After Danny Torrance escaped The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the monsters didn’t stop their relentless haunting of the boy with special gifts. Even as an adult who has learned to lock away the creatures of the Overlook, Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is still haunted by his own demons: alcoholism, a gift he still doesn’t entirely understand, and a childhood full of murder and unexplained horror. Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, has its own set of demons to run away from. Coming almost forty years after the Stanley Kubrick classic, The Shining remains a horror masterpiece that still looms large in the legacy of great horror films. How is it possible to followup such a film, let alone do justice to Stephen King’s story?
Writer/director Mike Flanagan is no stranger to adaptation, however, as the creator of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, based on Shirley Jackson’s horror story, and having previous adapted King with Gerald’s Game. Flanagan’s take on following up The Shining is similar to what Damon Lindelof is doing with HBO’s Watchmen, continuing the story further down the road, rather than feeling like a direct sequel, all while still paying homage to the original, without being too beholden to it. With Doctor Sleep, Flanagan nails the slow-moving dread and the tone of the original film, while telling a completely new story about addiction, how we use the gifts we are given and accepting the past, rather than running away from it.
Like his father, adult Danny Torrance is an alcoholic as a way to keep away the pains of his fast and to quiet his supernatural powers. To find a new start, Danny moves to a new town, sobers up and starts working at a hospice center, where he helps calm the elderly patients in their last moments of life. Dan is contacted by Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a girl who also has “shining” powers. She has witnessed the murder of a child at the hands of The True Knot, a group that hunts, kills and feeds off the shine of other with the gift. Led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the True Knot is slowly starving for their next fix, which makes them start hunting for the incredibly powerful Abra.
McGregor is excellent as Dan, a character decades later, still trying to reckon with the pain of his childhood. His years after the events of The Shining almost feel like The Sixth Sense, and his constant attempts to dull his suffering are played with brutal honesty. Dan doesn’t just worry about his childhood, he worries what effect his drunken behavior and poor decisions might’ve played on the lives of others, similarly to how his life was drastically changed due to his father’s actions. But McGregor’s performance is quiet in its ache, and some of his best moments are in that quiet, especially when Dan helps ease the pain for the dying at his job. The way he uses his gifts for good is surprisingly emotional and beautifully handled.
The True Knot, unfortunately, comes off a bit goofier than it should. Ferguson is having quite a bit of fun as the leader, but the vampiric style of this group is sillier than it is menacing. Especially when Doctor Sleep starts to become more action-oriented at points, the film doesn’t have the same power as it does in its more reserved moments.
Flanagan does a fantastic job recreating the feeling of The Shining, even before anyone steps foot inside the Overlook. Flanagan will frame scenes, like an inauspicious meeting, from the same angles that Kubrick chose in The Shining. Homages like this capture the spirit of the past, without trying to fully recreate what made The Shining so captivating.
While the return to the Overlook is awe-inspiring, almost like revisiting a half-remembered dream, Flanagan’s real gift within Doctor Sleep is how he presents Dan as a victim of severe trauma, a man who is still dealing with the sins of his father. This is wonderfully counterbalanced by the exceptional performance by Curran, showing how Dan’s life could’ve been completely different with a loving family. Curran is just as charming of a presence as McGregor and she’s always intriguing as she discovers what her “shine” is truly capable of.
Like some of the best sequels, Flanagan takes the core of what worked with the original and fleshes out the impact that the original had on these characters to make something wholly new. Doctor Sleep might be the best King adaptation since The Shawshank Redemption (which isn’t really saying much, honestly) because of Flanagan’s ability to pay reverence to The Shining, without ever ripping it off, or even trying to live up to its impressively high standards. Instead, Flanagan tells a deeply personal story about personal and real demons and deep regret for the past that stands completely on its own.