Film Review: Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep Poster

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has sat atop horror’s Mount Everest, like the Overlook itself, surveying all that has come after it for almost forty years.

A horror icon that is perhaps the most transcendent of the genre; it is a horror movie filled with genuine dread and nightmarish images, constructed meticulously by one of cinema’s true auteurs. To invoke its name in horror movies since, or to emulate has always seemed like folly.

To create a direct sequel would seem like madness. Doctor Sleep (based on Stephen King’s 2013 book) does just that. We follow Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) as he struggles through life with his remarkable gift.

Haunted, figuratively, by the sins of his father he lost to The Overlook as a child, and much more literally by the ghosts he had long thought left behind.

Across the country, a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) is becoming increasingly aware of her own powerful ‘Shine’ and is attracting the attention of a group of travelling energy vampires, hungry for their next victim.

Doctor Sleep is a movie that succeeds in spite of its almost impossible ambition. A sequel to one of the greatest movies ever made, Doctor Sleep makes the sensible decision to deliver something that is tonally different from its predecessor and avoids a lot of that film’s iconography (until a thrilling finale that could only end in one location).

Director Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, Gerald’s Game) delivers a movie that aches with sadness from it’s opening moments. Flanagan is an experienced horror-hand these days, and his work in Netflix’s terrific The Haunting of Hill House has shown him to be adept at building palpable tension while navigating a plot that doesn’t lose its focus on character.

Dan Torrance is front and centre in our tale, and the film is interested in the effects of childhood trauma and the way that this informs the people we become. And given Dan Torrance’s childhood, there is plenty of trauma to unpack. Ewan McGregor has always been a steady, dependable actor throughout his career, but recently it feels like he has really upped his game through some very smart script choices. Christopher Robin, Trainspotting 2 and his fantastic dual performances in Fargo all point to an actor at the top of his game and pushing himself creatively.

This continues here with a nuanced and touching performance as a man who has spent so much of his life being lost that there is doubt he will ever be able to truly find himself again. I for one, can’t wait to see what McGregor does next.

Kyliegh Curran is solid as young Abra, delivering a confident and unsettling performance as a young girl with power beyond our understanding. Another young actor, Jacob Tremblay, plays an early target of our movie’s villains and delivers a small but devastating performance.

As iconic as elevators full of blood and snow-filled mazes may be, this film delivers a much more brutal and visceral moment that will stay with you long after the credits roll. Which brings us to the films secret weapon…

The Shining had an unknowable and omniscient villain in The Overlook hotel; a dark and ancient evil that inhabited the very walls of the building, filling every frame of the movie with dread and fear. Doctor Sleep presents us with The True Knot, a faction of travelling monsters who eat anything that ‘shines’, but have a particular hunger for children. And at the head of this cabal is Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose the Hat. A nightmare made of flesh, Rose is a villain that is as sadistic as she is powerful, and fills every moment she is on screen with bottomless malice and darkness.

Much like Pennywise the Clown, another of King’s terrifying monsters, Rose the Hat tunes into a primal childhood fear of ‘the stranger’. She is bewitching, alluring and utterly, utterly horrifying.

The film wisely plots its own course and avoids trying to emulate Kubrick’s movie. Where The Shining was mostly restricted to one location, Doctor Sleep paints on a larger, broader canvass.

Our story travels the length and breadth of the country over the span of almost thirty years, from wide open beaches and forests to the deepest recess of the human mind. The film has some wonderfully trippy sequences as our gifted characters begin to explore the strengths and limits of their abilities.

And because the film is focussed on doing its own thing, when it finally leans into its predecessor’s settings and characters, it feels both earned and exciting. There are possibly one or two missteps along the way.

Our main characters perhaps take a little too long in getting on screen together, separated as they are by geographical concerns. And while the recreations of famous places and moments from the original are remarkably well observed, your mileage with them may depend on how much of a Kubrick aficionado you are.

The film does have some brilliant third act reveals that to spoil here would be unfair. Doctor Sleep is a film that largely works on its own merits and is a worthy rival to It: Chapters 1 and 2 for the best King adaptation of the past twenty years. A horror film that places its characters front and centre, chock full of surprises and terrific moments, Mike Flanagan has delivered the seemingly impossible; a deserving sequel to one of the finest films ever made.

By Hugh McStay at The London Horror Society

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