In the realm of unnecessary sequels, Stephen King’s follow-up novel to his beloved The Shining would seem to be running neck and neck for first place along with the movie adaptation of same. But Doctor Sleep comes for us all anyway, and believe it or not it’s actually not a meaningless cash-grab. Ewan McGregor plays a grown Danny Torrance, paralyzed by alcoholism from a merciless self-medication/abuse program he uses to keep his psychic powers at bay. He thought he only had angry ghosts (actual ones, not just metaphors for childhood and filial trauma, although that stuff fucks him up too) to contend with, but when he makes a telepathic connection to a young girl (Kyleigh Curran) whose powers dwarf even his, he finds out there’s also a band of spiritual vampires (led by Rebecca Ferguson, absolutely terrific, doing some sort of Demon Vagabond Stevie Nicks routine) that feed on the souls of people who Shine. Under writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan, that patented King Corn plot becomes something of a reconciliation between the themes of King’s novels and the Kubrick film he hated, yet again rewriting the story of the book to conform with the previous film in a way that puts the two works in conversation with each other.
A very sturdy, straight-up genre sequel made by a solid, unpretentious craftsman, just about the best available version of a film nobody asked for.
Over the last few years Flanagan has been steadily grinding out small, clever, emotionally charged little horror works like Oculus or the little-seen Ouija 2 (skip the first one), and is probably most well-known at this point for Netflix’s The House on Haunted Hill and another King adaptation of Gerald’s Game. What all these works have in common is an attention to their characters’ trauma and potential for recovery, and a simple formal economy that’s almost classical in its focus on atmosphere and tone. Doctor Sleep falls right in line. The threads here about Danny’s substance abuse and inability to face his powers and legacy are pulled on patiently, and even take on a little more resonance given the type of project this is. And you’d expect a ton of winking references to the Kubrick film here, but what you get instead is a series of direct formal quotations, and it’s more than just recreating famous sets too (although you get a heaping helping of that). Danny’s visit to the office of a man who’s helping him get into recovery is framed and designed exactly like his father’s meeting with the Overlook manager. A confrontation on a stairwell with an axe is hauntingly familiar. They feel purposeful rather than just nostalgic. At its best the whole project reminds of 2010, Peter Hyams’ 1984 sequel to Kubrick’s 2001, a very sturdy, straight-up genre sequel made by a solid, unpretentious craftsman, just about the best available version of a film nobody asked for and that couldn’t possibly live up to its heritage.