In a year that’s seen Stephen King’s best work from his 80s writing heyday soured somewhat by poor marksmanship, even if the direction was always with best intention, perhaps it’s a miracle the best was saved for last. The absolute best, like mind-blowing, mind-numbing best. Legitimate horror personified without needing to rely excessively on nostalgia or grotesque imagery to tell the story. Both are utilized, but with wonderful restraint. Such is the rewarding cadence with Doctor Sleep, Mike Flanagan’s newest piece of horror movie decadence, inspired by King’s 2013 follow-up novel to The Shining, and in turn, serving as a sequel to the original novel, and to Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 conversation-starter of an adaptation.
It follows the complex mind belonging to one Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor), first as a young kid looking to put the events of a dangerous week at the infamous Overlook Hotel behind him. His “Shining” abilities still plague him, even as an adult, no surprise. When we first see him, Dan’s struggling to numb the pain, boozy one-night stands a constant for the guy. Fast forward to the present, he’s keeping his head down, working as a hospice care specialist in New Hampshire, eight years sober. His notable nickname is soon added to his resume, sight unseen.
But then, just as his life is sort of regaining normalcy, demons of the past locked away, he discovers he may not be the only one with a “shine.” Abra Stone (newcomer Kyleigh Curran) is an equally complex middle-school still attempting to make sense of her newfound abilities. Urgency becomes the primary watchword when she bears telepathic witness to the ritual murder of a third individual with a “shine”, a little leaguer with prospects (Jacob Tremblay). She and Dan reluctantly team up to take down the group responsible: a gypsy vampire cult known as the True Knot, and their charismatic leader Rose (Rebecca Ferguson). And in turn, Dan may need to face the haunts of his past, and perhaps eradicate them.
Flanagan, who’d made a name for himself in the horror genre through lower-budget fare like Gerald’s Game, Oculus, and his Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Hill House, is trusted with a larger budget and a greater task. Adapting Doctor Sleep into a screen story that makes sense, and once we have the important elements established, distancing the audience as further away from its predecessor as possible. Yes, as the trailers have suggested, it’s not completely possible to separate from the original. But for the purposes of this review without giving too much away, Flanagan makes it all look incredibly easy. And, it’s insatiably bone-chilling. Scary with a purpose, without the need to be overly visual. What we see is handled with maximal subtlety, the story speaking for itself as nightmarish events play out. The writer’s scope playing with full efficiency, not letting his rather methodical pace (perhaps tighten up by 30 minutes?) be wasted with any sort of misdirection that would be an instant crutch. I had no doubts his trust would be justified, and yet I was left floored with utter surprise over how thorough, how eye-opening his process is.
And when it does come to returning to the Overlook, the most unavoidable thing imaginable, something King himself, like many of us watching, had respectably didn’t want at first, it’s handled with dignity. Try as we might to ignore it, it’s the elephant in the room we must accept as just being there and that we must pass by and admire on our way out of the party. The level of attention given there, considering they had to stay close to Atlanta city limits to accomplish such lofty intents down to the most inconspicuous detail, that’s something very special rather unexpected in a horror picture. Maher Ahmad (Little Evil) and Patricio Farrell (Gotti), the film’s production design duo, bless their hearts for being so truthful. Same to The Newton Brothers whose musical choices run wild with imaginative vibrancy, lending from Wendy Carlos’ original themes only when necessary.
And for Dan, his resiliency proves no barrier. The stable relationships he does form with good, upstanding people, they’re his strongest ally. Between the ever-present Dick Halloran (here played by Carl Lumbly), the local pastor Dr. John (an underused Bruce Greenwood), his loyal AA sponsor Billy (a wonderful Cliff Curtis), and the enjoyable Curran as his youthful counterpart, our hero no longer should have much reason to hurt. McGregor is at the top of his craft, delivering another satisfactory performance to end a decade that’s seen him return revive and reimagine established characters for the present time. That, and his deservedly praised role in Fargo. The versus a confident, quirky Miss Ferguson, last seen in a disappointingly small minor role in MIB: International. She flexes her villain muscle quite robustly, dancing across from scene to scene like a graceful devil without horns. The perfect foil for Dan, like stunningly so. Award-season worthy? Doubtful, but she could shock down the line. Like she did with her cronies in the cult. How can you not geek out a little over Twin Peaks alum Carel Struycken stealing the show when the crew is all together?
McGregor is no Nicholson, thankfully. He could never slip fully into madness and make it convincing; he stops just short of anything he couldn’t naturally transcend. And that’s perhaps one of the best things that I adored about Doctor Sleep, its willingness to stop itself before it appeared like it was borrowing too much from Kubrick’s original. Flanagan can’t be the next Kubrick; he could never be a carbon copy of Kubrick. If nothing else, this was another chance to establish his own Hollywood credibility. It was a bold decision to trust his skill set as a writer, director, and editor.
His focus combined by an eclectic passion that Kubrick assumedly shared, but that Flanagan made more personal. It most likely paid off, where audiences are being rewarded with, quite possibly, the best horror film of 2019, one of the best of the decade. At a time when we’re too quick to question the necessity of a late or overdue sequel, here’s a reminder not all of them are terrible. And we can still anticipate one if we know it was worth the wait. And if the right persons, King especially for having the idea to go back to the Overlook in the first place, are involved to bring it to life. Doctor Sleep, for all its hesitant energy, was worth the wait, worth the effort, and worth going back for. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Doctor Sleep opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use; 151 minutes.