What do you get when a director is tasked with bringing together a heralded writer’s vision with a deeply beloved and universally acclaimed film released forty years prior that said writer himself despises? Apparently, that is Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, a movie that has commendable ambitions and yet can’t help but devolve into a frantic state of callbacks by the end. The first two acts certainly have problems of their own, but at least choices are being made and there is some sense of originality. By the final act, Flanagan actively decides that it’s time to pay homage to Stanley Kubrick’s original film, The Shining (1980). But, this goes beyond paying homage, as Flanagan practically recreates that film in every way he can, losing track of the story he has been telling for the past couple hours. Doctor Sleep is a messy film, one that struggles to maintain a consistent tone and focus. It succeeds in moments and sequences where Flanagan is able to flaunt his knack for building horror and tension but fails when his ambitions get the best of him. Overall, it’s an incredibly uneven experience, one that will vary in its success with audiences.
When Rebecca Ferguson is playing a campy and cackling villain, the film is at its best. She plays Rose the Hat, a character whose sole purpose is to suck the shine out of “shiners,” ones like Danny from the original film. The shine allows her and her crew of bandits to live nearly forever. It’s more or less vampires sucking blood, but they’re able to be out in the daylight and appear on the outside to be normal humans. The film is set in present-day, nearly forty years after the events of the original book and film. Danny appears to be suffering from serious PTSD and is a barely functioning adult until he gets taken under the wing of an AA group. From there he begins to lead a normal life, until he connects with a fellow shiner, a pre-teen girl in New England played by Kyliegh Curran. When she starts to have visions of Rose the Hat’s crew and their evils, she goes to Danny for help and the story jumps off from there. The supernatural elements of the film are strong, taking on a nearly comic book vibe in the way it constructs the power of its characters. This is different from how the supernatural is conveyed in Kubrick’s film and it is to this film’s detriment. By making “the shine” such a focal point of the film and portraying it at face value, all the intrigue and mystery of The Shining is lost.
Still, there is stuff to like in those first two acts. As stated, Rebecca Ferguson is easily the MVP of the film, really hamming it up in a way that you can tell she is having a ton of fun. Ewan McGregor is a compelling presence, but he is also nothing to write home about, following a career storyline without standout performances. The supporting cast varies greatly in its success. You could say the third star of the film is director Mike Flanagan himself. Coming off the breakout success of last year’s Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House and Gerald’s Game (2017), Flanagan was an exciting get for Warner Bros. to bring Stephen King’s sequel to the big screen. Unfortunately because of all the moving pieces Flanagan needs to juggle this is probably the messiest and least successful of all those projects. There are sequences when we get to see his knack for building horror, tension, and suspense, but most of the time they are undercut by some ridiculous callback to the original or just an inherent corniness to the story that never felt present in Kubrick’s original film. These reservations mostly come to roost in the third act, with some really interesting ties to that film but for the most part, feeling like fan service and forced integration. The balance is all over the place and because of it the film isn’t able to stick its landing in any meaningful way.
Doctor Sleep succeeds at being entertaining and intriguing for most of its runtime, but by its closing shot, we are left wondering what was the point of it all. After having rewatched The Shining beforehand, not only does this film clearly pale in comparison in its craft and execution but in a lot of ways it also undermines some of its best qualities. In the end, it is unclear who this film will work for, as it acts as a corny and hollow sequel to Kubrick’s masterpiece and by trying to honor the film it also doesn’t fully adhere to Stephen King’s original story. As a result, this film can only be seen as a failed experiment. Unfortunately for Flanagan and Warner Bros, the box office has reflected this outcome as well, looking like one of this year’s biggest bombs. Flanagan has built up enough cred that this shouldn’t be too big a hit to his reputation in Hollywood, but perhaps it is a sign that the recent Stephen King renaissance is falling out of vogue. Either way, it is clear that Doctor Sleep isn’t a movie people will remember with much adoration, much less as being a worthy sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s brilliance, making us wonder why we needed this in the first place.