REVIEW – ‘Doctor Sleep’ paves its own muddled path to mixed results

It’s no secret Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of his novel The Shining. From the moment the film was released, King has been expressing his dissatisfaction with Kubrick’s work any chance he gets. For those who have read the book, you can empathise with the author. For better or worse, it’s a very different beast, particularly its vastly-different ending.

Over three decades later, King finally wrote a sequel novel, partly as an attempt to reclaim the story he felt had been bastardised by Kubrick.  Many assumed this meant a film adaptation of Doctor Sleep would likely never see the light of day. But, here we are in 2019, and nostalgia-laced sequels are all the rage. With King’s full approval, it’s time to head back to the Overlook Hotel.

While Doctor Sleep paves its own unique but muddled path to mixed results, there’s enough fan service and nostalgic references to make fanboys of its predecessor wildly happy. As messy and frustrating as the end result may be, this sequel still proves itself as fairly necessary, extending the legend of The Shining further but likely making you love the original just that little bit more.

Decades after the harrowing events at the Overlook, Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is still haunted by the memories of his traumatic childhood. Inheriting his late father’s alcoholism, Dan excessively drinks to numb his crippling PTSD and the psychic abilities (aka “the shining”) he’s possessed since he was a young lad.

After a particularly messy drunken night out, Dan flees for the quaint small town of Frazier, New Hampshire where he finally seeks help for his substance abuse problems by attending AA meetings. Taking up boarding, organised by fellow recovering alcoholic Billy (Cliff Curtis), Dan begins working at a local hospice, where he assists in comforting dying elderly patients in their final moments, earning him the titular nickname.

Despite attempting to avoid his “shining,” Dan begins to psychically connect with equally-gifted youngster Abra (Kyliegh Curran), with the pair communicating via messages left on the chalk wall in Dan’s rented room. Much like Dan received mentoring as a youngster from Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly standing in for the late Scatman Crothers), Abra is desperately in need of help with her gifts.

Far more pressing is the emergence of ancient villain Rose the Hat (a typically terrific Rebecca Ferguson) and her band of parasitic soul-sucking vampires known as The True Knot. In their merciless quest for immortality, this group of psychopaths feed off the “shine” of innocent young children by inhaling the “steam” which leaves their body when they die. Yikes. With no choice but to embrace the gifts he’s shunned for years, Dan joins forces with Abra to confront Rose and put an end to her reign of terror.

While there is a concerted effort for Doctor Sleep to stand on its own two feet, it can’t help but fall into the nostalgia trap beset by so many of these recent sequels. In the film’s elaborate finale, Dan heads back to the Overlook Hotel and we’re nauseatingly served up everything you’re likely expecting. Creepy twin girls in the hallway? Check. A torrent of blood gushing from the elevator? Check. Decrepit old woman in the bathtub of room 237? Check. The ballroom. The typewriter. The carpet. Check, check, check.

Homage is one thing. Shot-for-shot re-creations of an iconic piece of cinema are just completely redundant. Of course, the setting for the finale must be tied to Kubrick’s work, but writer/director Mike Flanagan goes too far with his attempts to connect the sequel to its predecessor by merely rehashing so much of it. We saw this nonsense in Steven Spielberg’s garish digitalised video game level of The Shining in Ready Player One. We really didn’t need it again.

It’s a disappointing end to what begins as a wildly different narrative, with Flanagan offering a deep introspection on trauma, addiction, and our very mortality. By returning to the very scene of his childhood pain, Dan quite literally has to confront the demons he’s avoided for decades. Doctor Sleep delivers a powerful message on the idea that running from one’s problems are never the answer. Dan can numb his pain, but it’s ever omnipresent in every facet of his life.

King wrote the novel as a reflection on his own struggles alcoholism. Unlike Kubrick, Flanagan embraces the addiction narrative to terrific effect, with Dan’s battle with the bottle forming an important part of his journey to recovery. The screenplay touches on the idea of hereditary addiction and the cycle of abuse that started in Dan’s childhood and now continues to haunt him. But once he discovers AA, it’s a thematic idea that’s sadly essentially tossed aside until the final act.

In a decidedly flat and rather uninteresting turn, McGregor delivers a relatively disappointing performance. There’s so much to explore with this character, but McGregor plays Dan to such understated levels, it never lands any semblance of impact. Whether a conscious decision or not, McGregor stays at one note for most of this film, making an audience equally as uninterested in this film as the actor appears to be.

As she has been previously required to do numerous times, Ferguson entirely saves Doctor Sleep, injecting some much-needed life into the film every time she’s on-screen. A deeply-layered and wildly unpredictable character, Rose makes for a sublime villain, offering much of the film’s darkly unsettling moments. Ferguson is wonderful when required to be sweet and charming, but even better when Rose’s true nature is unveiled. Enough with the supporting roles. It’s time to give Ferguson the spotlight she deserves.

In one particularly horrifying scene, Rose enacts her dastardly deeds on an innocent young baseball player, played by an uncredited cameo that will remain unspoiled. Flanagan is uncompromising in his construction of this scene, making it deeply uncomfortable for an audience to endure. But the chills are few and far between, as Doctor Sleep achingly meanders its way through a running time that’s a good hour too long. Far from the horror movie of its predecessor, this is hardly a film that will haunt your nightmares.

It would be easy to make a pun of Doctor Sleep ultimately putting an audience into a cosy slumber, but there are large portions of this film where your mind will certainly begin to wander. The narrative journeys off into a series of detours that all prove rather fruitless, as it barrels towards finding its way back to where it all began. There’s nothing wrong with a slow-burn film when such construction feels entirely valid. This just feels long for the sake of being long, as if it’s attempting to tease the finale we can all see coming a mile away.

While cinematographer Michael Fimognari attempts to spice things up with some impressive angles and the atmospheric score by The Newton Brothers tries to make your heart race by literally infusing a beating heart into their score (it gets old very quickly), it all becomes rather cumbersome. It’s undoubtedly a treat to visit the Overlook again, and credit has to be given to production designer Maher Ahmad for the meticulous recreations of such iconic sets.

However, one could really elicit the same feelings by simply popping on their Blu-ray copy of The Shining. It was an arduous task for Flanagan to venerate both of King’s novels and Kubrick’s classic film. And lord knows he tries his hardest to make something entirely original before eventually giving in to the lazy nostalgia we knew was coming.

Sure, Doctor Sleep is not a sequel that lazily rehashes literally everything that came before. And there’s still enough here to rescue this sequel from being a total failure. It’s a film that avoids its predecessor as hard as it can before eventually relenting. But it’s lacking so much of what made the original such a classic piece of cinema, so perhaps it would have been wise to embrace Kubrick’s work just a little bit closer.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Bruce Greenwood, Jocelin Donahue, Cliff Curtis, Robert Longstreet, Carel Struycken, Alex Essoe
Director: Mike Flanagan
Producers: Trevor Macy, Jon Berg
Screenplay: Mike Flanagan
Cinematography: Michael Fimognari
Production Design: Maher Ahmad
Costume Design: Terry Anderson
Music: The Newton Brothers

Editing: Mike Flanagan
Running Time: 151 minutes
Release Date: 7th November 2019 (Australia)