Review: Doctor Sleep

Not your standard horror movie, Doctor Sleep is a clever balancing act of two sequels and an adaptation, resulting in another excellent Stephen King film

Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has tried to put the horrors of the Overlook Hotel behind him, drinking to quell his psychic abilities and trying not to become his murderous dad. Discovering young Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who has stronger powers than he does, Danny comes into the view of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), leader of a group of individuals who feed on the “shine” and target Abra.

What director, writer and editor (!) Mike Flanagan has done is surprisingly impressive. Doctor Sleep the novel was Stephen King’s sequel to his book of The Shining, and King infamously hated the Stanley Kubrick adaptation. Flanagan bravely elected to make a sequel to that film that’s also loyal to the King sequel novel (lost yet?), and has amazingly got the author’s seal of approval with what’s he made here.

Flanagan is also responsible for the Netflix hit Haunting of Hill House, and has a growing pedigree in horror and successful King adaptations (I’ve yet to see Gerald’s Game on Netflix but it’s had great reviews). All in all, he’s pretty much the guy to make this film, and his clever amalgamation of adaptation and sequel works really well – says someone who’s read the original books and seen the Kubrick film.

Your mileage may vary given you might not have read the books, but I imagine quite a lot of horror fans will have seen The Shining, and a surprisingly quick but detailed two and a half hours works. It’s definitely a slower and more considered horror, but most of King’s books luxuriate in details and take their time, and are no less disturbing or scary.

Being writer, director and editor means what Flanagan wants us to see is what we see, and his work across supernatural scenes, dialogue and action shows great balance. When the film gets dark (and it gets really grim at one particular point), Flanagan forces us to wait when we want to look away, while elsewhere he cuts the fluff and gets to the point.This is not a constantly jumpy horror, and so for large parts feels quite sedate and surprisingly talky, though there are shocking and harrowing elements.

I think he’s definitely a director worth watching in future, and having complete control makes for a cohesive and clever movie. When he wraps The Shining into it, a bit of his directorial voice gets lost, but then that’s what happens when you dare to make a sequel  to a Kubrick movie. King’s story leads us back to the Overlook anyway, so it’s a clever repurposing.  When elements from The Shining reappear there’s that added, legacy weirdness meaning references feel a bit off, notwithstanding the near flawless recreation of the Overlook Hotel in the final act.

doctor-sleep-poster-ewan-mcgregor

A lot of the nuance of the book is retained (especially the elements that give the story its name), but by necessity other parts are excised. The core is still there and that’s what’s key, but it is to the detriment of some of the smaller characters and Danny himself. That’s cinema and adaptation though – you can’t put everything onscreen, or every book to film adaptation  would be a huge series or ridiculously long trip to the cinema.

The blue, washed out look from cinematographer Michael Fimognari makes this appear very similar to Haunting of Hill House. It gives the story a desolate feel but doesn’t stop real locations from looking great (from beaches to forests and interiors, this film has a strong sense of place). The Newton Brothers sparingly uses the infamous theme from The Shining as and when required, but their own score is a nervewracking, constant thrumming undertone, undercutting even non horror scenes with unease.

McGregor’s performance felt like a welcome return, with the actor in a lot less nowadays and rare appearances reminders of how good he is. He has that uncanny ability to shift from empathetic to unsettling in an instant, and his casting is great because we get that sense of a man broken by the past and how he used to try to bury it, finally evolving into a more selfless and heroic individual. This film definitely wouldn’t work without him!

Ferguson is at turns vicious and unpredictable as the enigmatic (and often funny) Rose the Hat, commanding your attention whenever she appears. There’s something unsettling about her even in heroic roles, as she always seems to have a cold reserve and dangerous edge. Her interplay with the detached cool of Zach McClarnon’s Crow Daddy (her number two) and Curran and McGregor is evidence of how well cast the film is.

Curran is commandingly good in her first ever film role, and once again a reminder that child actors can be incredibly, almost ridiculously talented. She gives Abra an arrogance that the book character didn’t have, but beyond that and an imperious sense of her own strength, she also dials it down to remind you she’s a small child at risk.

The large supporting cast includes an empathetic, quiet performance from Cliff Curtis as Danny’s trusted friend Billy; Carl Lumbly ably filling in for The Shining’s Scatman Crothers as the helpful Dick Hallorann; and Emily Aly Lind’s unnerving manipulative, memorable Snakebite Andi. Perhaps the only bum note is the strange casting of Henry Thomas as a notable character (you’ll see what I mean and know what I mean by saying it feels off), though Alex Essoe is far more convincing in a similar role.

If you liked The Shining, see this – it’s a great companion to it. If you liked both King books, go see it as well! Even if you’re not aware of any of it, for those seeking something a bit different for a horror fix Doctor Sleep has some great performances and just enough edge to it to provide a satisfying cinema trip.

 

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