Did we need a sequel to The Shining, either Stephen King’s novel or Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 movie mounting of it? I would have said no. Doctor Sleep is, at least, based on a new-ish (2013) novel by King, but that’s nothing to get excited about lately: Hollywood’s recent attempts to bring the writer’s work to the big screen have been underwhelming, and that’s me being kind. Looking at you, Pet Sematary and both chapters of It.
So I settled in, expecting a cinematic endurance test. And I was stunned and delighted to discover that that never happened. Screenwriter and director Mike Flanagan has made a film that is actually beautiful and unexpectedly delicate, one that defies current Hollywood notions of what constitutes “horror.” Hell, in some ways it defies current Hollywood notions of what constitutes a movie.
Flanagan takes his time introducing us to his characters and their world, lets them breathe and live and just be in their skins, yet is never less than totally engaging while doing so. It is simultaneously shocking and a huge relief to see a movie – not an arthouse movie, not a movie intended as anything other than solid popcorn entertainment – that doesn’t feel the need to rush, to jump right into plot-plot-plot. It feels grown up, in a way that too few movies bother with nowadays.
It’s a solid hour into Doctor Sleep before anything approaching “horror” happens. It’s at least that long before you start to grasp how seemingly divergent story threads are going to interact, what these characters – who are not yet even aware of one another’s existence – are going to mean to one another, and even whether anyone is solidly villainous.
Not that there isn’t plenty unsettling here. For this is the tale of Danny Torrance – yes, that’s the little boy from The Shining, now all grown up, and not coping at all well with the legacy of what happened in that remote, snowed-in hotel in the Colorado Rockies when he was a little boy. Many of the early bits of Doctor Sleep are given over to adult Danny’s navigation of his own trauma, self-medicating the PTSD that has come from his paranormal ability to communicate with the dead, his “shining.”
The terror in Doctor Sleep isn’t merely “psychological” in that sense that has come to mean “springing from the sorts of terrible existential fears that keep you awake at night, rather than from graphic depictions of blood and gore,” but of a deeply humane, even mundane sort. This is a story in which the paranormal isn’t “weird,” per se, more a metaphor for those keeping-you-awake dreads, just part of the human experience, and often a sympathetically painful one. Ewan McGregor, as the adult Danny, turns in one of his best performances in absolute ages, bringing a tender silkiness to Danny’s distress. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of Doctor Sleep is how McGregor draws us so profoundly into Danny’s suffering, makes it so plausible, even as the cause of it is entirely fantastical. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a story do better at making the fictional dichotomy between the invented uncanny and the human response to it feel so real.
Danny finds a way to manage the supernatural stuff he has to deal with (the title of the movie refers to it, but I won’t spoil) but then he encounters, supernaturally, a tween girl. Abra Stone (newbie Kyliegh Curran, who almost steals the movie from McGregor) shares his “talent” for the “shining” and, because of it, is being targeted by a group of supernaturally talented people led by “Rose the Hat” (played by Rebecca Ferguson, who is chilling) who prey on children like Abra because…
Well, Doctor Sleep is not a familiar sort of horror movie, not least because it busts a longstanding taboo of the genre, the one that says that there should be no depiction of children being hurt or killed on screen. That happens here. And it is deeply awful, as it should be. But it never feels exploitative. It feels exactly as horrific as it should.
Doctor Sleep is too straightforward in style, too free of pretense and artsiness to be called Kubrickian – and it seems obvious there was no attempt on Flanagan’s part to even aim for such a mood – but this seems a worthy follow-up to the 1980 film nevertheless. There’s an honesty here that feels rare for a horror film, an undismissableness that cements the strange and supernatural as undeniably authentic.
Usually we have to suspend our disbelief to buy into a movie like Doctor Sleep. The fact that that seems unnecessary here? Now that’s really scary.
DOCTOR SLEEP ( 3 ½ ) Directed by Mike Flanagan • Starring Jacob Tremblay, Rebecca Ferguson, Ewan McGregor, Kyliegh Curran • Rated R • 151 min. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Century Marina, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas, Lighthouse Cinemas