Can this legacy sequel live up to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic predecessor?
To watch Doctor Sleep is to watch a film having an identity crisis. Being a sequel to The Shining should be a fairly simple task, and yet the fraught relationship between Stephen King’s 1977 novel and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film make for a sequel that lies uneasily between the two sources (and between genres).
Director Mike Flanagan has made a good deal of simple scary films, and has even adapted Stephen King before (in 2017’s straight-to-Netflix Gerald’s Game), but here he seems torn between his respect for King and his love of Kubrick. It’s unfortunate that the two aren’t compatible. Stephen King famously disliked Kubrick’s film for its lack of adherence to the source material, saying: ‘it’s a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside … I would do everything different.’ King gets a producing credit on Doctor Sleep (he was not similarly credited for The Shining) but the film is still situated in Kubrick’s shadow, with the awareness that it was his version of the story that resonated more widely with the public.
For two-thirds of the movie, Doctor Sleep’s connection to The Shining seems like nothing more than a marketing gimmick; the story of a cult of nearly-immortal travellers feeding on the magic of children (killing said children in the process) could work perfectly well as a stand-alone. Even though the ostensible protagonist of the film is grown-up Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), his relevance to the plot is almost incidental. The film’s real focus is on the battle between the leader of the cult, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), and a very powerful young girl inventively named Abra — as in ‘cadabra’ — and played by new-comer Kyliegh Curran.
For the first act, the film is divided awkwardly into three points-of-view: Danny’s, the cult’s, and Abra’s. The characters’ stories do intersect eventually, but the exposition jumps around between them, and Danny exists in what seems to be a different film from the other two. His story is a relatively restrained addiction narrative about a man trying to escape his past. We know this because he says, out loud, to a complete stranger: ‘I’m running away from myself.’ Rose the Hat, meanwhile, is instructing her vampiric cronies to breathe in the ‘steam’ of dying magical children so that they can live forever. There’s a bit of a disconnect, is all I’m saying.
The best sequence of the film is the one which wrenches itself free from Danny Torrance, Stephen King, and Stanley Kubrick altogether. Rose the Hat astral projects herself across the country into the bedroom/mind of Abra, whose thoughts and memories are represented by a series of filling cabinets: it’s the most exciting visualisation of magic in the film, and there’s a wonderful grisly moment involving Rose’s hand. By the time the narrative returns to the Overlook Hotel, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the story is meant to have any relation to The Shining at all.
Some legacy sequels do manage to hit the right balance between paying homage to the original and trying something new: in recent memory, Blade Runner 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed have done it. But Doctor Sleep alternates between slavish devotion to the film it’s based on and a palpable desire to be telling a more original story. It’s not all bad: Rebecca Ferguson’s performance is delightfully seductive and creepy, while Kyliegh Curran makes a charming precocious youngster with more power than she knows what to do with. And there’s a cute cat who can sense when people are going to die. It’s just unfortunate that what results from a collection of good ideas and characters is a patchwork quilt of a film that trails off into hollow fanservice and an ending intended to appease an author who was dissatisfied forty years ago with an auteur’s alterations to his book.
Doctor Sleep isn’t a disaster — it’s well-directed, with good performances and interesting themes. But it never justifies its connection to The Shining, and is weighed down by its loyalty to the book it’s based on. As someone who is fairly neutral on both The Shining and Stephen King, Mike Flanagan’s desperation to please the fans of both left me feeling cold.
Doctor Sleep is in cinemas now.
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