I’ve not read Doctor Sleep, the follow-up to Stephen King’s famed original tale of a man gone mad inside a haunted hotel. King has infamously maligned Kubrick’s vision for The Shining since the film’s release back in 1980, and its subsequent assimilation into the annals of celebrated film history, for doing what he believed to be a disservice to his story by deviating heavily from the source material. Director Mike Flanagan promised to create an adaption that did justice both to Kubrick’s classic film and King’s novel; a centrist compromise to sate King’s everlasting discomfort with the freedoms took with his own story …and maybe sate a little something else. During a time when the market value for nostalgia-porn is only just beginning to peak (and during a year where one recreation of The Shining somehow already made its way to cinemas in 2018), one might say an adaptation of King’s sequel to a classic horror novel and even more acclaimed film feels just a tiny bit opportune.
Sure, the novel had existed for the past six years, just before Stranger Things kicked off our romanticised recollections of 80s synth tunes and browsing through Blockbuster Videos – but its placement in 2019 can’t help but come off as a little…underhanded. “Remember The Shining?” the trailer seemed to say when it first dropped over the summer, just as films and television shows for the past five years have been telling us to do fondly in exchange for our money. And though people had cooed for months to just wait and give the film a shot (because, of course, the film will have Shining recreations – it’s a sequel to The Shining, after all), Doctor Sleep has a lot of difficulty finding the words to say anything else.
Directly following the events of The Shining, young Danny Torrance remains haunted by the spirits of the Overlook while living with his mother, Wendy. But he is guided by Dick Hallorann through using his ‘shining’ to lock the hungry spirits away, as they are intent on consuming Danny’s power. Years later, Danny (now played by Ewan McGregor) is an alcoholic drug addict, tormented endlessly by the death of his rage-fuelled father whom he never really knew. After a particularly nasty one-night stand, Danny decides to head further north and turn his life around in New Hampshire, attending AA meetings and working as an orderly at a hospice. The patients begin calling Danny ‘Doctor Sleep’ (AAYYYYYYY), as he uses his shining powers to comfort those about to step over to the other side. Eight years later, Danny is a successfully recovered addict living a moderately fulfilling and peaceful life.
But during this time period, Danny has become ESP pen pals with a shining-endowed girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who communicates with him through his chalkboard-walled bedroom. An especially powerful shiner, Abra is soon the focus of a group of immortal beings led by one Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) – a sinister organisation who feed off of those who shine, specifically young kids, or turn others into beings like them to assist their hunt for more children. You see, young shiners (called ‘steamers’ by the gang, as the shine they consume is let off as steam as the children die) are now very hard to come by, and though these beings are technically ‘immortal,’ they need to feed on steam in order to survive once turned. After discovering the extent of Abra’s power, Rose and her gang begin their desperate search as Danny tries to protect her.
As with much of Mike Flanagan’s previous work, the film is really about trauma; the influence of our pasts on our present selves, just as much as the looming presence of The Shining influences this film. But it’s an influence that the film has difficulty properly interrogating, as the sheer weight of Kubrick’s legacy hangs over every inch of the frame like a watchful, judgemental deity. Kubrick’s film does not simply echo throughout Doctor Sleep, but actively takes part in it. Shots, staging, music, and even character movements are meant to mirror those of the classic film, beyond the recreation of scenes lifted directly from the film with actors playing Wendy (Alexandra Essoe), young Danny (Roger Dale Floyd) Dick (Carl Lumbly), and even Jack Torrance (Henry Thomas). Perhaps, it’s an elite, purest sensibility, but there’s something quite perverse about attempting to ape off these original cinematic depictions and stretch them beyond their means.
Thus, the film ends up feeling less like its own story and more like person dragging its own demons behind them. In a way, it’s like King’s Doctor Sleep novel dragging the legacy of its story pulled in two different directions: that of Kubrick’s and that of King’s original intent. The film wants you to remember the road that its successor laid before it – the importance of its placement in the story and Flanagan’s acceptance of its idolatry, while working the source material into something new, but it comes off more as fanfic than anything else. This becomes especially egregious towards the end, when the spirits of the Overlook are resurrected all at once in Danny and Abra’s attempt to trap Rose the Hat. A reunion between adult Danny and his former tormentors plays like something a teenaged cinephile came up in his daydreams. Any nuanced portrait of confronting our traumatic experiences becomes lost in this cartoonish revival of these classic horror icons, and it’s not necessarily something that’s even Mike Flanagan’s fault.
From the get-go, Flanagan would be plagued by the legacy of The Shining. The power of the film’s impact on cinema and pop culture is impossible to shake, or to surpass. And while Flanagan attempted to do neither, the resulting product is a film undeniably beholden to its former master. Despite a scenery-chewing performance from Rebecca Ferguson (Ewan McGregor is serviceable, whereas Kyliegh Curran – as with the majority of child acting – leaves much to be desired), it’s not enough to save a film that may have simply been cursed from the start. The demons of Danny Torrance might have a way to be defeated, but the demons of The Shining linger on. Perhaps, it was best to simply leave them be.
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs