Synopsis: As a child, Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) survived a hellish experience at a haunted Overlook Hotel in the mountains near Boulder, Colorado. Though he and his mother Wendy (Alex Essoe) managed to escape, the hotel’s ghastly occupants would not leave him alone. They followed him wherever he went, even all the way to sunny Florida, until his mentor Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) gave him a way to stop them. Unfortunately, this knowledge came at a price: Danny and Dick both possessed a powerful gift, known as The Shine. In time, Danny would encounter another with that gift, and he would have to help that person out. Guide them, protect them if needs be, and play mentor. No way, says the child Danny circa 1980. As he grows up, Danny finds himself facing the same alcoholic demons as his father—it’s a way to block out the shining, after all—but long around 2011, after an adult Dan (Ewan McGregor) bottoms out and tries to find his way to some kind of peace, along comes that outstanding bill demanding to be paid. Abra (Kyleigh Curran) is a girl possessed of a terrifyingly strong shining and though she has a bit more control of it than Danny ever did, she is in danger. That gift can be a beacon to darker parts of the world. For Danny, it drew the attention of a hungry hotel and its ghastly occupants. For Abra, it draws the attention of a vampiric coterie of travelers known as The True Knot. Led by the charismatic Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), they roam the countryside in RVs, exploring the world, enjoying long (long, long, long) lives and seeking to eat well. Their food of choice comes from folks who shine, and those who shine the brightest are the young ones. Abra will be next on their dinner list if Danny cannot reconcile his own past and lay more than ghosts or personal demons to rest. Mike Flanagan tackles one of the most challenging Stephen King adaptations yet with his meaty, audacious and ambitious Doctor Sleep (2019).
Quick aside before we get going. What do Kung Fu Hustle (2004), the pilot episode of Spaced (1999), and Ready Player One (2018) have in common? Each of them presents a memorable and explicit homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining. Throw a few more titles into that collection of films and shows that make oblique references to Kubrick’s piece and you get a wide range of things from The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015) to Hostel (2005) to just about every first person shooter game in existence (Some might ask: “Huh?” about that last one. Well, the Steadicam was first used in Kubrick’s film, and I will argue to my dying day that the floating perspective roaming the Overlook’s hallways has a direct impact on the visuals in 1993’s Doom and subsequent spinoff and rip-offs). Sometimes these references are played for laughs, occasionally they are used to unsettle. Few things make me bounce in my theater seat with glee quite as easily as a well-crafted homage or sly aside to that movie. It ain’t a perfect film (what is?), but for me it has been and always will be a perfect film experience.
Kubrick did a poor job adapting the book, but he made a memorable film from the materials. In 2013, King released his novel Doctor Sleep, which was a follow-up to the novel and not the Kubrick adaptation. In my preferences, that book ranks among King’s best works. It is one I have revisited the most (at least of his works written since 1990), having read the thing twice cover-to-cover (once aloud), listening to the audiobook at least once, and returning numerous times for brief passage reminders here and there since its publication. Fun fact, I was the bloke who managed to score a copy of the Cemetery Dance edition during a raffle, making mention that I was about Dan Torrance’s age, shared a name with him, and was looking forward to seeing how he was doing in the new book. It is a book that has personal significance to me. As it turns out, I share some bad habits with that character; Hi, I am Dan and I have an addictive personality, which has come to bite me in the ass on numerous occasions. The original novel is one I enjoyed a bunch, but this one carried real resonance.
When I first heard it was going into production, I wondered how in the bloody hell Mike Flanagan would tackle this damned thing. As it turns out, the writer/director manages to synthesize the two novels and the Kubrick adaptation in some wonderful ways. He cherry-picks pieces here and there, recreates scenes and sequences from the film, revises the second novel’s ending to both suit his narrative purpose and drag the two Shinings into synch. Along the way, he makes the material his own, drawing it into his own little Flanagan-verse, which runs through the masterful Gerald’s Game, the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, the weird stand-alone prequel Ouija: Origin of Evil, Oculus, and others.
The result is surprising: Flanagan’s vision of Doctor Sleep stunned me. The film chilled me with a couple of sequences of sheer brutality; it made me feel for its characters; it teased my not quite obsessions with both Kubrick’s film and King’s novels. It presents new twists and take on the materials that is both true to the themes (and true to quite a few sequences) from King’s narratives as well as Kubrick’s. Perhaps I was the perfect filmgoer for this picture because it spoke to me, it resonated with me, and it provided me a near-perfect film going experience.
While the filmmaking dazzles, the characters hold the attention. The main casting is solid, with McGregor and Curran handling the two lead protagonists well. However, this is a movie that shines (ha-ha) due to a sparkling secondary cast. From the new character front, there are a few standouts for me. Cliff Curtis plays the chummy, baggage-carrying Billy Freeman with appealing, subtle charm—this character is a nice enough guy who has a bit of the shine to him (enough to know a good person when he sees one) who becomes Dan’s one pal in the feature. The villainous True Knot are played with zeal and just plain awfulness. Ferguson plays Rose with deadly seriousness, finding room for both viciousness as well as a perverse sweetness. As well, Emily Alyn Lind finds room for eeriness and playfulness as Snakebite Andi. As with many Flanagan productions, some familiar cast faces turn up (I have teasingly referred to this group in previous reviews as “The Flanagan Players”), and they give fun moments. Case in point: Carel Struycken (who played the creepy Moon Face in Gerald’s Game as well as one of the ghosts in The Haunting of Hill House) brings a stately creepiness to the elder True Knot member Grampa Flick.
The real treasures for me were the folks given the difficult task of recreating the roles from Kubrick’s piece. Alex Essoe’s Wendy Torrance has the breathlessness and fragility of Shelly Duvall’s portrayal. Carl Lumbly brings a solid talent to the Dick Hallorann role, echoing Scatman Crothers in some fine and unexpected ways–there is this moment when he puffs out his lower lip while lost in thought that is just about perfect. Henry Thomas appears late in the film doing a killer take on Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of father-knows-worst Jack Torrance, and he’s got the mannerisms and the vocal tricks down. Some might be knocked out of the experience by these imitations, but they worked for me. These portrayals (particularly Thomas’s) are inspired, I’d say.
On a deeper level, the film is fascinated with echoes both in terms of themes as well as in execution. The piece finds ways to recreate moments and scenes from Jack Torrance’s life in his son’s adulthood. The film’s 2011 present echoes 1980s in terms of incident and execution. Past events return to haunt the present, and characters find themselves facing the choices they have been struggling to escape. A hunter who swore off killing finds himself bringing his hunting rifles out of mothballs. A lad who is trying not to be like his father grows up to fight the same battles with the bottle. An office where a man who once got the job that would change his life is recreated here as the office where that man’s son receives the job offer that would change his life. Set design, camera angles, music cues, a tumble down the stairs, a pursuit through a snowy hedge maze, a mentor being found by a powerful protégé . . . There are so many reflections and echoes from the past to be found here, some of them resolving in the same way, many of them taking new turns or twists.
Deeper still, this is a movie with a lot on its mind. Sure, it’s a suspenseful exploration of characters with paranormal abilities trying to survive a relentless force that wants to devour their gifts (and perhaps their souls), but it is also a movie that has some things to say about growing up, about our generational responsibilities, and both the good and bad roles communities play in their members lives. And yet this material does not bog down the narrative at all.
A couple of characters even have a chance to define their philosophies. Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon) observes a kind of fatalism about people ending up where they needed to be, despite their best efforts to the contrary. Dick Hallorann’s shade defines the earthly world in dream-within-a-dream terms. As I recall, these words came right from the book. The deliveries are pitch perfect, and the dichotomy between these aspects drive still another layer in the movie. This layer is an engine running under the story that drives our characters from the beginning to the finale, which I do not have time to explore here. It is well worth considering, however.
Dreams, reflections, fate and either the defiance thereof or acceptance, echoes from the past . . . These are the raw materials of Mike Flanagan’s entire oeuvre to this point, and they run through Doctor Sleep as well. They are its heart and soul. They are the stuff that motivate his characters and drive his plots.
The movie is a long one, and I suppose this is from necessity. I cannot say I would have removed a frame of it. 2.5 hours sped along for me, but I am the sort who will stop to smell the cinematic roses. There are plenty of blooming flowers on display here, some sweet, some less so, all fascinating.
Doctor Sleep is currently playing in theaters. If you have any familiarity with the three source materials I mentioned above, it is worth checking out. If you know all three, then this is a movie designed to play with you.
“Movie Mondays: Doctor Sleep” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and still image taken from IMDB.
Note: I am well aware of the mini-series version of The Shining. Alas, it was not my cuppa tea. Aside from some riveting performances, I could not get into that version. Does this film specifically play with some of that version as well? I cannot answer “yay or nay” because I am not well versed with it.
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