Review: Doctor Sleep

After a lifetime of trauma inflicted both on us and by us, how can we sleep at night? That’s kind of the central question of Stephen King’s 2015 follow-up to The Shining (1980). It’s right there, in the title: Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is nicknamed ‘Doctor Sleep’ by the ailing residents of the palliative care ward in which he works. Forty years or so after the horrors young Danny witnessed at the Overlook Hotel—chronicled most memorably in Stanley Kubrick’s film—he stills ‘shines’, now using those psychic abilities to mercifully ease his patients into a peaceful, eternal sleep.

Depending on your attention span, Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Doctor Sleep might just do the same for you. The film’s runtime is 130 minutes, and meanders from location to location with a backwards-glancing mode of storytelling familiar to readers of King’s oeuvre.

Since Stephen King is now Hollywood’s hottest intellectual property originator again, the film is careful to include all of the Maine author’s trademarks: alcoholism, historical evil resurfacing in small-town America, flannel. But Flanagan also gets to utilise a few of his own tricks, like in how previous works Oculus (2013) and Abenstia (2011) derive terror from protagonists being tricked into harming their loved ones; and in performances from his growing troupe of collaborators, like actors Henry Thomas, Violet McGraw, and a particularly disturbing Jacob Tremblay. There’s enough enough cute King Easter eggs to make the Castle Rock writers’ room hunch over and start taking notes.

We’ve got all the components for a tight conclusion to an acclaimed story. But, like 2019’s other big King feature adaptation It: Chapter Two, the film lacks focus.

A good spot to focus on would be Dan’s supernatural mentorship of Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a pre-teen girl whose Shining far outpowers Dan’s—her name is even an abbreviated version of ‘abracadabra’. Hnng. Whilst Dan tries to numb his abilities with whisky and repress his traumatic memories of The Overlook into mental compartments, Abra wants to use the Shining for good, namely by taking down a Manson-esque cult of baddies who hunt and kill children who exhibit the same psychic abilities.

It’s refreshing to watch a version of The Shining that gives a fuck about its protagonist. Kubrick’s cerebral style of direction means that we’re never encouraged to empathise with any of his basket case characters — not with Peter Sellers’ broad parody in Dr. Strangelove (1964); not even with an underage victim of grooming and rape in Lolita (1962). There’s room for Flanagan’s characters to emote in this longer, kinder film, which sticks closer to the King formula of broken-but-fundamentally-decent people facing a supernatural threat which directly attacks their emotional weaknesses. It’s the same inspirational tone from Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game (2017) adaptation, which was nobly more invested in what scared its protagonist than what might scare audiences.

Does it pay off again here? Not quite.

The film spends a little too much time with The True Knot, a villainous band of soul-vampires who can harvest the ‘Shining’ out of gifted kids by basically vaping it out of their mouths. They’re led by Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose The Hat, who dresses like both Slash and Axl Rose after a Lululemon shopping spree. Ferguson brings a slinky sense of fun to the film’s depiction of evil, but she isn’t particularly formidable in terms of the larger plot; once she realises just how powerful Abra is, she spends the rest of the movie terrified of the white-eyed tween girl. Not ideal for a horror movie — to know that the hero is not only stronger than the villain, but also scares them shitless.

Doctor Sleep should be admired for not slavishly catering to Kubrick’s revered earlier vision, refraining from leaning too heavily on homage or the kind of hokey in-jokes that every other prequel/sequel/reboot tends towards in 2019. But Flanagan can also be blamed for not finding a way to make many of The Shining’s most visceral imagery feel impactful. The inevitable appearance of the Grady sisters is here to be acknowledged, rather than relished; Ferguson greets the elevator full of blood with an expression that seems to signal only, ‘huh, neato’.

Part of that is because Flanagan’s signature style is so immediately opposed to Kubrick’s; where Kubrick employed startling primary colours and sterile one-point perspective, all of Flanagan’s films are inexplicably colour-graded to a corpse-like blue. That aesthetic is moody and effective in its own right — it worked great in the Netflix horror series The Haunting of Hill House — but it’s not as visually exciting as the spliced-in recreations of the 1980s. And how could it be?

The folly of the prevailing trend to draw on old, beloved films and properties is that, in referencing bold and memorable existing media, today’s filmmakers only make their own creative work seem comparatively limp. Flanagan has shown considerable talent at adapting other people’s stories; his Ouija sequel is leagues scarier than the original, and Gerald’s Game proved that he even has a particular skill for translating the sometimes excessive King for the screen. Here, though, it feels like the director has chosen to make faithful adaptation rather than a great film, or that he let King himself into the editing bay. That would explain why the film’s narrative starts about twenty minutes too late, and why a few scenes seem to be repeated ten minutes later for emotional emphasis.

In Kubrick’s The Shining, the central theme of historical evil in all its forms — racism, colonialism, bear-dog-man blowjobs — was presented through stirring, abstract visuals, sparking discussion about the story’s meaning that is still not laid to rest today. It’s hard to imagine Doctor Sleep inspiring the same kind of hare-brained conspiracy theories, preferring as it does to settle its character’s repressed trauma in a sweet, sentimental manner. The 1980 film frequently showed Danny covering his eyes from whatever taunting evil was before him, and Doctor Sleep continues that idea of witness and acknowledgement of horror being a necessary step in healing. Considering the alcoholism and drug abuse King has personal experience with, it makes sense that the author might not be such a fan of stories in which trauma survivors and substance addicts succumb are defeated by the ghosts in their attics — probably part of why King despises the Stanley Kubrick film so much.

While that film ended on a mind-boggling, non-linear note of dread, both of King’s Shining novels actually end on a relatively upbeat note. They, and Flanagan’s film, suggest that the demons we grapple with are mostly personal, and can be defeated with the right amount of Love or Friendship or Belief.

I don’t think that’s how evil really works. The most effective horror to me is systemic, something that Kubrick realised both in his film and unintentionally, behind the scenes. Infamously, on the set of The Shining, Kubrick emotionally abused lead actress Shelley Duvall to the point that her hair fell out from stress; in home video from the film’s Pinewood set, he encourages crew members to ‘not empathise with Shelley’, hoping that the isolation Duvall felt would translate into her performance.

That shit is more evil than anything Flanagan can show us, because it’s supported by hierarchies of power (between directors and actors, men and women) that make up every structure in western society. Flanagan casts a group of soul-eating Fleetwood Mac-ass wannabes as the villains of his film, rather than engaging with the more compelling innate evil in all of us, that allows us to hurt other people for such menial stuff as making an actress seem slightly more scared for your horror movie.

There’s nothing wrong with making a film that doesn’t align 100% with my perception of true evil. Heaps of movies don’t! But Doctor Sleep ticket-holders should not expect The Shining’s bleak, cavernous understanding of horror. Instead, we get a more novelistic, considerate portrait of a man whose dad tried to kill him in an old haunted hotel, and the emotional journey it would take to get past that. That movie is fine, and is careful not to taint either novel or film from which it is adapted.

Ironically enough, Doctor Sleep kind of sleeps on what makes The Shining so scary in the first place. Feels like building a slick, feely, inexplicably blue-tinged horror franchise on top of a Native American burial ground.


Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit / @eliza_janssen

Eliza Janssen