Watch this as soon as you can…
Doctor Sleep was created under two shadows. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and Stephen King‘s two novels (sharing titles with the films) are both adored and considered classics. It would be easy for this new film by Mike Flanagan to get overshadowed by such cultural touchstones. At some points, it does feel that way, as the set up goes on for way too long, and the villain is not particularly threatening. However, once the film gets going, it is a gripping horror, with a strong cast and writing, in its own right.
The film is two and a half hours long. During the first hour, you really feel it. The pacing is slow, and most of the plot threads here are uninteresting and unconnected to the main story, depicting the grown up Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) protecting Abra (Kyliegh Curran) from a vampire-like cult of “shining” eaters. Abra is not properly introduced until nearly fifty minutes in. Yet, her story is central to the plot. Everything before her introduction feels extraneous, unnecessary and boring. The first fifty minutes could have easily been cut down so we can get to the much stronger second half.
The laborious first half is not helped by the fact the villain is not particularly threatening. What made Kubrick’s The Shining so scary was the intangibility of the Onlook Hotel. The sequel has concrete villains, Rose the hat and her cult of vampire-like predators. You can see, touch and hurt them. As a result, the threat levels are not so high. This gets worse in the second half, when it becomes clear none of them are any real threat to Abra. She is slightly too powerful to feel anxious for her safety. A similar problem plagues the Star Wars sequel trilogy, with Rey being way too powerful for Kylo Ren to be considered a threat.
However, whilst the villains get worse in the second half, everything else improves. The performances really make this movie shine. Ewan McGregor gives a muted but nuanced performance of the traumatised and damaged Danny Torrance. Kyliegh Curran is further proof that child actors do not necessarily have to be a detriment to a film. She possesses superb screen presence as Abra. Carl Lumbly is an excellent casting choice for Dick Hallorann too. If it were not for the passing of a few decades, Lumbly could have easily sold himself as being the same actor to play Dick Hallorann in the last Shining movie. The performances just about hold your interest during a boring first half, and shine brightly once the second half begins.
Once it does, the promised tension, horror and scares are delivered. The score has a sleepy creepiness to it that enhances some really well put together scenes. One notable example is the scene when Abra uses the shining in her bed. The scene is put together like an intense serious of still frames, heightened by the score. There are effective uses of body horror too, such as Rose using the axe on Danny, or when Rose’s fingers get trapped in a filing cabinet.
Doctor Sleep also pays satisfying homage to Kubrick’s The Shining. Despite primarily being a faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s two books, the film also draws a lot from Kubrick. The opening shot of Danny on the tricycle is taken from the original, for example. Scenes of Danny in an office, or him sitting across from the bartender in the infamous hotel bar, serve as fun trips down memory lane. The tributes to the previous film turn into a bit of an obsession towards the end, as the twins, the chase through the icy hedge maze, and flashbacks to Jack Torrance attacking his wife Wendy, are just randomly thrown into the film, adding even more to its length. Nevertheless, most of the call backs to the past are tasteful, subtle, and appreciated.
Doctor Sleep is a good film that could have done with a more rigorous editor. Most of the first hour did not really need to be so drawn out. Perhaps taking out a few of the scenes where Abra easily defeats this cult of vampires could have improved the film too, as the villains would have felt more like a threat. However, other than these nitpicks, Doctor Sleep proves to be a worthy sequel. Delivering its own scares, providing great performances, and paying homage to the original film without being too dependent on it, Doctor Sleep is a worthwhile way to celebrate Halloween this weekend.