Making a satisfying sequel is one of the most daunting tasks a filmmaker can face. Usually, a sequel only goes into production if the original film has a notable level of popularity, which means there’s already a fanbase with certain expectations. It’s hard enough to meet those expectations 2-3 years after the original, so you can imagine the pressure 40 years after. This was the challenge facing author Stephen King, when writing the 2013 novel, Doctor Sleep, a continuation of his 1977 horror classic, The Shining. Just as Stanley Kubrick brought us his film adaptation of The Shining in 1980, Director Mike Flanagan brings us a film adaptation of Doctor Sleep. Given how iconic and popular Kubrick’s film has become since its release, Flanagan doesn’t buckle under the pressure and has turned in a sequel that is better than expected.
Set almost 40 years after the terrifying events The Shining, Danny Torrance played by Ewan McGregor, has descended into alcoholism to deal with his psychic abilities (called the Shining), as well as the trauma he suffered as a child. While trying to find himself, he comes into contact with Kyliegh Curran’s Abra Stone, a young girl with powerful Shining abilities who is under threat from a cult called the True Knot, who plan to kill her and consume her shine. The True Knot is led by the ominous leader known as Rose The Hat, with Rebecca Ferguson in the role.
Director Mike Flanagan is wonderfully appropriate for this kind of surrealist horror, as he has already adapted Stephen King with Gerald’s Game (2017). Just like that earlier piece, Flanagan knows how to translate the goofy concepts to screen without any hint of irony. The haunting atmosphere in Doctor Sleep proves that Flanagan is a modern master of horror. He knows how to build tension and when to release it to creep you out, without ever resorting to cheap jump scares or exploitative gore. To be sure, Doctor Sleep definitely doesn’t skimp on the shocking and bloody violence, but it’s far more interested in building a sense of fear with clever filmmaking techniques as oppose to relying on its buckets of fake blood. As a mood piece, Flanagan gives Kubrick a run for his money.
While the nightmarish mood of the film is masterful, Flanagan’s screenplay leaves some things to be desired. The Shining had a cohesive set up, build up and pay-off, whereas Doctor Sleep has many complicated plates spinning at once. Don’t get me wrong, each story thread adds to the overall narrative, with all threads being compelling and appropriately creepy. It’s whenever the various story threads try to converge that the questions begin to arise, as the film’s world is built without much in the way of explanation.
The rules that governed the universe in the The Shining were also kept a little unclear, but it didn’t matter since it didn’t introduce the supernatural details as explicitly. In Doctor Sleep, the questions around these little details build up but are never answered, at one point even introducing an entire character arc which isn’t as important as originally suggested. Despite these structural issues, Flanagan manages to have all these threads come together in a phenomenal and provocative third act climax.
What also helps mask the structural issues are the layered characters and how they connect to each other. All three principle leads carry their story threads, conjuring equal levels of sympathy and fear from the audience. Ewan McGregor is a revelation as the older Danny, effectively wearing 40 years of trauma which makes his various leaps forward incredibly endearing. Relative newcomer Kyliegh Curran, does impressive work as Abra Stone, holding her own against the more seasoned actors. The horror movie child who is both charming and haunting is a common cliché, but Curran makes it her own. However, it’s Rebecca Ferguson who steals the show, giving an absolutely chilling turn as the sinister Rose the Hat. Not only does she make your skin crawl, but she has her own wants, needs and desires, making her one of the more fleshed out villains we’ve seen from the horror genre in recent years. With a villain as complex as Rose, Danny is not the only one who gets to walk in Jack Torrance’s shoes.
When it comes to living up to a legacy, it’s Flanagan himself who most impressively follows what came before him. It’s kind of impossible to discuss Doctor Sleep without addressing how it relates to The Shining, as the reputation of the original film can’t be ignored. With that in mind, Flanagan packs in many references and iconic moments from the original film. Not only does that include callbacks to famous lines and re-creations of famous shots, but also creating new narrative beats which mirror similar beats from the original. Flanagan is a smart storyteller who knows the best ways to make direct reference and how to have those same references mean new things. While it’s perfectly possible that many audiences will be bored to see it pander to the fans, Doctor Sleep is still a successful example of how to recreate the experience of watching the original film and make it new again.
Whenever these kind of sequels come around, the filmmaker is trying to achieve five things: respect the legacy, create their own story, appeal to the fans, appeal to new audiences and recreate the feeling everyone had when the original first played. Even with the pressure of producing a film nearly 40 year late, Flanagan and his team have crafted a sequel that is better than it has any right to be by mostly hitting all five targets. Even with some structural issues and the possibility of audiences thinking it’s pandering, Doctor Sleep is a surreal, haunting and provocative experience. It successfully brings the legacy of The Shining back to the screen and makes it fresh for a modern audience.
Best way to watch it: Buy all the popcorn from the candy bar. You’ll need to stress eat.