Many people, including myself, consider Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining to be a classic horror movie. Therefore, a sequel seemed ill-advised and unnecessary, at best, and a disaster-in-the-making, at worst. But, I decided to give this movie a chance and tried to view it with an open mind. After all, Mike Flanagan, the director of Doctor Sleep, has slowly built up a solid resume of horror projects. Oculus, Hush, and Gerald’s Game were all lean, effective movies. More importantly, Flanagan’s sprawling miniseries remake of The Haunting of Hill House illustrated his ability to tackle and reimagine a beloved film classic.
Doctor Sleep wisely doesn’t rehash the plot of the original. This film isn’t as concerned with ghosts and family dynamics. Doctor Sleep is a character-based expansion of the mythology of those who have the shining and the evil beings who feed on them. I haven’t read the novel, but the structure of this film feels very much like a novel successfully brought to life.
The opening third of this movie introduces us to three separate plot threads, slowly weaving the stories together. First, we have an adult Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor) who is finally coming to a place of peace with his haunted past. Second, we have a young girl, Abra, (Kyliegh Curran) who is just discovering her own, very powerful, version of the shining. And finally, we have Rose The Hat, Rebecca Ferguson, a leader of a vagabond group of vampire-like creatures, the “true knot,” who are constantly on the hunt for those with the shining.
Unlike It: Chapter Two, which was a CGI, jump-scare disaster, Doctor Sleep uses CGI sparingly, opting to rely on practical sets and a solid story. The first hour is almost entirely dedicated to fleshing out the three plot threads, letting us understand and care about our main characters. A special note has to be given to McGregor’s performance. He hasn’t been this subtle or effective in a role for years. There is an especially moving segment where we are shown the origin of the term “doctor sleep” that veers toward sentimentality, but stops just in time to land on true emotional poignancy.
Even more importantly, Doctor Sleep has a truly great villain. The initial promotional materials really had me worried about the character of Rose The Hat. She, and her sidekick, Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), looked like extras from a 90’s Pearl Jam video or maybe lost members from The Black Crowes. But Ferguson nearly steals this movie, as she exudes the silky energy of new age mysticism, all scarves and bangled jewelry, but don’t doubt she’ll stab you while she’s smiling! At about the one hour mark, we are finally shown how Rose and her followers feed, and it is surprisingly unflinching. The movie turns on a dime this scene, setting the stakes as real and deadly.
So, why does Doctor Sleep work so well? An early choice by Flanagan illustrates how he approaches this material. The movie opens just after the events of the original. We see a young Danny and Wendy (played in the original by Shelley Duvall). In this age of CGI characters and de-aging, the obvious choice would be to try to recreate the original actors and create a digital version of The Overlook Hotel. Flanagan wisely recast the roles with actors who look and act similarly to the original actors. He then places them in a physical set of The Overlook for a flashback. So smart and effective.
Once might ask at this point, “cool, this sounds like an interesting horror movie, but it doesn’t sound like a sequel to The Shining.” Don’t worry, for the fans of Kubrick’s movie, the final third of Doctor Sleep will deliver some of the things you are hoping for. For some, the finale will come across as fan-service. Fair enough, but this is a movie that earns it. We have nearly two previous hours of effective storytelling and character building leading up to the fan service. And, there is a sequence in this final third, where a lone Danny walks through a nearly silent location, that is breathtakingly glorious.
Doctor Sleep is a big, old-fashioned, character-driven horror movie that should please both casual and hardened horror fans. The movie is filled with great performances, genuinely creepy moments, and more earned entertainment than most super hero movies these days. This is what a big-budget sequel should look like.
Doctor Sleep is now playing nationwide. Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars