Doctor Sleep: Mike Flanagan Can’t Quite Escape the Shadow of Stanley Kubrick
The biggest problem with Doctor Sleep is unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, The Shining. Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic haunts Mike Flanagan’s sequel much like the demons of the Overlook Hotel do poor Danny Torrance, and is similarly much higher-functioning during the stretches in which those demons have been temporarily exorcised. The warning signs are there from the beginning, as The Shining’s ominous opening chords prime the audience before inundating them with nostalgic elements that are alternately effective and distracting.
But after moving past this perfunctory set of flashbacks, the movie settles into something much more interesting and original before ultimately succumbing to temptation once again. We are introduced fairly quickly to the adult Danny (a solid Ewan McGregor), who has become prone to drinking, fighting, and generally failing to escape his father’s shadow. A spate of soul-searching leads him to a small New Hampshire town, where, over the course of eight years (mostly offscreen), he sobers up and takes on a hospice job ushering the elderly into the next world. Of course, Danny’s peaceful life will soon be disturbed by a new form of evil. As we’ve been watching Danny get clean, we have also been following a troupe of vampiric vagabonds as they wander the country recruiting members and devouring the essences of those who, like Danny, have the supernatural gift known as “the shining.” This gang of well-dressed near-immortals is led by Rose the Hat, played with delightful and malicious aplomb by Rebecca Ferguson (wonderfully behatted for the entirety), who, upon catching wind of a powerful young girl who happens to be psychic pen pals with Danny, sets the narrative on a collision course for our protagonist to finally face his demons, both new and old. The path Flanagan takes to get there isn’t perfect. He is the credited director, writer, and editor, making for more of a unified vision than is often seen in films of this ilk, but also leading to a bloated running time and some questionable pacing. For a movie seemingly so intent on investing time in character and emotion early on, it rarely gives the viewer an opportunity to sit with either, cutting between McGregor, Ferguson, and others at a frenetic rate that leaves any given scene with a jarring lack of breathing room. Compounding the issue, many of these scenes also fall prey to the Achilles’ heel of the literary adaptation, as characters spend far too much time monologuing and expositing, telling when the film could be showing. This is especially unfortunate because Flanagan has a keen eye for visual storytelling. Several sequences are exquisitely staged, including an inventive Inception-esque dream sequence and a horrific ritual of torture that are among the best moments of horror so far this year (though the latter does feature a bizarre cameo by an actor who at this point is far too recognizable for the role as written). Even the reworkings of Kubrick’s film are well-orchestrated, echoing and mirroring The Shining about as well as one could expect while adding some new and inventive ideas to the mix. But despite the impressiveness of the pastiche, it is inevitably the film’s undoing. Even when it sags, the amalgam of horror and dark fantasy that makes up much of the movie is thrillingly refreshing, and we can tell that Flanagan has the potential to be the savior that studio horror needs. However, in a disheartening bit of irony, the film itself seems to mirror the characters and metaphorical undercurrents of its source material. The Shining is Doctor Sleep’s vice; the latter is invigorated when it breaks the grip of the former, flourishing in the absence of the chain around its neck, free to become something new and exciting. But temptation is there, lurking in the shadows, inherent in the design, and in the end Doctor Sleep just isn’t strong enough to resist it. In theaters November 8th