Doctor Sleep is the second Stephen King adaptation this year that runs over two and a half hours long, but those still unable to shake the stagnant sewage aftertaste of It Chapter 2 can rest assured – this one is actually entertaining. Easily the best of the four King adaptations this year (the other 2 being Pet Sematary and In the Tall Grass – both dreadful), Doctor Sleep isn’t just an adaptation of a novel or a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but a potent mixture of the two with a refreshing flavor of its own, though it runs the risk of alienating those not familiar with King’s stranger sensibilities.
Hot on the heels of his Netflix horror series The Haunting of Hill House, which received wildly mixed reception (at least from my circles), Mike Flanagan directs his second King adaptation and further proves, after the stellar and admittedly stronger Gerald’s Game, that he may be the only modern filmmaker equipped to tackle the legendary author’s work. Burdened with the task of making a worthy sequel to Kubrick’s horror classic, but ensuring it’s insulated enough to work on its own, he takes the best elements of the novel, invents interesting ways to dull the goofiness, and borrows evocative imagery from the original film that’s been haunting our dreams for decades. Regardless of whether Doctor Sleep totally works for general audiences, you have to applaud Flanagan for his ingenuity.
The plot is, well, dense. We pick up shortly after the events of The Shining, with young Danny Torrance still haunted by the guests of the Overlook Hotel. Luckily, his old pal Hallorann reappears to him as a spiritual guide and helps him deal with these lingering demons by teaching him to build mental boxes in his head where he can store them. After a lengthy time lapse, our protagonist (he goes by Dan now) has seemingly hit rock bottom, having fallen victim to the alcoholism that consumed his father. He moves, starts going to Alcoholics Anonymous, and cleans himself up. Cut to present day – Dan is years sober and begins receiving strange distress messages written on his wall. His telepathic pen pal is Abra, a young girl who warns Dan about a group of hunters who feed on those with the shining.
This barely scratches the surface. I haven’ t even gotten to Dan’s employment at an elderly care facility where he, with help from a cat that has a sixth sense for impending death, uses his shining to put patients at ease just before they die, giving him his titular nickname. More bizarre is the group of aforementioned hunters who resemble humans but are actually vampire-adjacent creatures that stay alive by sucking the life essence (referred to as “steam”) out of people who can shine. They call themselves the True Knot and have nicknames like Crow Daddy, Rose the Hat, and Grandpa Flick. We first see them luring and presumably murdering a very young girl, which sets up their M.O. aiming for children and puts Abra in direct danger.
Doctor Sleep’s eccentricities may be overwhelming for those not already inundated by King’s proclivity for the peculiar. Sure, The Shining featured ghosts and telepathy, but a group of undead hunters traveling in RVs, sucking “steam” from the mouths of people who shine, sometimes blowing it into canisters to store for later, and astral projecting their way into people’s consciousnesses either to control them or sift through their mental compartments for information, well, that’s a different ballpark entirely. Flanagan, who also adapted the novel for the screen, is mostly successful in making the more peculiar terminology and narrative developments of King’s novel less goofy than they read on paper, though there’s still the occasional line of dialogue that flat-out doesn’t work, e.g. “They ate his steam.” Even more commendable is the way he alters the source material to smooth over the rougher edges.
Even fervent fans of King’s work readily admit his endings are often terrible (It Chapter 2 even features a winking joke about it), and you need to look no further than Flanagan’s own adaptation of Gerald’s Game to see a clear example of this. I wouldn’t dare spoil the ending for Doctor Sleep, but I will say the way Flanagan deviates from the novel (and it is a massive deviation) is just brilliant. He finds a way to honor both the legacy of the Kubrick original and satisfy King purists in such a remarkable and inventive way. I was stunned. It can’t be overstated how much the overall success of Doctor Sleep rests on Flanagan’s shoulders.
That’s not to say the film isn’t without its flaws. Very early on, Flanagan recreates scenes from the original film and the actors hired to portray these characters are essentially relegated to doing imitations that fall into an off-putting uncanny valley. The film is also too long; even considering how well it consolidates the thick source material, the pacing occasionally drags and could have benefitted from a couple plotlines being condensed, reworked, or excised entirely. And while Ewan McGregor is great, the performances from the rest of the cast are a mixed bag. Luckily, Dan is the heart of the film and the story is mostly focused around him, but there are plenty of scenes without him, to the film’s detriment.
Doctor Sleep is about grappling with the past, which is fitting for a follow-up to a major horror classic. Through alcohol, Dan was able to elude his past for years, but now that he’s given up the destructive habit, his demons, quite literally, come back to haunt him. The True Knot may be the new villains in town, but the specters of the Overlook aren’t finished with Dan either, and reliving the imagery from the original, whether it be the woman in the bathtub or the elevator doors pouring blood, is as chilling as it is thrilling. It’s not just nostalgia at play either, as Flanagan takes bold choices with the film’s third act that pay off handsomely, especially for King fans.
Audiences expecting a direct sequel to The Shining will likely be disappointed as it veers more into sci-fi than horror, and its runtime threatens to test the patience of the average moviegoer, but those looking for a departure from your typical run-of-the-mill Stephen King adaptation will be pleasantly surprised. Doctor Sleep is a welcomed delve into the weirder side of King, with an excellent performance from McGregor grounding the wackier elements, and a thoughtful, ambitious approach from Flanagan complimenting the novel’s strong suits. It’s a modest success as a sequel, an adaptation, and a strong sci-fi/horror film in its own right.