Doctor Sleep (2019)
It is an extremely bold & audacious move to follow into the footsteps of one of the most acclaimed & accomplished films of all time. And it appears all the more foolhardy when the original was helmed by Stanley Kubrick, hands down the greatest filmmaker to have ever lived. Today, The Shining is not only a staple of pop culture but is also hailed by many as arguably the most aesthetic, artistic & technically adept of all horror films. Its methodically structured & meticulously layered narrative complexity has spawned several interpretations over the years and it remains a topic of discussion amongst cinema buffs even today. To build a new story upon a film with such legendary repute is by all means no mere task.
And yet, against all expectations, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep manages to defy the odds and lives up to the hype. The film doesn’t touch the creative heights of its predecessor but it is a follow-up story that, instead of trying to measure up to Kubrick’s masterpiece, chooses to be its own thing while paying homage to the original & retaining its essence in every way at the same time. An adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name, which in itself is a sequel to his earlier book that Kubrick adapted into a film with severe modifications that the author disapproved, Doctor Sleep is an attempt by Flanagan to reconcile the differences and streamline the narratives of all three sources into one, and the result is a film that works both as a worthy sequel & an impressive adaptation.
The story follows Danny Torrence, the young kid with psychic powers who is still reeling from his traumatic experience at the Overlook Hotel and continues to find himself being haunted by ghosts from the dreaded place until he learns to box them all inside his mind. Now an adult, he drinks heavily to suppress his shining abilities and suffers from anger issues just like his father but eventually finds some stability in life after moving to a small town, joining a self-help group & taking a job at a hospice where he utilises his shine to comfort dying patients, thus earning the titular nickname. In the meantime, he comes into contact with a young girl who possesses a similar trait & maintains telepathic interactions with her. But when her life is under threat, Danny is forced to confront his demons to save her.
Written, directed & edited by Mike Flanagan, Doctor Sleep is possibly the finest film of his directorial career, and undoubtedly his most ambitious. His rise has been steady over the years & his consistent delivery of quality works of horror made him the perfect candidate to helm this project. There was simply no way in hell that this film could’ve avoided its comparison to the mighty predecessor that is now widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time, and Flanagan’s decision to focus on his strengths and provide his own touch to the material is the reason why this story feels like a true successor and is still more than capable of standing on its own. It has a separate identity yet it is similar to The Shining in more ways than one. And though the craftsmanship isn’t precise like it was in Kubrick’s fable, it doesn’t dent the original’s legacy at all.
Flanagan’s direction exudes both composure & confidence while also exhibiting restraint as he allows the premise to set up at a relaxed pace, and acquaints the audience with the fundamentals of this sequel in a gradual fashion, for there are many elements in here that were present in King’s novel but missing in the 1980 film adaptation. Where The Shining kept the viewers guessing with its clever mix of supernatural & psychological elements, the sequel inclines more towards the former and is more explicit in depicting those. Also commendable is the decision to recast reprising characters rather than going digital, for their sole purpose was to remind us of those iconic figures. The film also employs the set piece of The Overlook Hotel, rebuilt from scratch instead of opting for CGI but the latter is applied to provide a dilapidated touch to the setup.
The rest of the technical aspects share more similarity with Flanagan’s previous works and their execution also fall under the director’s trademark, whether it is smooth camerawork, warm colour palette, proper lighting or smart use of genre elements. Also missing are the jump scares that many horror films of today rely on to deliver the chills, as the director lets the viewers immerse themselves into its patiently unfolding world and then allows the foreboding vibe to take over. As for the violence in store, the film doesn’t hold back on that aspect at all, and is downright savage when it’s meant to be. Editing unfolds the plot at its desired pace, and steers its 2½ hours runtime in such fashion that the interest is never lost. Also worthy of mention is the The Newton Brothers’ menacing soundtrack, for those pulsating tracks have a palpable feel that keeps us alert at all times.
Coming to the acting department, Doctor Sleep features an interesting ensemble in Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis & Kyliegh Curran. McGregor is convincing in the role of Danny Torrence and delivers a balanced input that captures his character’s inner ordeal with precision. Curtis also chips in with a brilliant supporting work as the good samaritan who helps Dan recover from his alcoholism & find some sense of purpose in life. Curran skilfully plays her part in her feature film debut, plus her chemistry with McGregor has a natural flow to it. However, the real show-stealer of this horror is none other than Ferguson who infuses elixir into her already compelling character, plays her with finesse & is thoroughly captivating in the cult leader role, thus adding another splendid performance to her résumé. Jacob Tremblay also makes a cameo appearance in what’s possibly the most horrifying scene in the whole picture.
On an overall scale, Doctor Sleep is a highly impressive follow-up to The Shining, and is far better than what I anticipated. It succeeds as a successor to Kubrick’s classic. It works as a successful film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. And it also qualifies as a fitting sequel to both the 1980 film & its 1977 source. Flanagan has done it again, and it just might be the biggest accomplishment of his career so far, for stepping into the greatest auteur’s footsteps is an intimidating venture in itself, and the fact that he triumphed at his attempt further establishes him as one of the masters of contemporary horror storytelling. The film isn’t without its shortcomings, for everything after the antagonist’s final fate is not on par with all that came before. But it is still an intelligently crafted & ingeniously narrated sequel that analyses the works of King & Kubrick with clarity, and is a welcome addition to both sagas. Expertly illustrating how childhood trauma can seep into adulthood to create new horrors, Doctor Sleep is a shining example of its genre that marks a major step-up for Mike Flanagan’s filmmaking endeavours, and is one of the best films of the year. Highly recommended.