Doctor Sleep review: A ‘horror-tinged superhero movie’
Forty years on from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Ewan McGregor stars in this sequel, which “is impressive in all sorts of ways,”
Not many people will have come away from Stanley Kubrick’s classic Stephen King adaptation, The Shining, with a burning desire to know what happened to the boy in the story. He was one of the film’s least engaging characters, ranking somewhere between the ghostly twins and the withered hag in the bathtub. But Doctor Sleep, a belated sequel to The Shining, wants viewers to care about the boy’s fate – and, surprisingly, it succeeds. Credible in its characterisation, rich in mythological detail, and touchingly sincere in its treatment of alcoholism and trauma, the film is impressive in all sorts of ways. But its greatest achievement is that it makes The Shining seem like a prequel – a tantalising glimpse of a richer and more substantial narrative.
It is different from The Shining in nearly every way. Kubrick’s film, released in 1980, was a mysterious fever dream set in one hotel over one winter. The new film, adapted by writer-director Mike Flanagan from King’s own novel, is an adventure that spans the US and covers almost 40 years. It doesn’t have Kubrick’s masterly control of style and atmosphere, either – but what does? All the same, Doctor Sleep doesn’t feel like a betrayal of The Shining. Partly that’s because it is so full of references to its illustrious predecessor, from the hexagonal-patterned carpet to the fact that one character’s house number happens to be 1980. (Alas, a digitally de-aged Jack Nicholson doesn’t turn up.) But mainly it’s because the plot which blossoms in Doctor Sleep grows from the seeds planted four decades ago.
Back in 1980, Danny Torrance was a tricycle-riding moppet with the gift of telepathy, or “shining”. Considering that he met a cook who was also telepathic, it’s logical to assume that quite a number of other people could have the gift, too; Doctor Sleep tells us about those people. It’s a logical assumption, too, that Danny would have a tough time recovering from everything he witnessed in The Shining. As in this year’s other major Stephen King adaptation, It: Chapter 2, the film argues that if you have a childhood encounter with murderous occult forces, you won’t necessarily grow up to be a healthy well-rounded member of society.
McGregor has never been more sympathetic
Instead, Danny has grown up to be Dan (Ewan McGregor), a hard-drinking drifter who regularly rounds off his evenings with a bar fight, a fling with a stranger, or both. Even at his most hedonistic, though, he has an air of wariness, exhaustion and sadness: McGregor has never been more sympathetic. Eventually, Dan gets a job in a hospice where he uses his telepathy to soothe the dying, where one of the patients nicknames him Doctor Sleep. Just as he helps them find peace, he finds some peace himself.
It can’t last. Little does Dan know, but there is a rag-tag gang of psychic predators called the True Knot who criss-cross the US in motor homes, keeping their mental antenna out for children with extrasensory powers. When they locate their victims, they butcher them and absorb their life force (or something). The True Knot lot aren’t traditional blood-drinking, daylight-dodging vampires, but the intriguing implication is that every legend about vampires derives from them.
Any sequel to The Shining should have a few more scares and a lot more gore
The leader of the gang is Rose the Hat, played by Rebecca Ferguson with a formidable mix of earthy seductive charm and cold-blooded resolve. Mind you, it’s slightly disappointing that she got her florid name because, well, she likes to wear a hat. It’s also disappointing that her posse isn’t more menacing. They are supposedly mass murderers with terrifying abilities, but after a creepy opening sequence in which they snatch a young girl, they spend most of their scenes sitting around campfires in the woods, complaining. The most frightening thing about them is the thought that they might get out some acoustic guitars and suggest a singalong. Any two-and-a-half-hour sequel to The Shining should definitely have a few more scares and a lot more gore than this one.
Still, Doctor Sleep improves when you realise that it is less of a horror film than a melancholy, horror-tinged superhero movie. The True Knot decides that its next meal will consist of Abra (the charismatic Kyliegh Curran), a 13-year-old girl who has been in telepathic contact with Dan. And, as reluctant as he is to get involved, he accepts that he alone can take her off the Knot’s menu. At this stage, the plot comes down to the battle between two secret societies of code-named superhuman outsiders, so it has much in common with the X-Men franchise, 2017’s Logan in particular.
It could well start a franchise of its own. Flanagan doesn’t emphasise its connections to the rest of King’s work, but his film encompasses so many of the author’s obsessions – cats, psychics, missing children – that it will prompt viewers to ask if the events of Carrie, The Dead Zone, Cat’s Eye and Pet Sematary all unfolded in a shared fictional universe. If Doctor Sleep does well at the box office, it may lead to a spate of explicit sequels and spin-offs set in the ‘King-verse’. If they shine as brightly as this warm and well-constructed supernatural thriller, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
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