How to Write a Good Horror Film Sequel: Discussing Mike Flanagan's 'Doctor Sleep'
A tightrope between establishing its own ground and pleasing the fans of 'The Shining' was successfully balanced.
When I went into the cinema to see this film, I didn't know what to expect. The Shining is one of my favourite horror flicks of all time, despite Stephen King's distaste for it, and combined with my set opinion that most horror sequels shouldn't even bother trying, I guess I didn't have high hopes. However, it's safe to say that my expectations were knocked off their pedestal as Doctor Sleep proved to be a new-found example on how to write a good horror sequel. Now, let's look into a few of my thoughts as to why that's the case.
The Effectiveness of 'Less is More'
Jump scares have become an unfortunate staple of any modern horror film, to the point where you can time them to the second if you've seen a few in your life time. That's not to say Doctor Sleep doesn't have any, but it's because they're so low in quantity that they're actually effective, especially since there's very little build up to them. Not to mention, they feel earned and relevant to the story, not just for the sake of trying to throw some cheap scares in for the audience.
Another tool the film uses is implied subtle terror. An example is one of the first scenes where a little girl Violet is found and devoured by the True Knot. We don't actually see what the cult does to the girl, although from their dialogue it is pretty self explanatory. However, it was a great writing decision on the creative team's part—not only does the fear of the unknown truly get under people's skin, but it also builds on the suspense and tension as it's not revealed what the evil guys are exactly and how they operate, making the audiences watch on further in anticipation of what's next.
The Art of Fleshed-Out Villains
Now, it might seem like a bit of an irony to say that the film goes on a more subtle approach when there's a scene of the evil guys literally sucking out a child's 'shine' by torturing him to death. I'll just say it was easily the most disturbing scene in the film for me, which without a doubt was the intention.
Regardless, the scene itself is not actually overly gory, although it is definitely violent. But it is not without a purpose: Up until that point, it was pretty much obvious what the True Knot were up to, but we didn't actually see the lengths they were willing to go to obtain what they want. The scene was narratively necessary not only to up the stakes for the audience, but also to establish Abra's character, while also making her the new potential victim for the cult.
Speaking of the cult, I haven't felt that passionate about a villain in fiction for a while. Simply speaking, these beings are willing to sacrifice innocent children to live (almost) forever. While in no way excusable, it ties into one of the humanity's biggest fears—death—and what happens after we pass (which is referenced in the film itself through the old people in the place Danny works at). True Knot do inhuman things driven by a very human fear, creating a nice juxtaposition. That being said, I couldn't feel more satisfied as I watched all of them meet their faith either by a gunshot, or by The Overlook demons, and I could guarantee most of the audience felt the same.
The Establishing of Mythology
Doctor Sleep does an amazing job of building on the concept of 'shining' without relying too much on the exposition. It embellishes more on the powers the 'shining' itself can manifest, as well as discussing the similarities between True Knot and The Overlook in terms of how they are both starving for the 'shine' some people produce and how they obtain it.
The powers of mind-reading, astral projection, body possession, and others that Abra and Danny possess allow us to witness what the 'shining' can entail. The scenes where it's portrayed make good use of the advantages modern CGI cinema possesses. It also creates its own style, separate from The Shining, possessing a whole other type of suspense which stands on its own ground, not relying too much on the 1980's classic.
The Dedication to its Predecessor
To continue on a previous point, while the first two acts of Doctor Sleep are purely original content, the third act has the two protagonists luring Rose the Hat to Overlook. While I heard some opinions that reusing the imagery was a cheap decision in order to cash in on Kubrick's film, I do believe that the hotel was tied into the story beautifully. Overlook is where Dan's trauma began, its demons have been with him in some way for all of his life, so it would make perfect sense he would go back there to save someone else's life.
The scenes where Dan awakens the hotel, talks to the bartender resembling his father, where he antagonises Rose the Hat on the stairs and last but not least, where he chases Abra down the hotel while possessed by the ghosts (limping just like his father did, nonetheless) are all nice callbacks to the original film while not looking like they're trying too hard. The symbolism aside, the shots of Overlook buried in snow in the dark, as well as old, dead hallways and rooms, and parts of the crime scene in the Torrance suite look so damn cool and malignant as it's obvious even after all these years, the place is still just as evil and to see it burn down at the end of the film felt cleansing (which I think was the word used in the film).
All in all, I could talk more about Danny's journey and its tragic, yet fitting end, but I feel like that's a topic for its own article all-together. Maybe next time...