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Doctor Sleep

Familiarity breeds complacency, and precious little kills horror faster than a sense of complacency. This is a huge problem in a genre so thoroughly dominated by James Wan and Steven Blum, or derivatives and knockoffs thereof. We need horror filmmakers who play by different rules. This is one of many reasons why Mike Flanagan is so terribly underrated.

This is the man who previously gave us Ouija: Origin of Evil, a prequel nobody asked for to a movie nobody wanted. Yet Flanagan somehow turned that into one of the best horror films of that year. And this was after he had already given us Oculus, a wildly creative and thoroughly discombobulating mindfuck of terror.

So here’s Doctor Sleep, in which Flanagan adapts Stephen King’s sequel to “The Shining”. This is a dicey proposition for a few reasons, not least of which is that King quite famously hated the iconic Kubrick adaptation of “The Shining” and its radically different ending. So of course King wrote a sequel to the novel iteration, flying in the face of the better-known film iteration.

In the end, what exactly do we have here? A sequel to the novel, a sequel to the film, or something that tries to find common ground between them? Well, let’s take a look.

For those just tuning in, Doctor Sleep (both the book and the film adaptation) catches up with Danny Torrance (now played by Ewan McGregor) a good 40 years after the events of “The Shining”. That’s more than enough time for all of the other surviving characters to have died off in the interim, so it doesn’t really make a difference to this story with regards to who died and when.

That said, the movie includes several visual flourishes in the opening credits, making it perfectly clear that this was built to follow the Kubrick film. This is most especially obvious in the flashback scenes that feature Roger Dale Floyd, Alex Essoe, Carl Lumbly, and Henry Thomas, all deliberately cast and directed to impersonate the leads from the previous movie. That’s a tall and intimidating order by any metric, and I salute the actors for taking it on so gamely. I feel I should also commend the filmmakers for going this route instead of putting CGI masks on them with the Deepfake technology that’s so in vogue right now — that would’ve been too easy and probably more than a little emotionally distancing.

(Side note: Speaking of the original actors, keep an eye out for Danny Lloyd himself, who graciously appears for a brief speaking cameo.)

But of course that leads to the big question: What happened to the Overlook Hotel? Well, because we’re following the film version of events, the hotel did not blow up like it did in the book. Instead, it’s been sitting boarded up and abandoned since the events of 40 years ago.

In the novels’ version of events, the climax of “Doctor Sleep” takes place on the grounds where the Overlook used to sit. Without getting too heavy into spoilers, the climax of Doctor Sleep takes place in the actual Overlook Hotel. Obviously, this carries a lot more emotional heft, as our nostalgia for the film dovetails beautifully with Danny’s own childhood nostalgia and trauma. Even better (or possibly worse, depending on your perspective with regards to the ending of the Kubrick film), this allows the filmmakers to neatly and respectfully tie up the loose ends left over from the Kubrick film. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Getting to the plot, Danny has spent the past few decades trying to keep his psychic Shine in check. The bad news is, this involves a whole lotta drugs and alcohol. The good news is that with the help of a kind stranger (Billy Freeman, played by Cliff Curtis), Danny is eventually able to get his life back on straight and set himself up in a small New England town. The even better news is that working so hard to suppress his Shine very probably saved his life.

Our chief antagonist calls herself “Rose the Hat”, played by Rebecca Ferguson. She’s one of several Shining people in a group called the True Knot, whose powers and quasi-eternal youth are powered by hunting and consuming the souls of others who Shine. Unfortunately for them — for unknown reasons — quality souls have been getting much fewer and further between over the past few decades.

Enter Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl with a prodigious Shine like nothing that’s been seen in the past hundred years or more. Naturally, she attracts the attention of the True Knot, who quickly decides that she’s too attractive a target and too powerful to live. Of course Abra quickly proves herself more than powerful enough to repel the True Knot one at a time, but she can’t defend herself against all of them at once. Thus Danny has to reluctantly come out of retirement and dust off his powers to come help her out.

Of course I want to give all due credit to the cast. In particular, Ewan McGregor is so far into this wheelhouse with this role, he performs admirably and makes it look effortless. Recognition is also due to Rebecca Ferguson, who continues to steal all the scenes and chew all the set pieces as a beguiling bitch (see also: The Greatest Showman, The Kid Who Would Be King, and MIB: International).

We also get a pretty solid performance out of Kyliegh Curran, though of course Flanagan’s uncanny skill with child actors has long been a trademark of his. Honorable mentions are due to Cliff Curtis and Emily Alyn Lind in thoroughly impressive supporting turns. And again, I sincerely commend Roger Dale Floyd, Alex Essoe, Carl Lumbly, and Henry Thomas just for throwing themselves into such instantly recognizable characters. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jacob Tremblay or Bruce Greenwood, both rock-solid talents whose appearances here are memorable yet all too brief.

But of course the real star here is Mike Flanagan.

Once again, Flanagan excels at creating mind-blowing reversals and fantastic psychological horror, all with virtually zero jump scares. The creepy instrumentation in the score helps a lot (the percussive heartbeat motif is my personal favorite example), ditto for the sound design in general. (Check out the subtle reverb when the dead characters talk.) And then of course we have the visuals — from the psychedelic use of Shine to the painstaking recreation of the Overlook, the visuals in this film are at once gleaming with polish and creepy as fuck. Hell, that’s not even getting started on all the beautifully creative touches in the camera movements or the editing.

But above all else, what really powers the horror in this movie is everything else happening around it. There’s a lot about fathers and sons, here carried over and continued from the previous film in a powerful and heartbreaking way. Mortality is another prominent theme explored in multiple poignant and creative ways. And then of course we have King’s recurring themes about alcoholism, along with statements about courage and individuality that come packaged with the whole central concept of the Shine.

Throughout the whole movie, you’ve got the themes, the visuals, the world-building, the character development, and so many other elements working together in perfect harmony to build on top of each other. This makes for an experience so wildly immersive that of course the scarier elements are going to work perfectly.

Unfortunately, this comes with the drawback of a 150-minute runtime. And sweet mercy, I could feel every minute ticking by.

The excessive runtime is definitely a problem, as it was a problem with It: Chapter Two earlier this year. But (again, as with both chapters of It), I have to marvel that the running time was kept even that low, considering how much extraneous crap got cut from the source material. Furthermore, looking back at how much I enjoyed the film, how much I got out of it, and how many scenes were the setup to some great payoff, I’m not entirely sure what I’d cut. Even the most extraneous scenes in this film provided invaluable world-building, helping to establish the rules and the stakes at play. Hell, Danny’s whole tour of the Overlook is objectively too long and uneventful, but it’s so deeply compelling to watch all the thoughts and emotions going through his head that I didn’t want to miss a single frame of it.

It’s really quite a miracle that Doctor Sleep works as well as it does, and that it works at all should be proof enough that Mike Flanagan needs more work immediately. While the runtime is undeniably long, I was so taken in by the actors, the character development, the visuals, and the themes at play that I found myself thoroughly entertained from start to finish. Major kudos are especially due for acting as a sequel to the Kubrick film in a way that’s at once respectful to the film and the source material.

If you’ve got the constitution to sit through a two-and-a-half hour movie, definitely see it now. Otherwise, don’t miss out on this one when it hits home video.

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