Doctor Sleep often shines the most when it isn’t burdened with following up on its classic cinematic source material. Director/writer Mike Flanagan has one tough assignment here. Not only is he adapting Stephen King’s 2013 novel which served as the sequel to his beloved novel, but he must incorporate Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 vision of that original work. That adaptation, in case you didn’t know, did not count King among its ardent admirers due to many deviations from the book. Yet the iconic filmmaker’s take on The Shining is ardently admired by legions. This delicate balancing act isn’t always completely successful, but Flanagan sure makes it work most of the time. And that’s no small feat.
The opening takes place shortly after the events at the Overlook Hotel as Wendy Torrance (Alex Essoe) and young son Danny (Roger Dale Floyd) attempt to move on from their trauma and cold loss of their husband and father. Living in Florida, Danny is still blessed and cursed with the ability to “shine”, which encompasses numerous psychic powers. He’s able to put his visions and bad memories in a box (literally and figuratively) for years. We flash forward over 20 years and Danny now takes the form of Ewan McGregor and he’s not in a good place. He’s a raging alcoholic much like his dad was.
After hitting rock bottom, grown Danny enters a different kind of light in recovery. Through the kindness of his AA sponsor (Cliff Curtis), he’s given a small apartment and gets a job as an orderly in a hospice wing. He soon becomes known as Doctor Sleep with the ability to comfort patients in their last moments. Outside forces soon bring him back to past events. A group of vampires known as the True Knot are led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). In order to survive, they feed on small children with psychic abilities similar to Danny’s. One brutal scene depicts their practices with a famous young actor who cameos. It’s pretty terrifying. The new mission of the True Knot is tracking down teenage Abra (Kyliegh Curran), whose shining game is quite bright. When Danny and Abra team up, their fight eventually takes them to the well-known production design of that Colorado hotel.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Doctor Sleep is the introduction of its new characters courtesy of King’s novel. Ferguson’s performance as the cult leader is terrific. She appears like a roadie for an alt rock band, but she excels at making her character a demonic force to be reckoned with. Her supporting band of devotees are also memorable. I suspect a picture focused solely on the True Knot could have been fascinating. Curran gives a winning performance as Danny’s partner in shine.
Flanagan must pay homage to King and Kubrick. There’s a Spielberg connection here too. Henry Thomas (yep, little Elliot from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) fills in as Jack Nicholson’s boozy and demented father figure from the 1980 original. That’s in addition to previously mentioned actors playing young Danny and Wendy. Carl Lumbly fills in for Scatman Crothers as the telepathic Dick Halloran. It’s unavoidably jarring to see these roles inhabited by others if, like me, you’ve seen The Shining multiple times. I did admire the way they decided to bring Nicholson’s iconic ax wielder back.
There’s probably no way to avoid the Overlook set third act and it is a pleasure to see those sets recreated. That also constitutes another Spielberg link as that director brought back the haunted hotel for scenes in 2018’s Ready Player One. It is also the weakest segment of the bunch, though not without its nostalgia inducing pleasures. Flanagan is able to engross the audience with the grown Danny and especially the new players around him prior to check in. In that sense, there’s certainly no legacies darkened in Doctor Sleep.
*** (out of four)