While Evan Dossey’s stance on Doctor Sleep remains the MFJ’s official assessment, we reserve the right — when revved up about something we want to say — to launch the Bonus Round, which includes supplemental thoughts from MFJ staffers or contributing guests.
Thanks to the unprecedented box-office success of 2017’s It, Stephen King’s works are currently in the midst of a pop-culture renaissance. No novel can be left untouched — from development-hell titles like The Stand to the Firestarter remake for which audiences have been frothing at the mouth.
If this King resurgence has proven anything, it’s that adapting these stories is an inexplicably difficult task. At best (as was the case with It) they’re perfectly decent horror blockbusters, and at worst, well, did anyone actually see The Dark Tower? There are a dozen more titles I could list which you’ve likely forgotten about; still, the point is that these adaptations have largely been a bust. And while it’s frustrating to see a King work as seminal as Pet Sematary fail to get the big-screen treatment it deserves, it’s ironically fitting that we finally get a Very Good Stephen King movie from one of the weakest novels of his career, Doctor Sleep.
Director Mike Flanagan has pulled off this trick before; his Gerald’s Game made one of King’s most laughable ‘90s books into a solid slice of Netflix horror. Doctor Sleep, a sequel to both The Shining novel and Stanley Kubrick’s (very different) 1980 masterpiece, is better — fleshing out underwhelming source material into something more poignant and even harder to classify, a convergence of character drama, psychological thriller and vampire flick. Not all of it lands, but Flanagan makes up for the story’s weaker moments with his knack for tone management. For all the gruesome imagery King can conjure, the dude is ultimately a big ol’ sweetheart. The Doctor Sleep movie gets that and keeps its focus on the relationship between an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) and his incidental protege Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran).
Doctor Sleep’s first two acts are its strongest, and rely on the audience’s memory of the horrific events from The Shining in order to make our introduction to grown-up Danny even more tragic. Like his late father Jack (and certainly King at some point), Danny has bottomed out from late nights of cocaine and whiskey — waking up next to a rando girl covered in puke and almost snagging some cash from her wallet as he leaves. The unexpected appearance of her toddler son stops him, however. There’s still some good left in Danny yet.
Casual moviegoers may rightfully be dumbfounded by most of Doctor Sleep, and just how little it resembles Kubrick’s masterpiece. Flanagan’s film is a clever inversion of the original film’s narrative, a story of redemption as opposed to one of self-destruction. This is a story about how we aren’t doomed to the terrible fate that’s seemingly bestowed upon us. Think of it as the anti-Hereditary.
Danny’s salvation comes in the form of Abra, a girl with shining abilities that far surpass his own. Alcoholics Anonymous has allowed him to get his shit together, but true purpose comes from recognizing a child in the same kind of trouble he himself barely managed to escape as a boy. Their dynamic captures the essence of King’s work in a manner few directors can pull off — two kind people determined to take down otherworldly evil through sheer goodwill and determination.
That otherworldly evil is a group of psychic vampires called the True Knot, quasi-immortals who feed off the torture of children with psychic capabilities. Their leader, Rose (a tremendous Rebecca Ferguson wearing a dope top hat) is getting desperate. Supplies are running low, and once they sense Abra’s remarkable power, the gang is gung-ho on turning her into their latest meal.
The True Knot, so incredibly lame in the novel, feels like more of a threat in this film version, even if they never approach the menace of the Overlook Hotel’s tortured spirits. As Abra and Danny’s paths inevitably converge with the True Knot, and the tone veers heavily towards horror, Doctor Sleep loses its way a bit with some obligatory callbacks to Kubrick’s film. Fan service tends to be a derogatory label, but when done right, it can reinforce a sequel’s themes. Here, as we see the creepy-vagina bathtub lady for the sixth time, it starts to grow wearisome.
Nonetheless, Doctor Sleep is yet another risky tentpole release from Warner Bros (see: Blade Runner 2049 or Jupiter Ascending), a deeply weird genre picture with a considerable budget and a stacked cast. At 2 ½ hours, it might be longer than it needs to be, and I imagine it isn’t The Shining follow-up most had hoped for (if anyone was hoping for such a thing in the first place). But horror devotees won’t see anything quite like Doctor Sleep this year: tender, earnest and unabashedly dorky.