Doctor Sleep is a difficult adaptation to pull off. Not only is the film based on Stephen King’s novel, but it also serves as a direct sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of The Shining. While regarded as a cinematic classic today, Kubrick’s interpretation is infamously hated by King, who was so unpleased that he personally wrote the teleplay for the 1997 Shining miniseries. In Doctor Sleep, director Mike Flanagan aims to satisfy fans of King’s books and Kubrick devotees alike. All the while, Flanagan strives to incorporate his own style in order for the film to stand out. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Flanagan pulls it off with mostly solid results.
While none of the actors from Kubrick’s film return here, Alex Essoe gives a spot-on performance as Wendy Torrance, originally played by Shelley Duvall. Carl Lumbly is even more uncanny as Dick Hallorann, originally played by Scatman Crothers. Of course, they’re only minor supporting players in a film that belongs to Ewan McGregor, who has now played an older Christopher Robin and an older Danny Torrance. Years after his father went crazy at the Overlook Hotel, Dan is still battling demons of every variety. In addition to struggling with alcoholism, Dan is occasionally visited by the ghosts who haunted the Overlook.
Dan is given a new purpose in life when he makes a physic connection with Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl who also possesses the Shining. Abra has been targeted by a cult known as the True Knot, which is led by the charismatic Rose the Hate (Rebecca Ferguson). In order to protect Abra, Dan must come to terms with his gift while also confronting the past he’s repressed for so long. Every actor here essentially hits their target. McGregor is convincing as a man coping with trauma whose greatest fear is repeating the mistakes of his father. Stone makes for a plucky young heroine who gets kidnapped on occasion, but for the most part can handle herself. Ferguson steals the show as Rose, calling to mind a female Mr. Dark form Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Where The Shining mainly confined his characters to one secluded location, Doctor Sleep takes the characters to several locals with the Overlook returning for one major set piece. In a way, this is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, this offers more room for exploration, setting Doctor Sleep apart from its predecessor. On the other hand, none of the new locations are as creepy as the Overlook and the story can drag as a result. Even when Kubrick’s film was taking its time, the foreboding setting always kept the audience on edge. Plus, the Overlooked was occupied by an unstable man who could crack at any minute. Here, we already know how the villains are upfront and obviously nothing our heroes come across is going to be scarier than the Overlook’s ghouls.
Despite not being as scary as Kubrick’s film, Doctor Sleep does effectively expand upon The Shining mythology without giving too much away. It does this without living in the first film’s shadow either, using callbacks sparingly and subtly. When we do get a blatant reference to the original film, Flanagan wisely doesn’t wink at the camera. Flanagan has established himself as a modern master of horror with Oculus, Gerald’s Game, and The Haunting of Hill House, amongst others. Even if Doctor Sleep isn’t his best film, it does come with his signature gothic atmosphere and chilling tension, never going for easy jumpscares. Along the way, he manages to fix some of the problems in King’s book, incorporate a few ideas Kubrick left out of his film, and pay respect to both of them. A sequel to a classic as iconic as The Shining will likely never be perfect, but Doctor Sleep is a welcome compromise between three different artists.