A weekend after “Terminator: Dark Fate” continued a modern trend of “true” sequels we get a new movie that continues a different trend, overdue sequels to classic films. Like “Blade Runner 2049” before it, “Doctor Sleep” is a the sequel to one of the grestest movies ever made, in this case Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece “The Shining”. Based on Stephen King’s sequel book and released nearly forty years after its predecessor “Doctor Sleep” had the tremendous task of not only satisfying fans of the Kubrick classic while also justifying its own existence. Exploring the life of an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) who has suppressed his Shining abilities through alcoholism after being tormented by the fallout of his experiences at the Overlook Hotel, “Doctor Sleep” see Torrance forced to face his powers and his demons once again when a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) who has even stronger Shining abilities becomes the target of a ruthless cult called the True Knot and their leader Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). With accomplished horror director Mike Flanagan (“Oculus”, “Hush”, “Gerald’s Game”) at the helm, does “Doctor Sleep” live up to the lofty expectations? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “Doctor Sleep”.
So Stanley Kubrick this is not, but that doesn’t mean “Doctor Sleep” is a bad sequel. After all, it’s hard, maybe near impossible, to replicate the artistry of the infamously tedious and meticulous director who has only ever had one other sequel to his work made in the past in the form of “2010: The Year We Make Contact”. “Doctor Sleep” is an interesting movie that tries very hard to replicate the magic of Kubrick’s work while also doing its own thing and in a lot of ways this shines through (see what I did there) but in others it holds the films back from being ever better. “Doctor Sleep” directly references events of “The Shining” as it explores how Dan Torrance has dealt with his trauma and where his life has taken him. It also introduces a new, memorable character with the Shine called Abra and a team of new villains in the form of the True Knot cult that help give the movie an identity all its own, separate from “The Shining” but still within its continuity. To that end “Doctor Sleep” is the kind of sequel you can enjoy on its own without ever having seen “The Shining” but also serves as a fitting continuation of the previous film’s story that answers a lot of question the previous film left behind. Its imperfections come from its inability to both honor and build on its predecessor at the same time seamlessly.
I’ll admit a lot of the issues I had with this movie are very nitpicky, but it should be noted that as a reviewer and a viewer I couldn’t separate this film from “The Shining” so unfortunately it was destined to be compared directly to its legendary predecessor. “Doctor Sleep” is not the same kind of experience as “The Shining” serving more as a thriller with horror elements than a slow burn haunted house horror feature. Because of this the pacing, tone and style are handled in a much less meticulous manner and it shows. That’s not to deny credit to director Mike Flanagan though. The accomplished modern horror director clearly has respect for the source material and delivers a competently made, engaging, and unsettling sequel. But the most prominent errors in “Doctor Sleep” are the simplest of ones where more tender moments, such as Danny using his Shining ability to help a patient deal with impending death, feel rushed through while other moments are brilliantly patient and build to the next scene. Other times still the film switches from its more carefully constructed and slower pace to the faster, more thrilling pace of a typical modern genre film. It makes for a mildly jarring experience but not in the best way. Kubrick’s movie was similar but his filming style was deliberately designed to replicate the discomfort of his characters. Here it doesn;t feel like these jarring shifts from scene to scene and tone to tone are on purpose or necessary so I can only assume they are errors in how the movie was edited or written. I also wasn’t very impressed by the film’s attempts to recreate characters and moments from the original film with stand ins as it’s very difficult to see anyone but the original cast in these roles making the reshoots of classic scenes, as necessary as they were, feel more gimmicky where using the original material would have been better.
But, with that said “Doctor Sleep” rises above its shortcomings by offering us a worthy sequel with plenty of substance and memorable characters to justify its existence. Several themes are present throughout the film that tackle very human fears and emotions in a horror setting effectively. Child abduction, alcoholism, PTSD, cultism, mental illness and especially the ideas of closure and mortality are all touched on throughout the narrative with many of these ideas being represented in Dan Torrance’s struggles with his past traumas and how to properly embrace his Shining abilities with a committed and carefully crafted performance by Ewan McGregor helping lead the way. The addition of the new character Abra, played by a charming Kyliegh Curran, offers Danny a chance to step into the mentor seat to teach a new Shiner how to handle her powers which is part of some neat world building and exploration of different special abilities that takes the Shining concept beyond just Danny’s mind and the walls of the Overlook. I have to say though the one character that really stood out for me was Rose the Hat who is the main villain and leader of the True Knot cult. Rebecca Ferguson plays the charming hippie-like baddy so well I’d call it my all-time favorite performance by her to date. She’s just so much fun to watch and her character is well defined as are her motivations. She’s spunky, vile, charming and dangerous all at the same time making her easily one of the year’s best and most threatening villains and possibly one of the best big screen Stephen King bad guys to date.
We have to remember too that “Doctor Sleep” is, in fact, a horror movie so is it scary? Well that depends on what you’re looking for in a horror but there is something for everyone in this film. As I already stated “Doctor Sleep” is more thriller than straight up horror, but when it goes over the deep end into horror territory it delivers. One specific scene involving a victim of the True Knot, played by a scene stealing Jacob Tremblay, perfectly captures the terrifying lengths that the cult goes to reach their goals. It’s also an uncomfortable look at the terror associated with child abduction making it the bloodiest and most unsettling moment in the entire film. The slow burn horror approach borrowed from the original film is also effective with minimal jump scares (I actually only counted one true jump scare) incorporated into the film while atmosphere and tension-building elongated scenes make for some fun creepy moments that are more in your face than the first film but suffice in sending chills down your spine. “Doctor Sleep” is a fun mix of different approaches to what makes a horror film “scary” blending imagery, slow burn elements, and blood-soaked kills to kind of run the gamut of the genre’s many different kinds of terror. While this contributed to the pacing and tonal issues I touched on earlier I can’t help but respect how effectively all of these elements work in the same movie where other genre pieces would only rely on one or a couple of these tropes and probably use them ineffectively.
While “Doctor Sleep” suffers from a sever lack of Kubrick and has trouble finding its footing from time to time there’s a lot to appreciate from a sequel that, for better or worse, was always destined to be compared to its beloved predecessor and Kubrick’s fine craftsmanship. “Doctor Sleep” makes numerous connections to the previous movie but also works as its own self-contained horror offering bringing forth some fun and memorable characters brought to life by great performances and a story that touches on some very real and human terrors, some more universally relevant than others but all very effective. While it’s near impossible not to compare this movie to “The Shining”, when taken on its own “Doctor Sleep” is a fun, engaging, and at times even thought provoking ride from start to finish. It’s probably unfair to hold any film to the same standards as Kubrick’s immortal works no matter the connection, but in the end “Doctor Sleep” proves that in the right hands even sequels to some of the most treasured movies of all time can have merit and purpose. In the end “Doctor Sleep” serves as a worthy and effective, if imperfect, sequel to one of the greatest horror movies of all time.