doctor sleep rebecca ferguson

(Welcome to Classically Contemporary, a series where we explore the ways in which new releases echo classic Hollywood or how classic Hollywood continues to influence modern filmmaking.)

Because Doctor Sleep is a sequel to Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation, it’s easy to say those are the only sources of inspiration. But while watching what director Mike Flanagan has conjured up with his newest film, there are other movies from which he draws on, both overt and subtle. One can talk about the movie and not need to bring up The Shining

In going down the Doctor Sleep rabbit hole, one thing became apparent: though set in 2019, the movie feels pulled from our current nostalgic love for the ‘80s, specifically the features of 1987. I’m not sure why the comparisons to 1987 come through the clearest, maybe it was because that was the year the ‘80s as an aesthetic was defined (Gordon Gecko would declare “Greed is good” in Wall Street that year). Either way let’s use this installment of Classically Contemporary to revisit 1987, The Overlook Hotel, and Doctor Sleep

The Plot: Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) must pair up with a young girl possessing psychic abilities in order to stop a villainous cult led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). 

Carnivals and the Cult Family

With the divorce rate at historically high levels and AIDs sweeping through the gay community (many of whom were outcasts because of their sexuality), movies of the decade commonly discussed how found families were formed. The nuclear family of the 1950s features were segueing into tales of makeshift families created via friends and social communities. Because of this desire for loyalty and acceptance, some movies of the period used this to look at the cult as a family unit, and how what seemed safe and accepting could be dangerous.

Doctor Sleep has its own cult family with the True Knot, a gang of immortals who travel the countryside hunting down and killing children who possess the psychic ability known as “shining.” The way Rose the Hat and her gang live, traveling the world in motorhomes and RVs while living out in the forest, immediately draws comparisons to Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 vampire feature, Near Dark. Bigelow’s story is described as a horror-Western with its story of a young man turned into a vampire and forced to kill. 

The True Knot, because of their immortality, have a look and ethos drawn from centuries of colonial American history and like Near Darkthey draw from the world of the American West. They dress like both contemporary hipsters yet possess a Southwestern flair, complete with cowboy hats and denim shirts. They have their own code of conduct, not unlike Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen) in Near Dark, that values loyalty. When Near Dark’s protagonist Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) goes off to save his sister from the vampires on a horse, it’s akin to an old-school Western. It’s the final showdown between the black hats and the white hats, similar to Rose’s confrontation with Dan and Abra (Kyliegh Curran). 

The True Knot also pulls from 1987’s The Lost Boys. As with Near Dark, The Lost Boys is another tale of vampires, though as opposed to the adults of Bigelow’s classic, here they are immortal teenagers. Yet the True Knot hold similarities to the this film’s vampires. Where Joel Schumacher’s feature is often analyzed through a queer lens, it also borrows from popular fantasy novels, most obviously J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Dan and Abra in Doctor Sleep regularly find themselves pulled between reality and the dreamscape of their own minds. The pair, particularly Abra, become the Hansel and Gretel of their own story, drawn in and chased by the evil witch that is Rose. 

The Backlash Era

Rose the Hat, as a powerful single woman preying on children, isn’t just on par with numerous Disney villains like Snow White’s Evil Queen. She also pulls from the Backlash era of women. The “Backlash era” is a term noted by author Susan Faludi to discuss female characters in the late ‘80s who were told to return home to get married and have babies. Women in the films of the late-’80s who were single and childless were often portrayed as psychotic villains. Great example? Glen Close’s Alex Forrest in 1987’s Fatal Attraction. Though Alex is presumably driven made after her lover, Dan (played by Michael Douglas) scorns her, Rose retcons the backlash woman and ends up overseeing the True Knot.

In fact, much of Doctor Sleep is a reclamation of the Backlash era. Where female characters of the late-1980s were portrayed as passive or, if they were career-oriented, still desired a husband and children above all else, Doctor Sleep’s women are complex and multilayered. Unlike Alex Forrest, who seems to ignore her high-paying job in order to stalk Dan’s family, Abra and Rose are fighting their own war between each other. They have their own Dan, but he’s really there to act as a conduit to bridge their narrative with that of The Shining and ends up getting in trouble and/or saved more than once. He doesn’t lead the charge outside his own narrative. Instead, it is the women who are more powerful than he is. 

Cool Posts From Around the Web: