**1/2 out of ****
(for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use)
Released: November 8, 2019
Runtime: 151 minutes
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Emily Alyn Lind, Zahn McClarnon, Cliff Curtis, Alex Essoe, Carl Lumbly, Bruce Greenwood
The scariest thing about Doctor Sleep is that, as a sequel, it makes the original less interesting, not more.
Fans of the Stephen King novel or its literary predecessor The Shining may feel differently (full disclosure: I’ve read neither); horror diehards may also leave more satisfied. But for anyone who admires Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining more so for its cinematic prowess than for its genre milieu (King didn’t; he notoriously hated it) may find Doctor Sleep lacking by comparison.
It would be unrealistic to expect director Mike Flanagan to equal Kubrick’s feat. Even so, when filmmakers dare to embrace the challenge of revisiting a masterpiece, they accept a high bar. Flanagan isn’t able to reach it, although I suspect it may be fidelity to King’s book that’s holding him back.
As a boy in The Shining, Danny Torrance watched his father go insane and embark on a murdering rampage, all while secluded at the high-altitude mountain-set Overlook Hotel during a ferocious blizzard. Doctor Sleep (referring to Torrance) picks up over thirty years later to show an adult Danny (Ewan McGregor) whose life has spiraled into drugs, sex, and vagrancy since he and his mother escaped that terrifying tragedy.
He’s also still burdened with a “shining” – a.k.a. a supernatural telepathic sixth sense – that he still doesn’t know how to harness in a positive way.
If Doctor Sleep had been focused on examining an overdue redemption for Danny through the filter of a relationship he forms with a teenage girl, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who also possesses the shining, then Flanagan – whose bona fides are on display in the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House – would’ve given himself a better foundation for crafting a psychological character study.
The source material he’s working from, however, simply won’t allow it, no would its author have ever granted Flanagan a Kubrickian liberty.
King piles on a whole other force of supernatural horror to collide with the shining mythos and it proves too much. It’s not even particularly fascinating. Rebecca Ferguson (the last two Mission: Impossible films) plays Rose the Hat, a leader of occultic gypsies whose dark magic works as an unholy grail, sucking the life out of innocent youth.
They capture, contain, and live off of that stolen essence for as long as they wish, through allocated doses, so long as they also avoid lethal accidents (the passage of time can’t kill them, but weapons and violence will).
These soul-leeches target kids (like Abra) who have the shining. For Rose and her band of quasi-immortals, the spiritual essence of the shining (which they dub “the steam”) is the steroid equivalent of what they need; Abra’s is so powerful it’s like winning the lottery.
Adding this new element and all of its complexities is like affixing a whole other story and legend on top of the existing one. Doing so reduces Doctor Sleep to a genre plot machine and hodgepodge of horror tropes, leaving little-to-no room for a brooding, crescendoing arc of psychological nuance or depth. Symbolism (a big part of what made Kubrick’s film resonate) is also abridged, with subtext often becoming text.
The thrills here aren’t cheap (thank you, production values!) but they are routine, leaving little to captivate the non-horror fan; you either like these conventions or you don’t. Ferguson remains a magnetic screen presence but it’s in the service of an uninspired, one-dimensional evil archetype. Likewise, McGregor and young Curran are capable of much more than what this over-plotted phantasm keeps restricting them to.
The first half — which is forced to unpack this new mythology while establishing how it intersects the original one, all while introducing a load of new characters along the way — is the biggest chore to get through. The heavy lifting it requires is largely responsible for the film’s two-and-a-half hour run time.
As a battle of strategy unfolds between the shining duo and these malevolent mystics, Doctor Sleep plays like the Stephen King version of a CBS procedural. Danny and Adra are akin to a Mulder and Scully that are actually empowered by the metaphysics they investigate, and the story comes off like the pilot episode of a series in which this odd-but-endearing couple team up to use their shining powers to solve mysteries and stop paranormal predators.
Doctor Sleep actually gets exciting for a hot minute – well, for an entire sequence, actually, involving a showdown in the woods – as the momentum kicks up a few notches and the premise really starts to work on its own terms. That intensity and intrigue, however, is all too brief as the final act lapses into fan service appropriation…which, essentially, defines what Doctor Sleep is: a dull reflection of something that used to shine.