Warning: Light spoilers referencing scenes in the trailers
I knew Doctor Sleep might let me down when it opened with the theme from The Shining. Although it is indeed a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s all-time great spooker, opening with that theme, the Overlook Hotel and the stylized title card all spoke to my concerns that Sleep would be unable to create an identity of its own, indebted as it is to the tremendous success of its predecessor nearly 40 years ago. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the case.
Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has now grown up, beset by the same bottle demons as his late father, Jack. Alcohol dampens his Shine, a latent psychic ability that made him a target of the Overlook Hotel’s menagerie of ghosts in the first movie and subsequently haunted by them as he grows up although, honestly, that’s not well conveyed. The first act of Sleep hops between Torrance and two other ongoing plots: the exploits of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), leader of a psychic vampire cult, and Abra (Kyliegh Curran), another young girl who possesses the Shine. All threads converge and lead back to the Overlook Hotel. None gets the space necessary to develop.
The massive Overlook Hotel nostalgia houses the best moments in Sleep, but I’ll get to those in due time. The problem is that the first two acts, each about an hour in length, are interminable exposition dumps that feel more like a plot outline than an actual story featuring characters. After Danny sobers up, he becomes a hospice nurse who uses his Shine to help dying patients go gently into the night, earning his nickname “Doctor Sleep.” This was supposedly the genesis for Stephen King’s return to Danny’s story in the original novel, and it’s an incredible character beat that gets short shrift due to the speed with which writer-director Mike Flanagan has to make his way from Point A to B to C to Overlook.
It almost feels like Flanagan is trying to explain the novel rather than capture it in motion. As an avid King fan it’s always disappointing when film adaptions don’t feel like they capture his style, friendliness or, well, corniness. Flanagan actually does a great job of making it feel like a King novel, right down to the moments of needlessly extreme violence and anti-climactic fates for villains (as the mundanity of evil may be King’s most essential theme). But … it feels too much like a novel, as in there are too many beats that demand internal monologue to express the emotions.
That is frustrating because there is substance to be had, like the nature of Danny’s job or Abra’s experience as a psychic woman. Ferguson is awesome and adopts an instantly iconic aesthetic as Rose the Hat. As she and her ilk speak of wanting to live forever, it naturally contrasts with Danny’s philosophy of letting things die and / or burying them. But strangely those warring ideas don’t feel properly engaged with outside of monologues during the final action sequence. Danny’s ghosts, too, never feel emotionally vivid until the final act at the Overlook, wherein very, very heavy-handed callbacks to Kubrick’s The Shining mix desperate grasps at nostalgia with real emotional catharsis.
But then again … that Overlook Hotel: Has there ever been a better cinematic haunted house? Seriously. Returning there, watching Danny walk through its gorgeous architecture and ultimately having Danny play out the original ending of The Shining novel are great fun but only underscore how insubstantial the whole affair turns out to be. If the studio had not decided to move forward with using the Kubrick aesthetics, would anyone give a shit? If this been a straightforward adaptation of Doctor Sleep, there’s no chance in hell.
Sure, the novel’s ending is reportedly worse, but the film ending is painfully standard stuff for a ghost story and hits the standard beats of overcoming trauma to find redemption. From the very first sequence, it lives and dies by nostalgia. The only thing keeping the story moving forward for two whole hours is the promise of seeing the Overlook again, which pays off well enough. But the events in the Overlook don’t make the film work as a whole and, in fact, shine a spotlight on its deeply flawed narrative.
The most disappointing thing about Doctor Sleep is that it has all the makings of a truly great horror movie about literal and figurative ghosts. It simply doesn’t come together. Too long and maudlin to be a curiosity, and too dependent on nostalgia to feel original and memorable.
Sequels to long-dormant properties are commonplace now. Some express hard truths about growing old, about giving up, about leaving our heroes behind and finding new ones. The best re-contextualize what we loved into stories that speak to modern aesthetics and moral quandaries (I thought Rambo: Last Blood and Terminator: Dark Fate both managed this to a slightly more successful degree). Others just return to the comforting embrace of our most iconic cinematic fables. This is a sterling case of the latter that desperately, desperately wants to be the former. The dissonance does not work in its favor. Oh, well.