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After 39 years, audiences finally get a sequel to the acclaimed Stanley Kubrick horror masterpiece The Shining. To follow-up such an intense outing, without the original director or even cast, is both brave and in some respects a risk for all involved. Granted, The Shining is based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King. That said, the writer has stated his dislike for the Kubrick adaptation. King felt the movie focused less on the premise of the novel – alcoholism – and more on the ghosts that haunted the corridors of the Overlook Hotel.
For the sequel Doctor Sleep, again based on a King novel, Mike Flanagan was hired after his astonishing and claustrophobic 2018 Netflix hit The Haunting of Hill House. As news filtered early this year of the project, with British actor Ewan McGregor involved, expectations along with anticipation reached a high. Although, as always, the fear of a sub-standard effort was prevalent.
The Shining follows the Torrance family who relocate to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies to act as winter caretakers. Writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is secluded in this grand hotel with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny possess a telepathic gift known as the ‘shining’ which allows him to see spirits and feel the vibrations of evil in surroundings. Jack slowly becomes unhinged in the isolation, due in some parts to the malevolent forces that stalk the hotel and influence his thoughts. All this leads to a psychological and violent game of cat-and-mouse as Wendy and Danny try to evade the now murderous Jack. The ending diverts from the book with both Wendy and Danny escaping the hotel, while Jack freezes to death. Over time The Shining, along with its small cast, became iconic. Every psychotic character since its release in cinema has been taking a lead from Nicholson’s warped creation.
Doctor Sleep continues directly where The Shining ended, as Wendy (now played by Alex Essoe, a refreshing change from the current trend of CGI re-creations) and Danny (Roger Dale Floyd) are putting their lives back together. It focuses heavily on the child as he learns to control his gifts. The ghosts he encountered at The Overlook continue to haunt him.
However, there is more than one story going on in Doctor Sleep: we learn about the presence of vampiric beings who ‘feed off’ the life force of children similar to Danny. This immortal crew are known as the ‘True Knot’ and are led by Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Their introduction to the narrative is confusing and continues this way: there is no clear explanation as to who they are or their overall purpose. This issue is emblematic of the only main downside to Doctor Sleep. At times there are too many story lines happening at once.
Moving to the present day, we find Danny (Ewan McGregor) on a mission of self-destruction. He is struggling to deal with childhood trauma and the memory of his alcoholic father while he turns into the very same drunken, violent and self-deprecating individual. The audience follows Danny’s struggle with sobriety, as the ghosts of his past are always close behind. The story switches back and forth between the True Knot as they recruit and hunt, along with a powerful young telepathic called Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) who shines similar to Danny. Using astral projection she reaches out to Danny, inadvertently alerting the True Knot of her presence. With Rose and her minions seeking to harm Abra, it’s up to Danny to protect her.
The beauty of Doctor Sleep stems from its claustrophobic settings and twisting story. After a sluggish opening, the slow pace actually proves advantageous, making a complicated narrative easy to follow. It also allows Flanagan to explore in more depth the perils of addiction – Danny and Rose are both addicts, one in recovery, one succumbing to temptation – a theme of the source material of which King clearly feels passionate about.
Doctor Sleep is solid and is far better than the other King-based sequel of this year: the overlong and messy It Chapter 2. However, while it stands on its own as a chilling outing – one the author of its source actually approves of this time – it is not as atmospheric or overpowering as Kubrick’s The Shining. In fact, the actual star of Doctor Sleep is the recreation of the original’s Overlook Hotel. Once we see the building’s hallways – lovingly restored to perfection – the shivers creep in, reminding the audience of a terrifying milestone in cinema, one which can’t really ever be topped.