Review: Doctor Sleep Successfully Continues the Menace and Terror of The Shining
It takes a lot of courage to follow up The Shining, both the novel by Stephen King and its adaptation into film by Stanley Kubrick. Regardless of how much King hates Kubrick’s version, both are seminal works in literature and cinema; The Shining has cemented its place in pop culture such that many of its characters, phrases, and imagery are iconic. In 2013, King followed up The Shining with Doctor Sleep, which has now been adapted to film by horror film director Mike Flanagan.
Flanagan ambitiously tries to integrate Kubrick’s vision into his adaptation of Doctor Sleep, stating in interviews that the sequel is set in Kubrick’s “cinematic universe.” He picks up where The Shining left off in 1980 and tries to retcon King’s biggest problems with the film in subtle ways while translating the novel for the big screen. It’s a tall order, but fortunately, Flanagan is up to the task and manages to craft a film that’s both terrifying and satisfying.
Ewan McGregor plays the grown-up Danny Torrance; now going by Dan, he’s managed to suppress his psychic abilities, dubbed the Shining, with copious amounts of alcohol. He’s fallen into the same cycle of violence and alcoholism as his father had and tries to find a way out. He eventually makes his way to Frazier, New Hampshire, where he settles down and finds that his powers aid his work in hospice care as he eases those who are dying into peaceful, eternal sleep. Though this is never mentioned directly in the film, this is where the moniker Doctor Sleep comes from.
Meanwhile, a young girl named Abra Stone (newcomer Kyliegh Curran) awakens her Shine and begins to communicate and form a friendship with Dan. Flanagan elects to omit some key revelations in the book about the relationship between the two, sidestepping an unnecessarily complicated backstory, and it works out for the better.
Rebecca Ferguson is the sinister Rose the Hat, leader of the True Knot, a coterie of vampire-like beings who feed on the life essence of children with the Shining, which they dub “steam.” Fear and pain purify steam, so the cult engages in the ritual torture of its victims and feeds on their essence as they die. The serial child murderers are the antagonists of the film and once they become aware of Abra’s tremendous power, she becomes their primary target.
The game of cat and mouse between Rose and Abra is a different kind of psychological horror as we leave the ravenous ghosts of the Overlook Hotel (not so far) behind. It’s refreshing and exciting to see the tables turned now and then as Abra herself conjures some disturbing imagery in her psychic battle against Rose.
Doctor Sleep establishes the ghosts from The Shining as real, malevolent entities and not merely a figment of Jack Torrance’s fractured mind. The first act of the film follows Dan as he comes to terms with his trauma and learns how to literally lock away the ghosts of his past with the help of his old friend Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly). It also depicts the Overlook Hotel as an entity in itself, a truly haunted nexus more in line with King’s novel.
But ghosts take a back seat to the menace of the True Knot, who embody the essence of King’s horror. From It to Pet Sematary to The Shining, the author foists death and suffering upon children in a way that many writers shy away from. A pivotal, horrifying moment in the film has Abra witness the slaughter of a young victim, alerting the True Knot to her presence and setting the chain of events in motion.
Flanagan delivers closure and catharsis, revisiting old scenes and places that were left unresolved in The Shining. Doctor Sleep pays homage to everything iconic about Kubrick’s film while gently easing it into King’s intended vision. Jack Torrance’s history of violence and alcoholism is explained and he gets some form of redemption as his son breaks free of the cycle in his honor. The ghosts of the Overlook, many of whom weren’t in the book, appear to deliver chills so familiar it’s almost comforting. The old lady in the tub, the twins, the deluge of blood, the hedge maze, and the indelible “redrum,” among others, bring us back full circle and Flanagan even manages to neatly tie them in with the new antagonists of the film.
Unlike many sequels that feel unnecessary, Doctor Sleep expands on The Shining mythos and gives an extremely satisfying ending to a story that, although terrifying, sometimes felt somewhat empty and unresolved. The introduction of the True Knot reveals more horrors in the world of The Shining and Rose the Hat and her crew are some of the most delightfully sinister characters, giving Abra and Dan—two extremely powerful psychics—worthy and terrifying adversaries.
Doctor Sleep blends traditional horror and macabre imagery with an exploration of the darker aspects of the human psyche. King’s fascination with the powerful and frightening potential of the human mind (e.g., telekinesis in Carrie and pyrokinesis in Firestarter) is its own genre of thriller and is enjoyable to watch not merely for the scares but for its theme. Early on Dan advises Abra to hide her Shine, warning her that using it is like a beacon for hungry, ghoulish things, but the resulting mayhem of these terrors coming after our heroes is such tremendous fun that it’s not unreasonable to prod Abra and Dan to shine on and shine bright.
It’s a brave endeavor to follow The Shining, and Doctor Sleep is unlikely to become as iconic or memorable. But it is extremely satisfying in a way that The Shining could never be. If the end of Kubrick’s film left viewers with the feeling of relief of finally getting away, Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep will make you want to return.