‘Doctor Sleep’ is a Thoughtful Re-Contextualization of ‘The Shining’

How do you create a follow up to one of the most influential and beloved horror films of all time? Director Mike Flanagan has an answer: you don’t simply retread The Shining, you craft a response to to it. Straight off the success of his acclaimed Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan sinks his teeth into his most daring project yet, whilst still retaining the emotional authenticity that has made his work a standout amongst his mainstream horror peers. The result is Doctor Sleep, a messier beast compared to the unnerving precision of Kubrick’s masterpiece, but one that is distinctly bold, sentimental, and of its own identity.

Doctor Sleep‘s biggest strength is that it is not interested in trying to recapture the glory of its 1980’s predecessor; it instead tries to make sense of it. The film follows an older Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) struggling to cope with the evil he experienced at the Overlook Hotel, as well as battling severe depression and alcoholism. His hopes of recovery and peace are soon interrupted by Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl who shares Danny’s powerful shine. Bonded together, they are then hunted by the True Knot, a cult that feeds off of the souls of children, led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). The plot is heavier on building the lore and rules of the universe as opposed to than the minimalist sensibility to The Shining. Sometimes that feels quite overbearing and midichlorians-esque, but it has its benefits.

I believe this film is best enjoyed when viewed through the lens that it is, in many ways, a culmination of three different visions of The Shining’s universe: You have the DNA of Kubrick’s original film (which Stephen King famously hated), but the screenplay is an adaptation of the King sequel novel. But finally, this is still Flanagan’s film— a very personal one at that. Watching Doctor Sleep reconcile with all those ideas of what The Shining is, a madhouse of horror spectacle and pure terror, or a humanist story of despair and catharsis, is massively satisfying to watch. There is so much going on with this film meta-textually; not just in the story, but also through the ways it re-frames Kubrick’s famous iconography (which we’ve all sort of been desensitized to on some level, thanks to its place in pop culture) and adds so much personal agony through Dan Torrance’s eyes. This is a man that is running from his past. A man that is actively trying to distance himself away from the Overlook spirits we’ve made into famous symbols. Flanagan successfully navigates the fine line between fan service and purpose by exploring the haunted torment our protagonist experiences.

Here to elevate the material even further is Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat, a delightfully sinister antagonist that almost singlehandedly provides the urgency and tension the slower paced pacing of Doctor Sleep requires. She is divine and witchy in a Stevie-Nicks-kinda-way, and she is by far in my mind the stand out performance of the film. Ewan McGregor is not too shabby either. There’s a moment that takes place in the last act of the film where he essentially takes a scene that, by all logic, should not work, and yet, completely does because McGregor and Flanagan simply understand the emotions they are conveying and how to evoke them well. Excellent child performances by Kyliegh Curran and a brief but highly effective use of Jacob Tremblay round out a film that should feel dry if it were not for the on-screen presences.

I find it likely that one might watch Doctor Sleep, see the references to the Kubrick original, and not pay the rest of the Flanagan film any mind. That thought is immensely frustrating to me, as the film does so much to add the emotional terror back into Kubrick and King’s text. And even then— the re-contextualization of the Overlook and other pieces of The Shining are only playing supporting roles to the original story and style at large. There’s much less elevators drowning in blood and much more group therapy in Doctor Sleep. The emotions are front in center, way more time is spent developing characters than anxiety, and even the atmosphere is drab and bleak in a somehow, hopeful way. Don’t get me wrong, children are still murdered and reaped in grizzly fashion, but there’s a sensitivity and love for its themes and characters. This develops into a second film that feels much more like a response to the hellish terror of the original. Flanagan wears his love for the multiple source materials on his sleeve, and as a result, crafts a world that’s worth shining again.

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