Doesn’t Shine As Brightly, But Still Good – Doctor Sleep

It’s all but impossible to follow up Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of horror, The Shining. It’s beyond telling that no one’s even tried until now, nearly 40 years after the original release. When you have such a definitive entry in the genre, it is a fool’s errand to try to live up to it.

So in that sense it’s almost appropriate that the sequel, Doctor Sleep, written and directed by horror veteran Mike Flanagan, is at points barely recognizable as being related to the 1980 adaptation of the first story. While The Shining is an undisputed classic, author Stephen King was notably upset about the way Kubrick interpreted his work, to the point that “hating his own creation” became a key plot point in Ready Player One last year, where the second act is mostly devoted to a puzzle within the recreated Overlook Hotel.

Part of King’s objections had to do with the characterization of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson in the original, Henry Thomas, aka Elliott from E.T. in recreated and homaged scenes here), as Jack’s growing insanity was meant to be a reference to King’s alcoholism, learned from his own father. Here, in the wholeheartedly endorsed sequel, King’s misgivings are not only addressed, but given the weight he most likely wanted originally, in the form of the now adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor).

Initially mute after his stay at the Overlook, Danny (Roger Dale Floyd in place of Danny Lloyd, who makes a cameo later on) is still able to shine, as he maintains a line of communication with the murdered Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly, replacing the late Scatman Crothers). He still encounters the spirits of the hotel, most notably the decaying naked woman, who followed him to Florida, wishing to feed on his skills and soul. Dick teaches him how to create mental lock boxes to seal them away, but as Dan grows, he is ever more haunted, and descends into alcoholism himself. He makes his way up to Maine, where he finds a small town, a new friend in the form of Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), support from AA, and new purpose through a job as an orderly at a hospice center, where he comforts the dying by assuring them that they “go on” after they expire. Easing the elderly into their final sleep earns Dan his titular nickname

It’s an oddly soothing bit of exposition and characterization. Imagine how at peace you’d be with the world if you knew objectively that death was not the end. Many people believe in an afterlife, but many others do not. Either way, the true fear of death is the idea of not existing, of no consciousness whatsoever, the true expiration of all thought. I think King is rather satisfied by how this aspect turned out.

Between this solace and his support in AA, Dan’s life is renewed, to the point that he reacts with something resembling amusement when he inadvertently connects with another young person with the ability to shine via his in-room chalkboard wall. Abra Stone (newcomer Kyliegh Curran) has the most powerful mind he’s ever encountered, and when she experiences existential fear, both of their worlds shatter.

Unlike the original film, where the evil was contained in the Overlook Hotel (and indeed, the hotel itself was a major source of the evil), the main baddies of this film are members of a nomadic cult called the True Knot. Led by Rose the Hat (in what should be a star-making turn for Rebecca Ferguson), the group travels the country in search of individuals with “steam.” Every human being has it (indeed we see it escape the mouths of the dying in the hospice), but those who shine, or have other mental abilities, contain very large amounts, which the Knot feeds on to preserve themselves in a near-immortal state.

The group contains myriad skills that they use to corner and entrap their victims, including hypnosis, strength, illusion (Rose is a magician of sorts), and manipulation, that last one in the form of new recruit Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), who is discovered using her ability to lure pedophiles and scar them to mark their crime. Rose refers to her as a “pusher.” Young ones like her become a debate for the Knot. Do they feed on them, knowing how much steam they can get from someone so powerful? It would certainly help the aging members like Grandpa Flick (Carel Struycken, aka Lurch from the 90s Addams Family movies and Mr. Homn from Star Trek: The Next Generation). On the other hand, certain skills are best preserved to help in the hunt. Because of this dilemma, someone like Andi becomes an ally while a boy who can see the future (Jacob Tremblay) might be considered prey.

When Abra invades Rose’s mind during an attack, the latter is alerted to the former’s presence, and the hunt begins anew. Like Dan, Rose considers Abra the strongest mind she’s ever known, but whereas Dan wants to foster Abra’s skills and encourage her to do good, Rose considers her a threat, and must be harvested for the biggest cache of steam the Knot has ever gotten.

After an initial encounter, the scene shifts back to the Overlook for the final battle. Dan chooses the boarded up hotel so he can release the locked spirits, which he believes are related to the predators of the Knot, as a means to level the playing field and put Rose out of commission for good. It is there that he also must confront his father at last, and reconcile his own past with the sins of Jack Torrance.

As a standalone film, this isn’t half bad. It’s not scary per se, save for one particularly gruesome attack midway through, but it is sufficiently suspenseful. The scenes are crafted well, the menace is truly felt, and the visual effects are pretty decent, particularly when Dan and Abra’s worlds move beyond the normal dimensions of space as they travel and infiltrate the minds of others. The main performances are also good. They’re not groundbreaking, but at no point did I wonder or wish that someone else was playing these roles.

But this isn’t standalone. It’s a sequel to one of the greatest horror films ever made, and while I noted earlier that The Shining‘s reputation is impossible to live up to, I have to set this movie against that bar. It might not be fair, but the film itself draws parallels to the original and even reenacts famous scenes, so the comparison is all but invited.

The tone is set almost immediately, as early scenes from the original film are recreated and cues from the original score are invoked. But the fear on display in the original is nowhere to be found. Part of that is because the isolated setting of the Overlook created the perfect amount of claustrophobic paranoia. In this film, not only is the evil in a much more wide open setting (turning much of the action into a chase rather than having ambiance), but almost all of the scenes at the Overlook – be they original or reenactments – are essentially fan service, from the Twins, to the blood in the elevator, to convenient use of an ax, all of which makes for a good homage, but doesn’t engender any real tension. Also, retconning the Overlook ghosts into more spectral versions of the Knot renders them lame and contrived, turning them into the midi-chlorians of the Stephen King universe.

Also, while the True Knot are effective villains, they are somewhat derivative. I mean, they hunt children and feed on them, going the extra mile to harm and terrify them, because the steam is more potent if the child is scared. I mean, something about this seems very familiar. I just can’t put my finger on IT.

Still, the movie is worth your time. It’s a pretty good horror movie on its own, but as a four decades later follow-up to The Shining, it definitely falls short. There are good elements, and it certainly seems like Stephen King’s criticisms of the original were fixed to the degree he wanted. On balance though, it’s alright. Maybe wait until it’s on home video, though, as the Halloween season has passed. Why the movie wasn’t released wide until a week after the holiday I have no idea.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Is 40 years too long for a sequel? If you could speak to a ghost, what would you say? Let me know!

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