The first thing we see is the past.
Young Danny Torrance, only months after the events of THE SHINING, wakes from a nightmare. The Overlook Hotel has physically been left far behind, but its memory lingers. He rushes to the bathroom to find a figure waiting there. In the bathtub, behind the shower curtain is that same green, bloated and disfigured hand of the woman we last saw in room 237. She hobbles out, her figure damp and ravaged by decay, and stares.
Thirty years later Danny has become an alcoholic drifter incapable of controlling the supernatural talent known to him only as The Shining. Hoping to keep his demons at bay, Danny drowns himself in alcohol and drugs to numb his connection to the aether as he wanders from one town to the next. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, a young girl has begun to Shine – and has attracted the attention of the same darkness that lives in the ruins of The Overlook Hotel.
DOCTOR SLEEP is a natural, beautifully made continuation of THE SHINING which doesn’t try to mimic or reboot Kubrick, but rather examine the legacy of his seminal horror film while tying it to the larger mythology of Stephen King’s ever expanding world of horror. Director Mike Flanagan takes what worked for Kubrick (namely the visuals and performances) and utilizes them with themes from the original novel – most of which Kubrick largely ignored for his adaptation – blending them together to form something new. It’s an exciting approach, suggesting that both works can live in unity, each bringing something important to the story in a way that doesn’t need to upstage the other.
It’s a smart move, too. DOCTOR SLEEP is not THE SHINING, or vice versa, and Flanagan doesn’t pretend like he’s the kind of filmmaker that Kubrick was. Instead, he asks us to consider the legacy of horror, what it means to us as viewers, and how much of our own personalities are tied to half-remembered recollections of a past that time has shaped askew. In one of the smartest and most deceptive turns of the film, we’re reintroduced to scenes from Kubrick’s original film without the original actors. Everyone looks almost the same, and yet removed from reality as we remember it. As if Danny’s own images of his tragic parentage have begun to fade. Memory, like adaptations, changes over time and what we remember soon becomes an amalgamation of half-truths and personal demons.
Then there is the terror. Peppered throughout the film are multiple harrowing scenes of violence that are intensely uncomfortable to watch, most of which are inflicted upon children regardless of their age. From terrifying visions of past horrors to an unbearably tense kidnapping, Flanagan pushes the film beyond cheap jump scares into agonizingly long takes of the worst possible scenarios unfolding without a chance to stop them. There is no otherworldly salvation, no God from the machine that would set us free from the nightmares. What happens, happens, and it is that terrible inevitability that is so frightening.
If it wasn’t for the charming and very funny Rebecca Ferguson, playing a deliciously evil Rose the Hat, these scenes wouldn’t work, they would simply be too much. Ferguson injects the film with levity and menace, grounding much of the supernatural into a performance that is at turns both wickedly fun, yet disturbing and alluring.
Another triumph is Kyliegh Curran as Abra Stone, the young girl with her very own Shining. Curran has the difficult part of both serving as an audience surrogate, helping us understand and emotionally connect with esoteric concepts of King-mythology like The Shining and The Mind Palace (a King favorite), and she carries the film effortlessly. Ewan McGregor, by contrast, gets the much more restrained part as Danny Torrance but is equally impressive. In one of his finest moments in the film, McGregor delivers a painful soliloquy of a boy whose father was a recollection of alcohol and violence, and only by self-inflicting that same destruction upon himself as an adult could he find a connection to a man he barely knew.
It is appropriate then, that where THE SHINING was about our fears of the future giving birth to waking nightmares in the present, DOCTOR SLEEP is about the importance of letting go of past trauma that shapes our future.
There is a beautiful scene early on in the film, at a point where Danny begins to take steps towards a new life, in which a dying patient asks for comfort in their final moments. In an instant we’re transported far from the macabre to such intense humanity that it shook me deeply to the core. Flanagan lets the scene linger, and we are there for the whole long journey of a soul coming to rest. It’s a startling and sudden realization not often seen in horror films; death is very real, and people are scared of the end. In a world of supernatural reality, DOCTOR SLEEP reminds us of a place we’re all going to be at one point or another. We sit by the bedside with Danny Torrance and death, the film slows to a crawl as everything else fades way, while we reminisce about a life lived and wait for the curtain to fall.
It is as profound and scary and captivating as life itself.