In Doctor Sleep, a pack of vicious, psychically energized pedophiles is traveling around the country kidnapping and murdering children, and it’s up to Danny Torrance – the Hot Wheels-riding juvenile catalyst of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, now fully grown – to stop them.
That’s the bare outline of novelist King and screenwriter-director Mike Flanagan’s shimmering, nightmarish sequel to one of the movies’ most enduring spectacles. The sequel is the event of the season for horror enthusiasts and one of this year’s most imaginative films of any genre. The deeper into it we go, the more unsettling it becomes.
King-Kubrick-Jack Nicholson’s The Shining (1980) – with its enormous haunted hotel, dreaded Room 237, labyrinthine snowy maze, and whiffs of berserk ferocity -- has long since gone into the cinematic canon as a uniquely repulsive/attractive vision. Cults have formed and disbanded, maestro Kubrick has gone on to that extra-terrestrial waiting room in the sky, and yet the mystique persists.
Flanagan’s conception treads a delicate line between King’s two novels – The Shining in 1977 and its sequel Doctor Sleep in 2013 – and the inescapable Kubrick movie version, a masterpiece of psychodrama. According to most sources, filmmaker Flanagan (maker of such shockeroos as Before I Wake) secured King’s blessing by combining plot turns from the novels with Kubrick’s frightscape. The narrative is guided by King but the grotesque bits that keep us awake at night have Kubrick’s fingerprints all over them. Some things we witness remain unforgettable, no matter what else we may see.
Where King’s picture of Danny’s distress is unmistakably gothic, Flanagan’s adaptation lets some 2019 end-of-the-world paranoia seep in. The emotionally scarred Dan Torrance (a convincingly distraught performance by Ewan McGregor) has spent his adult years as a substance-abusing bottom feeder, trying to put his childhood ordeal behind him with little success. While he’s thus occupied, however, the True Knot cult is carrying off young people selected for their powers of seeing – the same powers that Danny once called “Tony” and his mentor Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly, ably continuing the role originated by Scatman Crothers) has labeled “the shining.” No child ever really survives an encounter with True Knot. The cult’s atrocities call out for a reckoning.
Dan is not alone in his quest. Matching him every step of the way is the leader of the murderous drifters, Rose the Hat (a meticulous portrait of malevolence by Rebecca Ferguson), who perches quietly in her web like a venomous spider, waiting to snare the next young victim. Her jailhouse peckerwood confederate Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon) is equally toxic. The plot reverts to standard procedural form once the objective – to eliminate the killer cult – is understood, but the mysterious opening scenes that establish the situation are incredibly tense and disturbing. The fate of little league baseball player Number 19 (Jacob Tremblay), in particular, is almost unbearable to watch.
Just as Danny depended on Dick Halloran in Kubrick’s version, grownup Dan finds the strength to combat evil with the help of the similarly gifted Abra (Kyleigh Curran), a wise-beyond-her-years teenager, alongside military vet Billy (Cliff Curtis). Abra and Dan’s heart-to-heart talk is the movie’s lone foundation of hope in the struggle against the mind-controlling “empty devils.”
Doctor Sleep lulls us into a fitful REM cycle with a full menu of spooky Kubrick-iana, especially once we reach the Overlook Hotel. Loaded with meaning from the very first go-round, the newly produced, CGI-heavy King-Kubrick-Flanagan version is voluptuous with metaphor and overflowing with recycled images, from lookalikes (young Danny’s Shelley Duvall-ish mother, Lloyd the bartender in Nicholson drag, etc.) to the reassuring notion that no matter how many monsters there seem to be, there are ultimately more sympathetic beings in the world. That idea may console us in the long run, but in dark theater balconies Flanagan’s fantasy is free to scare the bejesus out of us. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.