Doctor Sleep was written and directed by Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game), based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King, and is the nearly 40-years-later sequel to the iconic Stanley Kubrick horror classic known as The Shining (of which source material author Stephen King was notoriously not a fan). In this new chapter to the Shining story, a grown-up Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is grappling with the demons of his deceased father’s alcoholism in an attempt to be closer to who he knew his father to be, and has all but entirely hidden his abilities from those around him, apart from in small doses that would be otherwise undetectable. But when a demonic death cult known as The True Knot begins to hunt those with abilities like Dan’s in order to eat them as a means of remaining immortal, he and a new ally known as “Abra” (Kyleigh Curran) must unite to defeat this terrifying evil. With the cult’s leader, Rose (Rebecca Ferguson) closing in on their trails, it won’t be long before both Dan and Abra’s powers are put to the ultimate test, and the sinister legions from which Dan has run all his life will force him, and the world, to shine again.
As stated above, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining is one of the most iconic, classic, and essential horror films of all time. Set, for the most part, in a single location, and featuring one man going mad over a period of weeks, the film was one of Kubrick’s greatest masterpieces, a work of meticulous precision and terrifying directorial prowess (that has had some problematic production stories released since its hay-day) that can only be bested by those masters from which Kubrick took inspiration, such as the great Hitchcock himself. Unfortunately for Stephen King, he did not happen to find his novel among those inspirations, as the film reportedly deviated wildly from the book, a creative choice of which the author (for understandable reasons) was less than fond of. More unfortunately still, it seems that creative choice may have been the wiser move in the long run, as the film itself (apart from the production horror stories) has only become more impressive with age, whereas its sequel seems to have stuck far more closely to its source material (which, to be clear, I have not read) to far less captivating results.
To put it in fair terms, Doctor Sleep is…fine. It’s certainly not a bad movie by any stretch, and with a legacy sequel this vital to get right, that’s no small pit to escape from, but it seems so concerned with justifying its own existence most of the time that it almost un-justifies it by trying too hard to be interesting in a way that’s different from its predecessor. Where the movie fails is as a sequel to The Shining, at least the Stanley Kubrick adaptation anyhow. In fact, if the main character weren’t that same child from that original film, one could almost be forgiven for not even connecting this to The Shining apart from the unnecessary set-up and somewhat uneven finale. Most of the film between is just an overlong sort of mystery thriller that features some things leftover from the original, but not enough for it to matter as a sequel. The concept of “shining” is an interesting one to explore, but all the film really does with it is turn it into some sort of telekinetic superpower, though some displays of that power (especially in the finale) are particularly fun to watch the filmmakers play around with.
What really kills the potential of Doctor Sleep, though, is its extremely slow pacing. The film is 2 hours and 31 minutes long, but with the time that stretches between the set-up, more set-up, even more set-up, and then the second act, you’re feeling that length by the time the first hour is over. The only logical explanation for the film taking its sweet time getting to things it had no need to take its time getting to is that because The Shining was around 2 and a half hours long, the filmmakers thought that stretching this one out to that length would help give it a similar pace. The issue is that the filmmakers, and Mike Flanagan in particular (whose films I’ve loved in the past), don’t seem to understand what made that original film’s length so effective, that it was meant to be an inescapable journey through the madness into which Jack Torrance would eventually fall, and the length of that journey was an essential contributor to that experience.
In fact, perhaps the biggest shortcoming of this sequel is that it doesn’t seem to want to be like or even distantly related to The Shining in any way except in borrowing the elements from that film that it needs to justify existing in the first place. The original movie was a terrifying horror with an unsettling score, cinematography that made your skin crawl, and tension that filled whichever room you happened to watch it in. Make no mistake about it, Doctor Sleep is not a horror film by most definitions. There are some horror elements included, but the film doesn’t really play around much with tension except in a few small moments that have less to do with this film than they do with that original, which is disappointing when considering the pretty solid trailers this film had, using the original themes from The Shining to sell us on what kind of movie this could be. The third act is the most closely related to that original film, but it can’t seem to decide whether to re-enact, pay tribute to, or simply lift scenes wholesale from it, and the attempt it makes to do all three makes the finale feel more unfocused in execution than in hindsight.
It’s clear Mike Flanagan is used to working with a bit smaller of a budget, and by this movie’s indication, that’s something he should probably stick to for a while, as the direction, while solid, feels stretched just a bit too thin for a feature film, which is further hindered by the dialogue the actors are working with seeming a bit too concerned with telling us to be afraid or explaining what we need to understand rather than simply showing us visually what we need to know. The film doesn’t seem to understand that the audience can connect the dots on their own between what we see and other information the film gives, so most of the lines in the second act become about stating the obvious things we already know while attempting to explain to us how terrifying things are supposed to be, all without doing the work in either the direction or the editing to make us scared. Sometimes long films can work, but with the way Doctor Sleep feels its story, it almost seems like this was originally envisioned as a mini-series that then got sent to feature because Warner Bros. realized they could make a few more bucks on that end.
The film is not a complete loss, though, despite its bevvy of problems, and the performances all work particularly well, especially those of Ewan McGregor, Kyleigh Curran, and Rebecca Ferguson, the last of which ends up stealing the show in just about every scene in which she gets to partake. Rocking a “Slash”-style top hat and at one point brandishing an axe which completes the second iconic female horror look of the year (next to Ready or Not’s shotgun-wielding Samara Weaving in her bloody wedding dress), Ferguson takes full advantage of every moment she’s given to shine (ironically) and eats up the screen almost as menacingly as her character eats the children from which she gets her youth. She is in complete command here, even in scenes where she shares the screen with six or more people at a time, and it’s when she’s nearby that McGregor and Curran’s performances are at their peak. They’re both very good in the film too, especially the latter as a relative newcomer, and while McGregor gets a fair bit to work with, his performance is far better than his writing gives him the chance to be. The world-building is very interesting as well, and although the film doesn’t exactly land most of its horror punches, the concept of the True Knot cult and their methods of hunting down their targets, as well as the film’s general expansion on what “the shining” exactly is makes for engaging enough material that the story doesn’t totally lose you, even with a second act that makes up the length of most entire films. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the film, even if it opens up a world of possibilities for what Warner Bros. is surely hoping to segway into a trilogy or franchise.
Doctor Sleep is a decent film overall, but as a sequel to The Shining, it fails on enough levels to not to really be worth adding to the 4K collection when it hits home release. Despite some great performances and interesting world-building, Mike Flanagan’s shallow direction and the film’s noticeable pacing issues (especially its exorbitant length) manage to keep this one from reaching its full potential, with an uneven set-up and half-tribute, half-copy finale that feels like it was lifted from an almost entirely different film than this one, if not for the two sharing their main characters. No one expected this film to be as good as The Shining, but I didn’t expect it to be so lackluster either.
I’m giving “Doctor Sleep” a 6.5/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.