If the horror genre is a launching pad, Stanley Kubrick gracefully soared off it with The Shining. Thirty-nine years later, writer-director Mike Flanagan can’t escape gravitational pull with his sequel, Doctor Sleep, based on Stephen King’s 2013 novel, but let’s not hold him to the Kubrick standard. The new film isn’t a masterpiece. So what? It’s a well-executed suspenser that radiates spooky unease. It’s roughly on the level of It — crafty, polished, reasonably smart — not an item of obsession.
Doctor Sleep’s pleasures mainly consist in figuring out exactly what is going on, so I’ll merely sketch the outlines of the plot. We begin in 1980 Florida, where young Danny Torrance and his mother have moved to get as far from snow as possible, but Danny remains haunted by ghosts. These bits could have been cut, but the middle of the movie, set over eight years starting in 2011, is affecting and somber, an oblique way for King to deal with his long-enduring alcoholism. (He got sober in the late ’80s.) Middle-aged Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is an ill-tempered alcoholic and drug abuser. His efforts at self-reform provide the movie with a strong emotional core as well as a useful metaphor for the torment of the Torrances. Alcohol abuse is the dangerous ghost that haunts many a family, always threatening to show up without warning and start destroying things: “Here’s Johnnie!” Walker. Alcoholism is also Dan’s way of connecting with his departed father, a point driven home in a powerful late scene. Dan isn’t the first man to wonder whether he’s doomed to follow dad’s path.
Dan dries out and finds peace in a surprising place, when he lands a gig as an orderly in a home for the dying and comforts his clients as they pass away. He reassures the anguished that they are merely going to sleep, hence the film’s title. Meanwhile, a wandering troupe of horribles led by a magician-beauty named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) takes interest in dying people for an entirely different reason. Connecting Dan to Rose is a little girl in New Hampshire, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who has the same telepathic/telekinetic shine he does and reaches out to him in a surprising way that evokes the earlier film.
It’s striking that Stephen King continues to devise new flavors of the macabre, to keep adding to a store of ideas that is almost without compare. (This is the fourth King movie to appear on screens this year alone.) Monsters are like air travel; there haven’t been a lot of breakthrough developments in that field over the last few decades. Yet King seems to have devised a new-ish category of monster, somewhere between vampire and witch. King has become such a cultural fixture that we don’t appreciate him enough. A warning for those who can’t handle the abuse of children on screen, though: Kids get tortured and killed.
Rather than strictly continuing with the story begun by The Shining, Doctor Sleep has so many new ideas that it feels like it sprouted as an entirely different story that King later realized could be tied in with his 1977 novel. The new storylines make for gripping stuff in a crepuscular, phantasmal journey around the country. When all of King’s cards are finally laid out, in a busy third act that turns the Overlook Hotel into a Six Flags theme park of horror, the grip of the film slightly loosens, but even so there is plenty of nightmare fuel in this tense two-and-a-half-hour film — ten minutes longer, even, than The Shining, which was amazingly leisurely for its day.
I couldn’t resist being thrilled to hear that doomy Berlioz theme music when the movie takes us back up to the Rocky Mountain lodge where the events of the first film took place. Are we allowed to cheer when we see the hotel again? I felt like cheering. The term “fan service” comes to mind, though. It’s like a class reunion at Hell High. There are moments in the final act when things turn a bit silly (one interlude in particular, a literal pile-on, seems unintentionally comical). Also, no one in any film, ever, should utter the words, “Shine on,” especially not in one that takes off from The Shining.
Though Kubrick’s adaptation and The Shawshank Redemption are the only films made from King’s stories that achieved greatness, nearly everything he writes contains at least one brilliantly twisted element, and Doctor Sleep has lots of them. It’s a shame that more top-tier directors haven’t chosen to dig around in the capacious mines of King’s imagination. Like The Godfather, The Shining showed that pulp can be the basis of a cinema masterpiece.