‘Doctor Sleep’ Review: An Exploration of Trauma and Recovery

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It’s no secret that Stephen King isn’t a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. He once said that the film was “certainly beautiful to look at,”  but was stripped of “its primary purpose, which is to tell a story.” King felt that his book had warmth, but Kubrick provided a cold adaptation that altered his novel’s themes and characters. Despite this, Kubrick’s film is still regarded as a horror classic and a masterclass in filmmaking. Director Mike Flanagan had the tough task of making a film that served as both a sequel to Kubrick’s version of The Shining and a close adaptation of King’s Doctor Sleep novel. Luckily for Flanagan, he knew just how to bridge the gap between the two —resulting in a stamp of approval from both King and the Kubrick Estate.

Doctor Sleep opens with familiarity as we’re reintroduced to five-year-old Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mother Wendy (Alex Essoe). After the traumatic events that took place at the Overlook Hotel, they move to sunny Florida in hope of a better and brighter life. Unfortunately for Danny, the dark things he thought he had left behind have tracked him down; a consequence of his psychic gift, known as the shining, which puts him on the map. With help from an old friend, Danny learns how to create boxes in his mind, which entrap the terrifying ghouls and keep them from bothering him.

But this is a story about adult Danny (Ewan McGregor), who now goes by Dan; The Shining was his trauma and Doctor Sleep is his recovery. He grows up to be an alcoholic, just like his father was, which also helps to dull his shine. The first act sees him hit rock bottom, get sober and make a new life for himself in New Hampshire; a result of Billy (Cliff Curtis) giving him a job, a home and the opportunity to attend AA meetings. Dan starts working as an orderly in a care home and uses his gift to bring people peace before they die, thus earning him the nickname Doctor Sleep.

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For the past eight years, Dan has been communicating with Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran), a young girl whose shining is very powerful, via the blackboard in his room. The pair have found comfort in knowing that they’re not alone – but they don’t meet until Abra’s powers catch the attention of a gang of nomadic, psychic vampires known as the True Knots. The mythology surrounding them is captivating, but not as captivating as their leader, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson).

Subverting typecast, Ferguson gives one of the most impressive performances of her career — one that will hopefully persuade her to portray more villains in the future. Despite Rose’s gorgeous appearance, she’s one of the evilest things around. She’s charming and seductive, but cold-blooded and sadistic. “Pain purifies steam, so does fear,” she says, as the gang drives around in full hippie style, kidnapping children with the shining and feeding on their terrifying screams, which allow them to “eat well, stay young, live long.”

Much like its predecessor, Doctor Sleep is visually impressing and terrifying. However, it’s more emotive than The Shining, which only strengths the impact and terror of its core themes. The worst things to depict on-screen are the death of children and animals — two things that King does not shy away from in his novels. Doctor Sleep is indulgent in its gruesome portrayal of the murdering of children, whose suffering is amplified with blood-curdling screams. As King is known for telling his stories mostly through dialogue, there’s a lot of poignant and descriptive lines in Doctor Sleep, all of which help to intensify the strong horror imagery.

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King has always been interested in the battle between good and evil, which usually pertains to both human and supernatural themes. Knowing the unspeakable terror that Dan has locked up from his childhood and not dealt with isn’t too dissimilar to when we lock up the things we don’t want to face — and we pray that one day our boxes don’t start leaking. Doctor Sleep allows its characters to astral project across the world and into other spaces, which includes the minds of other people. When Abra peeks inside Dan’s head for a short while, we get a sense of the trauma that lives in there — of the evil that he’s let starve out for almost 40 years. It’s a shame that Dan’s current mental state isn’t further explored, but there’s enough emotion in McGregor’s performance to give us more than we need.

Doctor Sleep is pure horror as it explores both the supernatural evil and our own inner demons. King knows what people are really scared of, but he also offers a glimmer of hope in the stories that contain the darkest things. Abra is the light in all the darkness as her character remains vibrant and confident throughout most of the film. Dan is still dimmed by his experiences, but the pair come together to spar off with Rose and the True Knots. It’s a shame, however, that we don’t get to see more of Abra and her abilities in the final battle.

The only major gripe with Doctor Sleep is its runtime, but fortunately, the film is never boring. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, the bloated opening can be forgiven as it spends time adding in the core themes that Kubrick removed in his adaptation of The Shining. It was necessary to reconcile the differences so that it aids the heavy supernatural elements of the story, while still allowing the two films to be connected. There are meticulous recreations of shots from The Shining, such as the bleeding elevators and the twin girls, which are very striking. However, they are repeated too often, which isn’t necessary for a film that already has a lot of ground to cover and has its own fantastic scares to show off.

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The exterior of the Overlook Hotel itself, covered in snow, is absolutely stunning, which makes for an intense finale where everything comes flooding back. It’s a shame we don’t get digitally de-aged versions of the original cast, but the actors in place do a wonderful job. As a huge King fan himself, especially having already adapted Gerald’s Game, Flanagan was the perfect director to take on this project. He understands the deeper and more compassionate themes of King’s source material, which is more suited to his directing style. Kubrick’s style was more clinical, meaning the shot recreations in Doctor Sleep resulted in two different directing styles that don’t quite mesh together as well as one would like — but the film somehow manages to pull it off.

Flanagan has taken on very strong themes of trauma, family and the supernatural before in his series adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. The series was so masterful (and also praised by King), that it makes you wonder how Doctor Sleep would’ve transferred over into a series. It might’ve given the story more room to breathe while allowing the breaks it needed to feel more balanced plot-wise. Doctor Sleep is definitely richer than The Shining as Flanagan allows the characters to have more of an emotional personality. It really instills the idea that the world is a scary place, full of evil things, and they’re very hungry — but Flanagan makes sure we know that there is still hope.

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