Review by Tim Robins
Director: Mike Flanagan
Staring: Ewan McGregor (Danny Torrance), Rebecca Ferguson (Rose the Hat),
Alexandra Essoe (Wendy Torrance), Kyliegh Curran (Abra), Zahn McClarnon (Crow Daddy), Bruce Greenwood (Dr. John Dalton) and more
Struggling with alcoholism, Dan Torrance remains traumatised by the sinister events that occurred at the Overlook Hotel when he was a child. His hope for a peaceful existence soon becomes shattered when he meets Abra, a teen who shares his extrasensory gift of the “shine.” Together, they form an unlikely alliance to battle the True Knot, a cult whose members try to feed off the shine of innocents to become immortal…
If you love Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as much as I do, anything that I write here is going to make Doctor Sleep seem at best pedestrian, screen fodder and at worse totally unnecessary. That would be a shame, because writer-director Mike Flanagan’s nod to Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the better adaptations of a Stephen King book.
The story picks up on the fate of young Danny Torrance, now grown up with issues relating to his father – after all, Dad did try to kill him with an axe. The ghosts of the Overlook Hotel have extended their reach and now pop up around the house where the surviving Torrances have made their home.
But there is worse to come, because walking the Earth is a motley crew of paedophile, psychic vampires, who feed on any child who shines. By the time Danny reaches adulthood, they are desperate for food, the psychic ‘steam’ emitted by dying Shiners.
Doctor Sleep is dark and oppressive and sinister where it needs to be. So, although the film is not The Shining, nor The Dead Zone or Misery, it is at least up there with the rather good Dolores Claiborne.
Mike Flanagan does what he can to find the story at the heart of the novel, which is written in King’s seductive, but digressionary, prose. (While working in a hospice, Danny gains the nickname ‘Doctor Sleep’, but blink and you’ll miss that bit of exposition).
Doctor Sleep delivers some really suspenseful and hard to watch moments when it cleaves close to the theme of child abuse, particularly a scene in which a young boy is tortured to death. Unfortunately, the film itself seems so anxious about theme that it gives us a on-the-nose moment in which Danny (now all grown up Ewan McGregor) has to fret about what people will infer if they see him share a park bench with a young girl, Abra, (played by Kyliegh Curran). Abra suggests that Danny should tell people that he’s her Uncle.
The film also seems scared of Kubrick’s film. Scenes in The Overlook Hotel are not given enough time to develop much suspense. A sort of return to the Hotel’s maze is effective, but Danny’s possession by the Hotel needed more screen time and I felt Ewan McGregor really didn’t rise to the occasion. OK, so Jack Nicholson was over-the-top in The Shining, but McGregor’s bland performance really outstays its welcome.
The final act also really needed to build up to the moment but the film ends in an avalanche of explanatory moments and pedantic tying of plot threads; every character has an arc that Flanagan needs to complete, right down to the cat that chooses to sleep at the bottom of dying patients bed. (You’ll be pleased to know the cat given its own three act narrative).
Doctor Sleep is the kind of story King does well, a genre mixing thriller that blends the supernatural, the science fiction with traditional horror tropes. There are moment that will have you recalling scenes such as the lakeside moment that a young girl meets the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and a moment that, to me, references The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, in which Danny and Abra wait under a lamp in the snowbound grounds of The Overlook for the final, inevitable confrontation with their foe.
King’s success surely rests on his grand-guignol mix of 1980s concerns, including commodity capitalism’s nostalgia mode (only Ian Fleming obsessed more about brand named products as a sign of a characters’ identities), and the rise of born again evangelism.
Some critics of Doctor Sleep have drawn comparison between the film and superhero movies. There is that here too, with Danny reluctantly gathering good folks together to oppose the bohemian group of psychic-spiritual vampires.
The director draws out the parallels between a new recruit inducted into the ‘True Knot’ cult and Danny’s journey from addiction to recovery in a ‘Twelve Step’ group, not unlike Alcoholics Anonymous. I suspect that the group isn’t named because the AA does not approve of any form of publicity and that’s probably why the AA associated term ‘Higher Power’ is not used. The mirroring of situations holds the first half of the film together, but the narrative drive tends to peter out as the film approaches the “we have seen this all before Stephen” climax.
The performances are fine and dandy. Rebecca Ferguson plays the sinister Rose the Hat and represents the seductive power of the vampiric cult. Ewan McGregor is OK as the adult Danny Torrance, a kind of everyman with a twist and in some scenes looking not unlike Stephen King. I did find myself wishing for a more interesting lead, but it is hard to think of one who wouldn’t chew up the scenery in the way Jack Nicholson did in the original.
King has been well served by Doctor Sleep, which sort of marshals his digressionary plot into a workable and, at times, chilling movie for the Halloween Period. Director Flanagan does what is needed by salvaging the story from King’s worst tendencies – including this desire to direct his own material.
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A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.