doctor sleep spoiler review

Time will be kind to Doctor Sleep, a bold, audacious, unapologetically sentimental horror film. The box office returns are paltry, and the film itself has its fair share of problems. And yet, Mike Flanagan‘s tender adaptation of Stephen King‘s novel shines because it’s so committed to embracing emotion. Stanley Kubrick’s cold, unfeeling, excellent The Shining jettisoned the sentimentality so prevalent in King’s work. Doctor Sleep attempts to reconcile this with Kubrick’s legacy.

Dan Torrance

Rather than go big and bold with his performance a la Jack Nicholson, Ewan McGregor‘s Dan “Danny” Torrance is a study in understatement. The little kid from The Shining is all grown up now, and he has demons of his own. Haunted by the death of his father, and his traumatic experience at the Overlook Hotel, Dan grows into an addict – just like his dad. McGregor does excellent work with his early scenes as Dan at the end of his rope – a bearded mess who rips-off a one-night-stand he met at a bar.

After Dan gets sober, McGregor settles into understatement. He’s calm and collected – perhaps too calm and collected. There are times when Dan, going up against pure evil, seems almost blase about it all. I would’ve liked a bit more life from McGregor here. More energy. But that doesn’t diminish the rest of his fine work.

Abra Stone

Kyliegh Curran‘s Abra Stone serves as the bridge between The Shining and Doctor Sleep. In many ways, she’s the “new” Danny – even though she seems to be even more powerful than he is. The ghost of Dick Hallorann explains that just as he helped guide a young Danny to understanding his gift of “the shining”, Dan, too, will eventually have to guide someone else. As the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Newcomer Curran has a ton of charisma and her scenes with McGregor’s Dan are some of the best of the film, even if the movie does have their meet-up seem almost too easy. However, Abra seems so powerful that Dan’s guidance is almost arbitrary. Does she really need his help? She can do things he’s not even capable of doing, and she appears to have a firmer grasp on her powers more than a young Danny ever did.

Rose the Hat and The True Knot

I won’t mince words here: The True Knot in the book is lame as hell. They’re a roving gang of nomadic psychic-vampires who like to dress up in goofy clothes and call everyone else “rubes.” King uses the term “rubes” approximately ten billion times in the book and it gets real old real fast. So it’s something of a miracle that Flanagan is able to make the villains so memorable in the film. They seem genuinely scary – a group of moralless monsters who get off on the pain of children.

One of the weirdest elements of both the book and film is the way the True Knot “feeds” on children. The psychic energy and pain of their young victims comes out in the form of steam – which the True Knot then vapes, for lack of a better term. They’ve even found a way to bottle up this steam for future use. This never quite works in the book, primarily because King’s description of the action feels too far removed from the rest of the book. But Flanagan makes it work by simply presenting it as-is. In fact, he never really has the film stop and explain what is going on with the steam – it just happens. And by letting this fantastical concept merely exist on its own terms, Doctor Sleep succeeds.

The key to the True Knot’s movie success rests almost entirely in the hands of Rebecca Ferguson‘s Rose the Hat. Rose isn’t that memorable of a character in the book. In fact, every time the book cut back to her I felt tempted to skip ahead. But Ferguson’s performance, which is both sexy and scary, is so alluring, so hypnotic, that she ends up being the highlight of the movie. I’ll go so far as to say I think she’s one of the best movie villains in recent memory, and that has more to do with how Ferguson plays her – silky smooth menace mixed with an almost comical casualness – than how the character is written.

Shades of Kubrick

This might come as a shock, but Stanley Kubrick and Mike Flanagan are very different filmmakers. Yes, I know – who would’ve guessed? It’s a fool’s errand to try to imitate Kubrick, and for most of Doctor Sleep‘s runtime, Flanagan wisely avoids this. Flanagan is one of the best horror directors working today, but his style is worlds removed from Kubrick’s. Kubrick favored almost uncomfortably long takes and wide shots, whereas Flanagan is more prone to quicker cutting and tighter angles.

Still, Flanagan was up against an unenviable task. Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining, and it’s safe to say the majority of the moviegoing public associates Kubrick’s film with The Shining more than they do the (vastly different) text of King’s book. I suppose Flanagan could have ignored Kubrick’s movie and stuck entirely to King’s book, but then audiences would likely be even more confused. As a result, I think Flanagan does the best he can. He avoids recalling too much of Kubrick until the film’s final act, which turns into Stanely Kubrick’s The Shining 2.0. And I think this is when the movie stumbles and comes very close to going completely off the rails. Save for one scene which we’ll get to later, I think this is the weakest section of the movie.

Omitting Dan and Abra’s Familial Relationship

There’s a pretty big reveal in King’s novel about Abra and Dan: they’re actually related. We learn that Dan’s father Jack Torrance had an affair when she was his teaching assistant. That affair produced a child named Lucy, and Lucy eventually gave birth to Abra, making her Dan’s niece. The Doctor Sleep movie omits this entirely. On one hand, I understand this – the story doesn’t need it. On the other hand, I like this connective tissue. Primarily because I like that it keeps the shining power within the Torrance bloodline. The Doctor Sleep movie makes it seem like every single person on the damn planet has the shining, which robs the power of some of its…uh…power.

Return to the Overlook

While I think the Overlook scenes are the weakest in the movie, I also appreciate the detail Flanagan and company put into recreating the look of the place. It really does feel like we’re back in the same exact location from Kubrick’s movie, right down to the smallest detail. I don’t entirely think we needed to have the staircase confrontation between Jack and Wendy recreated with Dan and Rose, but beyond that, I will admit to being impressed with the overall look of these scenes.

New Actors Playing Characters From Kubrick’s Film

There’s a lot of talk right now about de-aging actors in Marvel movies and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, and recently news broke that a movie would be digitally recreating James Dean for a supporting role. Thankfully, Doctor Sleep doesn’t resort to any of that. It simply recasts the characters from Kubrick’s film with similar-looking actors. And it works! I think Alex Essoe, who was so damn good in Starry Eyes, is the best of the bunch. Not only does she resemble Shelley Duvall’s Wendy, she does a great job nailing Duvall’s vocal inflections without ever turning it into a parody. Carl Lumbly is also quite good as the new Dick Hallorann, who looks similar enough to Scatman Crothers to make it work. And then, of course, there’s the biggest surprise of all: Henry Thomas as Jack Torrance.

I think the casting works. I would’ve never thought of Henry Thomas as a stand-in for Jack Nicholson, but apparently, if you slap a wig that looks exactly like Nicholson’s Shining hairstyle on Thomas, he’s almost a dead-ringer. At the same time, I’m so glad Thomas didn’t resort to doing a terrible Jack Nicholson impression. There’s a line or two where Thomas slips into Nicholson’s accent, but otherwise, he plays the character his way. And the moment shared between Jack/The Bartender and Dan is arguably the best scene in the film – a harrowing portrait of a man coming face to face with his trauma in the form of his dead father.

All of this works for new scenes. Where it doesn’t work, at least in my opinion, is when Flanagan attempts to recreate shots from the Kubrick film. At one point we see Thomas-As-Jack stalking around the Overlook with an ax. And we also see the famous scene where that ax is crashing through a bathroom door, terrifying Essoe-As-Wendy. These recreations feel wrong to me – there’s an uncanny valley quality to them. We recognize what we’re seeing, but it still seems off. It’s almost like stumbling into a Halloween Horror Nights presentation and watching someone else recreate famous horror movie scenes. I would’ve been happier if Flanagan had just cut these scene recreations entirely.

The Overtly “Modern Horror Movie”-Ness of the Overlook Ghosts

Here’s my least favorite thing in the whole movie. When it comes time for Doctor Sleep to unleash the familiar Shining ghosts, like the Grady Twins, or the “Great party, isn’t it?” guy with the bloody head, Flanagan makes a completely baffling choice: he gives them spooky white ghost eyes. There’s nothing like that in Kubrick’s film, and it’s so weirdly modern, and, well, horror movie-ish that it bugged me. We don’t need the ghosts to have spooky white eyes to remind us they’re ghosts – we get it. To me this felt like a studio note – some exec demanded Flanagan add this detail because it’s the sort of thing expected from ghosts in modern horror movies.

Dan’s Death/A Familiar Ending

Flanagan pulls off a big magic trick with the movie’s ending, and also gives a nice little gift to Stephen King. The ending here, where Dan uses the boiler to blow up the Overlook, is pulled not from the Doctor Sleep novel, but from The Shining. King’s book ends with the boiler exploding and taking the Overlook – and Jack Torrance – with it, while Kubrick’s movie had the Overlook still standing. This is a very Kubrick conclusion: Wendy and Danny escape, but the evil remains standing.

King likes to have his evil defeated – sometimes. And apparently one of the ways Flanagan convinced King to let him draw on Kubrick’s movie was to pitch him the idea of blowing up the Overlook. While I like this ending here I do think its added consequence of killing off Dan is a misstep. Dan’s story is about redemption and self-forgiveness. His goal towards sobriety is a major focal point of the story, and the book concludes with him celebrating that maintained sobriety. To have him die feels like a cheat. Obviously, he doesn’t have to worry about staying sober anymore because he’s a ghost now.

Cool Posts From Around the Web:

About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net