It’s tough to follow up on a classic, especially when that classic was directed by Stanley Kubrick. The Shining (1980) is a seminal horror tale, one that is so overwhelming in its imagery and haunting tone that a potential follow-up feels more like an epilogue than a story worthy of full exploration. After such an impression, almost nothing after could feel substantial.
Yet, here we are with Doctor Sleep, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. But where the novel is clearly a straight forward sequel to King’s original story, published in 1977, the movie is forced to walk the tightrope of adapting the book but also referencing Kubrick’s 1980 film. This is because the film adaptation of The Shining is now far more familiar and culturally relevant to audiences than the novel it’s based on. Given King’s, uh, unique perspective on how unfaithful Kubrick’s adaptation was to the source material, this is quite an interesting twist of fate.
We’re reintroduced to the perpetually aghast Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd), who is suffering from horrific visions in the aftermath of the original film. He is briefly comforted by his mother Wendy (Alexandra Essoe, thankfully this is just a cameo because her short screentime made it clear we were headed for one of the worst performances of the year) but the scars left from his nightmarish past are still too powerful. Fast forward decades later, and Danny is now all grown up and significantly less aghast – here played by Ewan McGregor. Grownup Danny is a disheveled alcoholic, traumatized by the grisly events that took place at The Overlook Hotel in his youth. However, he still retains the seemingly psychic powers, what he calls his ‘shine’, that he first discovered during that tragic vacation. With it, he is able to not only communicate with the ghosts from his past, but also with a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) who has a shine of her own.
Meanwhile, we’re soon introduced to a group of baddies who have their own psychic powers, led by Rose (Rebecca Ferguson). They’re obsessed with immortality, and attempt to exploit other shine users by stealing their life force. Think of them as vampires, except they consume breath instead of blood. They set their sights on Abra, who displays a level of power previously unseen.
Doctor Sleep is being marketed as a horror film, and that may be true for the sequences that bookend the movie, but the vast majority of the middle section feels more like a YA fantasy. Rose and Abra play a cat and mouse game while Danny, the wise old veteran, attempts to teach Abra about her innate ability. Combine this with some decent action set pieces, and Doctor Sleep becomes an amalgamation of different genres rather than the terrifying tale I believe most are expecting.
Your mileage may vary on if you think the malleability of the film’s tone is a good thing, but the weight of the story would be greater if the villains weren’t so silly. They’re basically a traveling band of homeless people, looking to recruit new members who also wish to live forever. Give up my life so I can road trip in a van for eternity? This sounds like the worst sales pitch in history. For all their powers, they haven’t seemed to use it for any monetary gain. Then there’s Rose herself, who at times feels like she’s stopping by from a different movie; Ferguson plays her as a sultry femme fatal, but it’s upended by the ridiculous top hat she insists on wearing. How can I feel concern for Abra when the person threatening her is a chump who keeps wearing the same shitty hat?
But while these villains are a little campy, what keeps the film working is Danny, our connection to him, and the reconciliation with his past. One of the themes of The Shining was that of alcoholism and the inner demons we struggle with. It’s an aspect of the novel that King feels wasn’t as well exemplified in Kubrick’s adaptation. Here, Doctor Sleep is bringing that human vulnerability back into the fold as Danny struggles with the cycle of addiction in his family, as he battles the same disease that his father Jack dealt with.
Eventually, Danny has to trace his steps back, almost literally, to the source of his trauma in order to rectify what has come before. What the film theorizes is you can’t vanquish the memories of your life that hurt the most. That’s impossible without amnesia. What’s best is to learn to live with the demons because at a certain point the past can no longer hurt you, but it still remains as a reminder. In doing so, maybe we won’t find our inner demons so scary; yes they’re cruel and ugly, but the darker side of our mind needs not to be ignored but properly reconciled with in order to gain peace and health.
What Doctor Sleep achieves, amidst its substantial world-building and freaky imagery, is an encouraging underdog tale about the power of the mind. Absurd powers in fiction can often be a metaphor for real-life abilities that aren’t as super, but are just as vital. Men like Jack Torrance, who lack this mental fortitude, can fall prey to addiction, stress, and hysteria. Men like Danny Torrance stumble, but eventually solve the riddle of their affliction, and in doing so set an example for others to do the same.