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Movie Review: “DOCTOR SLEEP” truly shines as a superb Stephen King film

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 | Review


Starring Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson and Kyliegh Curran
Written and directed by Mike Flanagan
Warner Bros.

There have been many, many screen adaptations of Stephen King novels, some quite successful, but I don’t think I’ve seen one that feels like a King story as much as DOCTOR SLEEP. The author’s rhythms, the language, the atmosphere—it’s all perfectly caught by writer/director Mike Flanagan, and yet it’s very much of his own style too. With DOCTOR SLEEP, based on King’s sequel to THE SHINING, he has made a worthy screen follow-up to Stanley Kubrick’s film version that also stands on its own as one of the very best King movies ever made.

Flanagan pays tribute to Kubrick’s THE SHINING in ways that are reverent while avoiding redundant imitation or kitschy homage—and one could see this as returning the favor Kubrick did him by leaving the Overlook Hotel intact at the end of the 1980 film. The climactic crux of the story is the adult Dan Torrance (played by Ewan McGregor) returning to the site of his childhood terrorization by both supernatural revenants and his alcoholic, driven-insane father. Since King destroyed the Overlook in his SHINING novel, Dan could only visit its ruins in the pages of DOCTOR SLEEP, but having the hotel standing in the film version allows Flanagan to turn it into a giant mausoleum of Dan’s ghosts, vividly recreated with marvelously immersive atmosphere by the filmmaker and his craft team.

There’s so much more to DOCTOR SLEEP, though, as the movie draws us along through many years and different locales with ease and confidence, anchored by McGregor’s superb turn as Dan. Although he has learned how to psychically lock away the spectres of his past (here, Flanagan visualizes one of King’s literary gambits swiftly enough to make it work), Dan has become unmoored in his life, drifting into a New Hampshire town where he settles into a rooming house and takes a job at a hospice. Still able to “shine,” he finds a way to use this troubling ability for good, comforting patients at the moments just before they pass away. Among its many qualities, DOCTOR SLEEP demonstrates in these scenes and others an uncommon respect for death—its impact, its finality and its consequences. And the fact that Flanagan gives it that respect means he earns the right to pull no punches in the movie’s most harrowing, upsetting torture-and-murder scene. (I won’t reveal who’s involved, but fans of the book will know which one I’m talking about.)

This hideous act is committed by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her followers, a group of psychic vampires who call themselves the True Knot and feed on the “steam” given off by people possessed of the shine. Landing in their rapacious crosshairs is Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a 13-year-old girl who develops a psychic connection with Dan, who in turn finds an urgent purpose in keeping her out of the Knot’s clutches. Abra’s able to take care of herself pretty well, too, and a lengthy sequence in which Rose psychically travels into the girl’s mind, and finds quite a bit of resistance, is another example of Flanagan translating a scene off the page that could have played as silly on screen, and instead giving it dramatic force and meaning.

Rose is a deliciously vicious role, and Ferguson really sinks her teeth into it, her eyes glittering with villainous purpose even as she also allows a sense of vulnerability to creep to the surface here and there. Newcomer Curran also makes a strong impression, bestowing Abra with inner strength beneath an ordinary-girl exterior; she’s not a superheroine, but a young teen struggling with her burgeoning “gift” and its ramifications. In that, she shares a kinship with Dan, who’s been trying to repress his shine, in part by drowning it in alcohol. Flanagan and McGregor deal with this addiction and Dan’s attempts to overcome it with subtlety and grace, eschewing clichéd tropes like longing looks at bottles. Further complicating the issue is its ties to Dan’s past, specifically his own father’s destructive alcoholism, and that side is given just the right emphasis as well. It doesn’t fully come to the surface until just the right moment, toward the end of the movie, in a beautifully and chillingly played dialogue passage that brings the Torrance saga full circle.

Beyond its gripping and affecting emotional currents, DOCTOR SLEEP also delivers on the scare factor, building true terror out of the concern it develops for its characters. There are moments that are gut-punch shocking and others that creep deep under your skin, with Flanagan once again demonstrating his consummate skill with eerie composition and staging. It all culminates in that last act at the Overlook, which brings shivers of recognition as well when certain familiar faces show up. There are moments when Flanagan replicates classic shots from the Kubrick film (with new actors in the roles, including STARRY EYES’ Alex Essoe as Wendy, who also has a few new scenes), and they’re used not as simple callbacks but to suggest that Dan, in effect, has never left the Overlook—and to acknowledge their permanent place in the mindscapes of horror fans as well. THE SHINING is a classic, and following it up was a tall order—one that Flanagan and co. have more than made good on. DOCTOR SLEEP is an intelligent, mature, exceptionally crafted (kudos to cinematographer Michael Fimognari, production designer Maher Ahmad et al.), impeccably cast (right down to Azzie the cat), genuinely frightening horror film. And part of its achievement is that it can be considered all of those things first, and an enormously satisfying sequel to a genre classic second.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).