Saturday, October 3, 2020

31 Days of Horror: Doctor Sleep

Directed by Mike Flanagan
2019. Rated R, 152 minutes.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Zahn McClarnon, Bruce Greenwood, Carl Lumbly, Emily Alyn Lind, Jocelin Donahue, Alex Essoe, Carel Struycken, Zackary Momoh

It's pretty commonly known that most the books by Stephen King exist in the same universe. The vast majority of them take place in Maine and they reference each other. Shawshank Prison shows up a number of times, for example. The most tightly wound of these books, however, are the ones that deal with that special psychic ability the author has dubbed "shining." Even so, direct sequels are something in short supply, in both his writing and the movies based on it. Famously, we've recently gotten the two It movies, but as their title suggests, they're both based on the same book. Doctor Sleep is something of a rarity, a sequel based on a Stephen King novel, that itself is a sequel to another of his novels that was also turned into a movie. To make matters more interesting, King has gone on record numerous times about his disdain for what Stanley Kubrick did to that original novel, The Shining, even though it's widely regarded as a horror classic.

The director of Doctor Sleep, Mike Flanagan, has been making a name for himself over the last few years as one of the new masters of the genre. Oculus, Hush, and Ouija: Origin of Evil, were all very well received, as well as his TV series The Haunting of Hill House. Perhaps most importantly for this project, he also directed one of the more underrated films of the recent resurgence in Stephen King's cinematic universe - Gerald's Game. That film was faithful to the novel to a fault, keeping at least one plot element that could clearly could've been left out, in my opinion. My opinion doesn't matter on that front. I'm sure this thrilled King. Flanagan probably endeared himself to the author even more when he was given the reigns to Doctor Sleep by saying his film would seek to reconcile the differences between Kubrick's The Shining and King's novel of the same name.

Without having read either the two novels in question (shame on me) I'd have to guess the reconciling starts right at the beginning. Doctor Sleep kicks off with a flashback to what happened in the months immediately after the events of The Shining. After that, we meet Rose the Hat (Ferguson). She can sense psychic ability, or the shining, in people far and near. She is basically a walking, breathing Cerebro (see the X-Men movies). Rose also heads up a traveling cult who consumes whoever she finds and buries them whenever and wherever they get done with them. Most of them are kids. Don't get too worried when I say consumes, by the way. I don't mean in a nasty, cannibalistic way. They feed on the essence of these people, so nothing gory happens. In fact, though it's rated R, this plays like a PG-13 flick. We then get back to Danny (McGregor), but as a grown man understandably dealing with a lot of emotional issues. In fact, he's a full-blown, meeting attending alcoholic just like his dear old dad. Abra Stone (Curran) is the plot. She is a young girl with immense shining ability. Rose says she hasn't felt that much power in decades. Her and her group mobilize to go after Abra. In turn, Abra, reaches out, er, shines out to Danny for help.

The movie is at its most fascinating when we're watching Danny try to glue the pieces of his life back together. It's not so much horror, at that point, as it is a character study of a person who's had to deal with the aftermath of a horrific situation. Ewan McGregor instantly gives us a character we want to hug and protect, from himself as well as others. He's not just trying to drown his sorrows in brown liquor, but suffocate his own ability, too. It's been wreaking havoc on him throughout the entirety of his existence. He's reached his breaking point, gone beyond it, and is trying to claw his way back to whatever he thinks normalcy is. McGregor displays all the anger, frustration, and most frightening, weariness of it all. With no purpose, other than existing as a person he doesn't want to be, we're not sure if he will make it through okay. He seems bound to put himself in harm's way as if he's working up the gumption to do something to himself, but hasn't quite gotten there. Abra gives him purpose. Though she draws him into her portion of the film, he sees her as someone he must try to help. He does not want her dealing with the things he has. He knows the pain of watching everyone around you die and has spent nearly four decades in the grasp of survivor's guilt and whatever else being able to shine might psychologically do to a person. 

Unfortunately, the film fails at the only thing it tries to do in regards to Abra. It wants desperately for us to see her as Danny sees her: a damsel in distress. It puts her in a number of situations where Danny has to come up with something to rescue her. The problem is that no matter what happens we know what Rose tells us early on. Abra is ridiculously powerful. We have the feeling that she could really end this threat all on her own without breaking much of a sweat. It's the Superman problem. When the most unstoppable force in your story is the good guy most things that put them in danger come across as overly contrived. I never got the idea that Abra really needs Danny, except as a mentor, maybe. Two other things don't help. Her and her family life are glossed over to the point we don't really care about her parents. We care that what happens to them affects her, but not actually for them. Also, and this might be me being a bit silly, her name is too spot on. It's taken from the word abracadabra, and as that suggests, she's quite literally magic. 

This cuts the film into halves that don't always play nice with each other. The side about Danny is engrossing on an emotional level. It might never go down the path of horror, but it organically creates empathy. The other side is, more or less, a superhero origin story that deals with horror elements. This is the more fun, action-packed side of the film, but it rarely engages us on anything deeper than a visual level. Some cool things happen. They look nice, but that's about it. It becomes two films fighting for the same screen. More often than not, the superhero side wins out.

Our villain, Rose the Hat, is meant to be the tie that binds both sides. To her credit, Rebecca Ferguson gives the film's best performance after McGregor out of the scraps of what she's given. She's intriguing and creepy as a personality, but is little more than evil just for the sake of being evil. Early on, this is fine. When it becomes apparent that we'll never get anything more, however, we lose interest. It doesn't help that she's chasing someone far more powerful than herself. I get that acquiring that kind of power is attractive to her, but it also seems pretty impossible. If someone in a film is going to try to do the impossible, it better be someone we can root for. We cannot root for Rose.

We can root for Danny. He is trying to do something impossible before meeting Abra or Rose, but the film plucks him out of the mire and drops him into their world. We should be able to root for Abra. We do, superficially. She's not only the good guy, but a child in danger. Unfortunately, the film doesn't understand how to give us a deeper connection to her. We should fear Rose. Instead, we think she's a bad person, but she's also pretty clearly in over her head. In spite of all this, the craftsmanship on display makes Doctor Sleep a watchable film, but not particularly memorable. Stephen King may dislike Kubrick's The Shining for any number of valid reasons, but Flanagan inverting it doesn't quite work as well as he'd hoped. Kubrick made a human film with supernatural elements. Flanagan gives us a supernatural film with human elements. Fun and sometimes cool, but not nearly as much to dig into. 

Click here for my review of The Shining.


  1. I liked this a little more than you did. I like the work Cliff Curtis does here, but that's not a surprise since I tend to like Cliff Curtis. And while I very much get your point about Rose the Hat, I do like that she is very much evil--there's no chance of empathizing with her, but it makes it very easy to root against her, and morally, the film lines up very easily and clearly. Sometimes, that works for me.

    I also get the point that Abra is wildly more powerful than Rose and the rest of the True Knot, but she's unpolished, and that's where the danger lies. Rose isn't as strong, but is canny and dangerous, and so that threat is very real.

  2. I am planning to watch this film this month though with low expectations as I know it won't reach the heights of The Shining.

  3. I have not seen this film and wonder if I should because the first one is so good despite what Steven says about that movie.

  4. I liked this one overall. It got a bit long, but I was legitimately so uncomfortable during Jacob Tremblay's scene. That was terrifying.