Doctor Sleep Movie Review
Written by Ren Zelen
Released by Warner Bros. UK
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Written by Mike Flanagan, based on the novel by Stephen King
2019, 151 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
Released on 31st October 2019
Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat
Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance
Carel Struycken as Grampa Flick
Emily Alyn Lind as Snakebite Andi
Zahn McClarnon as Crow Daddy
It is hard to imagine the stress of taking on a project which has to satisfy both Stephen King, the most successful horror author in living memory, and the estate of the acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. That is exactly what director Mike Flanagan had to contend with when he agreed to take on the film adaptation of Doctor Sleep, King’s 2013 ‘sequel’ to The Shining.
During the Q&A which preceded the screening, Flanagan indicated that King had at first refused to give permission to have his novel filmed, having notoriously hated Kubrick’s version of The Shining. However, after hearing Flanagan pitch his vision for Doctor Sleep, King changed his mind. The fact that the writer had thought Flanagan’s adaptation of his apparently unfilmable Gerald's Game was "terrific" and that his Haunting of Hill House was "a work of genius" may have influenced his ultimate decision.
Flanagan shared his anxiety at having to sit next to King at a private screening of the film, because, "When Steve doesn’t like something, he is not shy about letting you know about it!" He experienced further apprehension when he screened the movie for representatives of the Kubrick estate but mercifully, they too considered it sufficiently respectful to the legacy of their esteemed relative.
Once Warner Bros lifted the embargo for social media, early reactions to Doctor Sleep began flooding the internet. Flanagan must have felt mightily relieved for the third time as response to the film proved to be predominantly positive, with much praise for the performances of Rebecca Ferguson as the sinister Rose the Hat and newcomer Kyliegh Curran. However, for those not familiar with the book it is important to stress that Doctor Sleep is a different kind of story to The Shining, although it is an expansion of that world and its themes.
Flanagan’s film focuses on an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who has struggled with the memory of his terrifying childhood trauma at the hands of his alcoholic father and the malign influence of the Overlook Hotel.
The starving ghosts from the Overlook still haunt him, but he has been taught by his old friend Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) to trap them in ‘lockboxes’ in a secret part of his mind.
In an effort to block out his shining, Danny seeks oblivion in alcohol. When he hits rock bottom, he impulsively gets on a bus to another town where he might find a new start. Fortunately, he is soon befriended by good Samaritan Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) who persuades him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and to start to rebuild his life.
Years later we find Danny is successfully sober, if still fragile, and working in a hospice. Here he has earned the nickname of Doctor Sleep as he discovers that his psychic Shining abilities can be used to comfort and ease terminally ill patients in their final moments.
In the attic room where Danny lives, he is sometimes contacted by a benevolent pen pal who writes little messages on his blackboard. He has been sensed by a very young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who has exceptionally strong supernatural abilities, much like Danny’s.
When Abra turns fifteen her powers become stronger and more focussed, and she begins to be plagued by visions of children who are being bewitched and abducted by an attractive but sinister woman known as Rose the Hat (a fierce Rebecca Ferguson).
Rose is the leader of an ancient, itinerant cult called The True Knot. They track, torture and kill innocents so that they can feed on the life force and psychic abilities of youngsters gifted with The Shine. They call this provision The Steam. (Be warned – the portrayal of their feeding ritual gives rise to the most upsetting and horrifying scene in the film).
When they set their sights on the juicy ‘shine-steam’ that Abra’s powers offer, the girl reaches out to Danny for help. In order to keep them both safe, Danny must finally return to the place he most fears, prise open the doors he has kept closed and plunge back into the nightmare he's been trying to forget.
Fans of the novel of Doctor Sleep may point out that in the book Dan and Abra revisit the site of the hotel which was burned down at the end of The Shining, but in Flanagan's film Dan returns to the hotel itself – a dilapidated but still standing recreation of Kubrick's original vision. It’s a change approved by King and provides a treat for fans of Kubrick’s film.
Flanagan admitted that he spent days obsessing over every frame of Kubrick’s film in preparation for Doctor Sleep and, having access to Kubrick’s original blueprints, has meticulously recreated not only the sets from The Overlook, but also a few of its iconic moments.
With his film adaptation, Flanagan took on writing, directing and editing duties. In doing so he has managed to successfully meld aspects of Kubrick’s vision and King’s story. He recreates King’s emotional elements – his facility with character, family trauma and psychological damage, while also conveying the nerve-shredding dread that was present in Kubrick’s film.
The director stated that he felt he must honour Kubrick’s distaste for jump scares - “We used a lot of the lessons that Kubrick taught us about how to do a psychological thriller…in a way that is more about suffocating atmosphere and tension than it is about the kind of traditional scares as we understand them today.” In his attempt to reconcile King and Kubrick, he has seasoned our nostalgia with a good pinch of nervous strain.
Flanagan was at pains to insist during the Q&A that his Doctor Sleep should be seen more as an homage to The Shining rather than a sequel. His choice was not to try to imitate Kubrick, ‘as that would be impossible’. What Flanagan has actually succeeded in doing is making a first-rate Mike Flanagan movie, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Doctor Sleep goes on general cinematic release on October 31st.
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