and Abra are drawn towards Rose for a final showdown that forces him to relive experiences from his childhood.

Where as The Shining had a very specific tone that Kubrick carefully established and kept consistent for the entire running time, which is what still makes it such a uniquely compelling and transfixing film to watch almost forty years later, Doctor Sleep feels a bit disjointed, and the film’s separate storylines don’t always gel. The stuff with Rose the Hat and her band of vampires has an inherent cheesiness to it that at times reminded me of the Twilight movies, and I don’t really mean that as a compliment. McGregor’s performance is internal and toned back, where as what Ferguson is doing is a little campier and more over the top, which is one of the more pronounced examples of the film’s clashing tones.

The film is at its best when directly following Kubrick’s vision, and the movie also deserves credit for not trying to digitally de-age Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, instead casting approximate facsimiles of them (Henry Thomas and Alex Essoe) in these roles. While some of this feels like fan service, it’s also genuinely well done. Flanagan has a good eye for detail, and is able to seamlessly copy several iconic moments from the original in a way that will trick many at first into thinking they are seeing actual clips from Kubrick’s film, instead of meticulously pulled off recreations that perfectly copy the sets, colours, camerawork and framing of Kubrick’s masterpiece.

At its heart, Doctor Sleep is about confronting childhood trauma decades after the fact, and in this regard the film is effective, both as a sequel and on its own terms. The film is more drama than it is horror, and there is a poignancy underlying much of it. In the film’s most touching story thread, Danny starts working in a hospice, and using his supernatural abilities to help dying patients transition over to the other side. The film is carried by a strong performance from McGregor, who brings depth to the role, and does an excellent job of portraying a man who has spent almost his entire life haunted by literal and figurative demons.

The film has some bumps along the way, and the 152 minute running time – which is a full six minutes longer than The Shining – feels stretched at times. But after a lengthy buildup, Doctor Sleep is able to deliver a satisfying and very well staged finale that pays direct tribute to Kubrick’s film, while also being suspenseful and chilling in its own right. The fact that Doctor Sleep can’t live up to, let alone surpass, its iconic predecessor is a given. But even though this is ultimately a merely good follow up to a great film, it still has enough intriguing elements to make it worth seeing on its own terms.

Doctor Sleep is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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