I’m not as big a devotee of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as most people are. I recognise its importance in cinema history and I appreciate Kubrick’s directorial efforts in crafting a truly atmospheric picture, but I don’t quite have a personal connection to the film. So, I was neither salivating at the prospect of watching a Doctor Sleep film nor did I bite my nails worried that it would disappoint.
But I am a fan of director Mike Flanagan, who in 2017 helmed the best Stephen King adaptation to date, Gerald’s Game — bite me — and also spearheaded the genuinely skin-crawl-frightening Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House. I walked into Doctor Sleep very curious. Curious to see how Flanagan was going to craft a film that stays true to King’s Doctor Sleep novel while also continuing the story of Kubrick’s The Shining, which famously altered a whole bunch of stuff from King’s original book, including the ending — something he wanted to achieve, not necessarily something fans begged for. Curious to see if Flanagan would once again smash the ball out of the freaking park.
Well, Doctor Sleep is no home run. But it’s good. Barely, but good nonetheless. It’s like watching a football game where the team huffs and puffs, struggles and crawls and manages to win the game thanks to a last-minute VAR decision. The opening scenes come and go in a blur. They (literally) fade in and out, jumping from place to place, recapping what happened at the end of The Shining and also quickly establishing adult Danny. There’s a scene where little Danny rides his tricycle in the corridors of the Overlook Hotel, tyres alternating between carpets and floorboards. There’s a scene where Danny is haunted by the entities of the hotel. Another scene where the spirit of old man Dick Hallorann teaches Danny some neat ‘Shining’ tricks he can do to keep the monsters at bay.
The early portions with adult Danny (played by Ewan McGregor who wears his heart on his sleeve) is when the film is at its best. Kubrick’s film may not have dived into Jack’s alcoholism, but King’s book does. And in Doctor Sleep we get a tragic echo, as Danny just like his father before him and his father before that, is also an addict. His life which mostly encompasses bar fights and blackout sex has spiralled so far out of control that he contemplates stealing from a woman he hooked up with. There’s a brilliant reflective moment where he sees the child of the mom and his heart shatters like glass on floor. Danny moves to a small town far away from home, becomes buddies with a local and joins an AA programme.
But while Danny is getting cleaned up, circumstances around him start to get very, very ugly. There’s a cult-like group of vampire-esque murderers known as The True Knot, lead by the cold-hearted Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson who plays the role equal parts sexy, magnetic and creepy) that’s growing in strength and killing children who ‘shine’. Every member of cult ‘Shines’ too but their abilities differ. And in one of the most harrowing scenes of the year, we see The True Knot slowly and brutally torture and kill a boy, inhaling his ‘steam’ (humans emit ‘steam’ when they’re afraid, which is fuel for these assholes) like a bunch of deranged crack addicts as the kid screams his little lungs dry and blood splatters. It’s Monsters Inc right out of the weird mind of Stephen King.
Flanagan keeps the mind squarely on the child’s face, occasionally cutting to the unhinged faces of The True Knot, intoxicated of the boy’s pleas and wails. Meanwhile, all the way across the country there’s a little girl by the name of Abra (Kyleigh Curran), whose ‘Shine’ is so strong, she’s able to communicate with Danny from hundreds of miles away. At one point, Rose picks up the scent of her glorious ‘Shine’ and starts thirsting for her.
The addiction story morphs into a superhero-esque fantasy horror, as Danny and Abra team up to take down The True Knot. It’s intriguing, brimming with endless potential and could have been the best superhero film of the year. Unfortunately, Flanagan cramps way too much into two and a half hours. It’s a film that as it progresses, becomes more and more obvious that it would’ve worked better as a miniseries or a duology. Watching it, you get the sense that every character — and boy are there many — has an interesting backstory or mythology waiting to unfold and be dissected, but we only grace the surface because everything is truncated, condensed and trimmed to fit within a palatable feature film length. This could’ve been a horror film of epic proportions, but instead, we’re left with a horror film of epic potential.
Early on in the film, we see Rose recruit a new member to The True Knot, one who has the ability to convince people to dance to her beat. We see her mess with the mind of a man who we’re led to believe is a child molester. We’re immediately intrigued by her powers and motivations. Is she a tortured soul with a dark past? But we don’t learn anything, as she’s reduced to just another one of Rose’s henchpeople with a cool name. Snakebite Andi her name is. There’s also Crow Daddy, Grandpa Flick among a few others.
We could’ve used a couple more scenes with Abra. We know that she’s super powerful, but who exactly is she? There are two great set pieces. One, a superbly imagined mind battle between Abra and Rose, the other, a cool action block in a foggy forest. But while these sequences are fun, they lack weight and emotional gravitas as the film doesn’t gradually build its conflict brick by brick, instead, we get plenty of scenes that quickly come and go, a lot of them strangled. I think there’s even a scene with Rose that lasted merely 15 seconds.
Yes, the film feels condensed. Yes, Doctor Sleep probably would’ve been better told through multiple chapters on a streaming platform. But, I’m still left with the lingering feeling that even given the circumstances, it could’ve been tighter. If only Flanagan wasn’t trying to play peacekeeper in a street fight between Kubrick and King. While the apt writer that Flanagan is finds a smart way to stitch everything up story-wise, structurally it still plays out like an oddly shaped puzzle piece that’s being hammered into place by brute force. It’s a profoundly deflating climax, where we spend a large portion of it walking… really slowly… around the Overlook Hotel reminiscing the past and remembering Kubrick’s iconic imagery.
It’s as if Flanagan was taking us on a museum tour — on your left, you’ll see the twins, on your right you’ll see an elevator that overflowing with blood, etc. I’ve already been on a far superior version of this tour in Steven Speilberg’s Ready Player One. Don’t even get me started on the lookalikes that sucked me out of the film completely. That said, a couple of friends of mine, who are hardcore fans of The Shining, walked out of the cinema rock hard with big fat smiles on their faces, telling me how they devoured every easter egg and reference like gluttons at a Hari Raya buffet. I just wanted to get to the end.
Coming out of it, I couldn’t help but wish Mike Flanagan didn’t care about the homages nor try to give warm hugs to fans of Kubrick’s and King’s. That said, outside of the 3rd act, Doctor Sleep is pretty damn engaging even if not fully fleshed out. Doctor Sleep is also proof — as we even needed any more of it — that Mike Flanagan is a terrific horror director, who knows how to move a camera, who knows how to mould an atmosphere and suck you in and who has a passion for making horror projects that are unique and layered.
Doctor Sleep is currently playing in Malaysian cinemas.