Doctor Sleep takes all of the ideas and themes of King’s massive tome and turns them into riveting cinema.
Doctor Sleep is one hell of a movie. Director Mike Flanagan had a lot of hurdles to overcome. Doctor Sleep is a massive book, filled with difficult themes: isolation, despair, abuse, child predators, alcoholism, death, and soul-sucking psychic vampires. Not only that, but it is the sequel to The Shining, one of King’s best loved books. A book that saw an iconic film adaptation by the legendary Stanley Kubrick. Big shoes to fill, there.
Flanagan nails it. Doctor Sleep deftly weaves together all of the plots and themes of the novel while incorporating much of what made Kubrick’s film a masterpiece of horror. It might be time to update our Best Stephen King Movies list.
Doctor Sleep (2019)
Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) flees the ghosts of his abusive past, spiraling into violence and alcoholism like his psychotic father. His special power, the Shine, haunts him with supernatural visions of the dead. It also allows him to connect with others who have the gift. One particularly powerful child with the gift draws him to New Hampshire, where he eventually gets clean.
Nearly a decade passes before that child, Adra Stone (Kyleigh Curran) reaches out to him again. She has psychically witnessed a coven of soul-eating vampires murder another child who possessed the Shining…and they saw her watching. Now they are coming for her.
King packed Doctor Sleep with a lot themes and plots. Flanagan teases out the essential bits of these threads and weaves them back together into a fully formed narrative. There’s Danny’s alcoholism, Adra’s isolation, the Knot’s growing desperation to find victims. Each has its own ideas to develop.
It’s a lot to juggle, and many of the elements have markedly different styles and pace. Flanagan allows each to have room to flourish, while also moving the story forward in tandem. It’s hard to state how perfectly paced the film is; the story is so rich you feel like you’ve been immersed in it for days, but the structure is so well constructed that you feel like you’ve only been in your seat for an hour when the two and a half hour film ends.
Style for Miles.
With so many different pieces to work with, most films would feel like a jumble. Not Doctor Sleep. Each feels distinct, but part of the whole.
The retro sections perfectly recreate the look and feel of Kubrick’s The Shining, while informing the present events. Danny’s long, dark journey evolves from Kubrick’s psychological horror, incorporating many elements of the best Gothic ghost stories.
The sections about the Knot feel like a horrific vampire story (including some extremely disturbing scenes of violence against children, so be warned.) Abra’s gift and her fight with these creatures is surreal and powered by heady visuals that break reality like Inception.
The final arc reimagines Kubrick’s Shining incredibly effectively. It feels like a revelation; a template for how a property can call back to iconic work without feeling derivative or nostalgia driven. It all gets tied together by smart film making and great acting.
Children of Tragedy.
The cast for Doctor Sleep is fantastic, top to bottom. The cast who double Kubrick’s casting for The Shining are inspired. Carl Lumbly channels Scatman Crother’s mentor figure for Danny like we’re at a séance. Each member of the Knot is menacing and intriguing, from a new recruit played by Emily Alyn Lind, to the big bad Rose the Hat, played with eccentric charm and menace by Rebecca Ferguson. Jacob Tremblay plays a brief role, but is devastating. The kid gives his Room role a run for its money.
The main draws are Danny and Adra. Newcomer Kyliegh Curran is electric. She brings charm and energy to every scene. Ewan McGregor adds another iconic performance to his filmography. He is harrowing to watch as a broken Danny Torrance, and emotionally resonant as his character makes his journey. Where he’s asked to channel Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance, he adds thoughtful notes that really highlight the similarity and ultimate difference between Dan and his ill-fated father.
Doctor Sleep blew my expectations out of the water. Honestly, I think the reason the film has struggled with audiences so far is that the story (especially as communicated by the trailer) is extremely nebulous. It’s not until you’re in the story do all of the ideas and plots begin to weave together and make a deeper sense. But they do, they really, terrifically do.
Doctor Sleep is the story of childhood trauma. It is the story of accepting grief and death. Doctor Sleep is a ghost story. It is a vampire story. It is a story of passing the torch and finding peace at the end of a journey. Doctor Sleep is all of those, wonderfully wrought and richly evoked. And it’s more.