REVIEW: ‘Doctor Sleep’ shows that sometimes a bad idea works

Not every sequel can live up to its original, some just need to stand on their own


Ewan McGregor plays a grown up Danny Torrance in “Doctor Sleep”. Danny needs to confront his trauma from what happened to him 40 years ago while McGregor needs to confront the legacy “The Shining” has in cinema. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Will Coburn, Podcast editor

The film “Doctor Sleep” is a mixed bag, more interesting than good, with a rough opening act, a middle that finds its footing, and a final act that honestly pushes into something really good.

However, if you’re a fan of Stephen King adaptations or director Mike Flanagan’s previous work, especially “The Haunting of Hill House,” you’ll probably enjoy it.

The novel “Doctor Sleep” is the 2013 sequel to Stephen King’s 1977 novel “The Shining.”

It’s an action-packed gothic horror adventure about a grown-up Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) who’s honed his psychic powers to help the patients at a convalescent home become more comfortable with their death. His life gets turned upside down when he meets a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) with similar powers who’s being hunted by a vampiric gang called The True Knot. 

Danny must learn to deal with the phantoms from his past while battling psychic monsters and teaching Abra how to use her power while still being hidden from monsters like the True Knot.

The novel has a great premise, being a fine sequel to a horror classic doing the tried-and-true “this time we can fight back” twist. Danny’s character development often ties back to what happened to him at the Overlook Hotel as a child.

There’s only one major snag.

In 1980, Stanley Kubrick (sort of) adapted “The Shining” to film, creating what’s one of the most critically-acclaimed horror films of all time.

This makes adapting the sequel, a bit of a challenge. When creating this new film you have to balance the legacy the film has, with the different direction the book series goes in. 

Story continues below trailer. 

“The Shining” looms heavily over the film version of “Doctor Sleep.” Going in, I was assuming it was to going to be to its detriment. Opening with the tricycle scene from the original film felt like we were going to start doing the “HEY REMEMBER THAT THING FROM THAT OTHER MOVIE YOU LIKE.” Which is never something you want in a film. If you’re going to remind me of a film I like, I might as well just watch the film I like.

I’m not totally sure we needed to take this leap, but it stuck the landing.

Some of the best parts are the moments where Danny is confronting his memories of The Overlook and subverting scenes from the original film. However, in order to do that, it required a masterclass in self-control from Flanagan. There are so many cheap shots and callbacks that could have been done that were successfully avoided.

“Doctor Sleep” never gets its “Get away from her, you bitch” scene from “Aliens” — probably the best example of a series surviving the jump from horror to action — and there are so many different moments where it could have gone that route. Instead, it takes the subtle approach when dealing with emotions and trauma leftover from the original, and it makes the film thematically stronger.

The Overlook feels smaller now, but Danny is bigger now. The labyrinthine halls are now cramped and narrow. The same place, but the perspective has changed. 

There are a few editing techniques that felt anachronistic, like several fade transitions that only occur once we return to The Overlook telling us we’re in a place that time (and changes in film style) forgot.

The notorious helicopter shot on the drive to The Overlook was also recreated, at night, clearly with a drone. It was beautiful, but it lacked the lingering majesty of the original versions of those shots. 

I think I just want to give a film that came out in 2019 props for making a “REDRUM” scrawled on a wall unsettling. I was pretty sure we lost that as something you could be scared of several “Treehouses of Horror” ago.

The True Knot, led by Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose the Hat, are super charismatic villains. With some great, fun “Lost Boys”-esque moments. My only complaint with them is once their moral red line and exactly how brutal they need to be to sustain their immortality is revealed, the gang drops off as characters and are now just monstrous rednecks to be slain. 

The opening 20 to 30 minutes are also weirdly rushed. They’re roughly the first half of the book cut down and chopped up. McGregor does his best impression of the guy from “Trainspotting,” so I guess that’s kinda neat. 

But the first half of the book is mostly just background and what happened after “The Shining,” so I felt it probably would have been served better to begin a bit later in the story, when Danny and Abra have already met, therefore giving their mentor/pupil relationship more time to breathe. Sometimes flashbacks work better than telling the story in order after all.

I’m also super glad that they decided to have Alex Essoe do an amazing Shelly Duvall impression as Wendy Torrance instead of doing some horrid abomination of de-aging CGI or captured likeness.

As much talk has been made of “The Shining’s” attention to detail, amazing editing and cinematography, Duvall and Jack Nicholson’s acting is what made that film the legend that it is today. Essoe captures what makes Wendy so likable and sympathetic, and we get to see just a little bit of her getting to lead a happy life after the horror of the first film. 

However, the moment that makes this film worth watching, and really helps it stick the landing is a huge spoiler, so turn away if those sorts of things bother you and just go watch it.

Henry Thomas has a cameo as Jack Torrance.

I feel thankful he makes the role his own instead of trying to mimic Nicholson because it’s a short moment. But it’s also the emotional core of the film. 

Danny spends the entire story haunted by his father. He tries every moment to be a better man than Jack, even dedicating his eight-year Alcoholics Anonymous chit to his late father. 

So when Danny gets the chance to speak with his father, as scary as it is, there’s a moment of hope. Then a moment of sadness as Danny can’t reach him. 

These beloved roles in the original film came at a cost. Only recently has Duvall been public about what happened to her on the set of the original film, along with the recent release of behind the scenes footage. 

Duvall spent a little over a year being screamed at and forced to cry twelve hours a day and they took take after take to fit Kubrick’s “vision.” The abuse of Duvall at the hands of Kubrick mirrors the abuse of Wendy at the hands of Jack, and the film’s text is thus forced to become a metatext about its own legacy.

“Doctor Sleep” becomes a love letter to “The Shining” in its final act, but a sad letter saying a sort of final goodbye.  “Doctor Sleep” is not a better film than “The Shining,” but we’re better people now.