Courtesy of Warner Bros.
On paper, a sequel to the Stanley Kubrick 1980 classic “The Shining” isn’t something audiences needed these days. You almost wonder who would be silly enough to attempt such a thing? Then, of course, you see that it was the master himself: Stephen King and suddenly “Doctor Sleep” has a sense of urgency to it. Now, I never read the 561 page follow-up to King’s iconic novel (and he’s gone on the record stating he’s not a fan of Kubrick’s version and insisted audiences check out the critically bashed remake that came decades later) - but if anything, writer and director Mike Flanagan’s homage and ode to the literary source material shines bright in “Doctor Sleep,” which stands on its own and proves a thrilling and a welcome return to the Overlook Hotel.
In “Doctor Sleep,” audiences will find a happy medium between the two stories and catches up with Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor - terrific) decades after his crazed dad tried to slaughter his family in the creepy Colorado lodging. But while “The Shining” arguably focused on addiction, the follow-up is solely built upon the path to recovery and redemption of a man still tested by his inner demons.
Sure, Danny survived the events that took place at the Overlook when he was five, but he didn’t leave unscatched and the ghouls still want to consume his psychic powers or, if you want to get technical, his “shine.” While he finds inventive ways to lock his repressed memories away, he spends decades trying to suppress the pain through alcoholism and drugs (something his father tried to do before he froze to death). The adult Dan winds up in New Hampshire, gets sober with the help of his sponsor (Cliff Curtis) and works as an orderly at a nearby hospice facility, where he’s able to use his powers to help terminally ill patients die peacefully, hence the nickname “Doctor Sleep.”
During this time, Dan is also reached out telepathically by Abra Stone (a wonderful Kyliegh Curran), a young girl with a strong shine who wants to form bonds with those like her. She enlists in Dan’s help after she physically feels the brutal murder of a boy with similar traits by a vampire like cult known as the True Knot. Led by the charismatic Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson having loads of fun), the squad looks like a cross between baby boomers and hipsters, and are a self-immortal bunch who feed off the psychic essence of children like Abra, keeping them young and fresh forever. So when Abra begins poking around, she hops on their radar and Dan becomes involved in a cross-country game of cat and mouse that culminates in an earned maze and axe showdown at the snowy Overlook. And oh is it sweet.
Production designers Maher Ahmed and Patricio M. Farrell, as well as Flanagan, deserve credit for perfectly recapturing the look inside the coveted Overlook, from the patterns on the carpet to the old lady lurking in room 237. In a strange, alibiet, creepy way, it’s like visiting old friends. There’s even a sequence where Danny sits at the bar and the bartender resembles someone who might look familiar (though, I’m puzzled why digital effects didn’t do more here). Aside from that, “Doctor Sleep” never feels cheap or a lame excuse to cash in a beloved property. There’s real stakes here, and when we finally arrive at the hotel late in the third act (the film runs a tad long at 151 minutes) it feels like we’ve earned the right to come back.
Ewen McGregor hardly seems to get enough credit for the projects he chooses to do, and he’s sneakily calm, quiet, and powerful here. The same goes for the young Curran whose scene between True Knot baddie Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon) is one of the best scripted moments in a horror film this year. Which should come as no surprise because Flanagan is one of the more noteworthy horror directors working today. From the twisty slasher flick “Hush” to the Netflix blockbuster “The Haunting of Hill House,” and all the way back to “Oculus” - Flanagan has a visceral style and energy to his projects and “Doctor Sleep” doesn’t buck the trend. Here, he respects the vision of King and brings something new to the table, and though it’s not better than a loony Jack Nicholson chopping down doors and taking names, the film is still woke enough to deliver the thrills.