Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) sees the writing on the wall in Doctor Sleep.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Shine on, you crazy ‘80s horror icon
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - November 10, 2019 - 12:00am

Stephen King, author of The Shining and its decades-later sequel Doctor Sleep, has a well-known distaste for the Stanley Kubrick film based on his horror classic. He hated it, but the movie still crept into filmgoers’ consciousness: it had staying power as a cultural icon.

Now, King, who’s having an autumnal heyday with movies and TV series sprouting up left and right based on his classic chillers, is presented with a film version of his sequel… and it goes to meticulous lengths to conjure up the details of Kubrick’s version.

But my guess is that King has made peace with a world in which his protagonist is forever seen as an axe-swinging madman played by Jack Nicholson, threatening a bug-eyed, knife-wielding Shelley Duvall. It’s all good, eventually.

In Doctor Sleep, Ewan McGregor plays Dan Torrance, the grownup son who was terrorized by his own father in a remote Colorado hotel one snowy winter decades ago. Even in the film version, it was made clear that Jack Torrance, the father, was a recovering alcoholic who somehow gets “drunk” on the evil energy of the Overlook, before going all familicidal.

The role of alcohol was important to author King, who himself was deep in his cups while writing many of his classic bestsellers (he claims to have no memory whatsoever of writing Cujo); so The Shining was a sort-of metaphorical examination of alcohol’s effect on the family unit.

Doctor Sleep goes deeper into that dynamic, with McGregor tormented by his “shining” ability into adult life, living with the legacy of alcoholism, choosing to blunt the effects of both with (you guessed it) more drugs and alcohol, until he discovers redemption in a small town (the kind of bucolic small American town that’s the antithesis of the ugly Derry, Maine setting found in films like It) and begins to frequent AA meetings.

Mike Flanagan, who has mined the territory of family psychodrama before in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, directs serviceably, and despite its many surface nods to the 1980 Kubrick film — including creepy music, snowy hedge mazes, and even recreations of key scenes — the sequel actually owes little to the tone of Kubrick’s movie. And that’s a good thing! Instead, it tracks the characters in an oddly satisfying horror thriller that pits good versus evil.

We quickly meet, in succession, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, lapping up every morsel of her role with extra relish), head of a weirdo cult called the True Knot who live long by vaping the essence of children who possess “the shine”; and Abra (newcomer Kyliegh Curran, who’s great), a little girl who just might be an equal match for Rose.

While addiction is a theme of The Shining and recovery a theme of Doctor Sleep, the True Knot members just live like low-rent meth heads, traveling in a caravan of buses, always on the move, looking to feed off the innocent. It’s kinda pathetic. Who wants an extra long life of that?

Plot-wise, Doctor Sleep is potboiler stuff. But we find ourselves strangely drawn in and attached to this triumvirate of Dan, Abra and Rose: we can’t wait for the showdown.

One great early test battle occurs as Rose, sitting atop her gypsy trailer bus in lotus position, astral projects herself into Abra’s mind — depicted as a bedroom filled with file cabinets — and quickly starts rifling through the drawers to find ways to defeat her. But — surprise! — Abra’s there in the room, too, aware of the intrusion and all ready to kick butt.

Emily Alyn Lind puts in good work as a young True Knot recruit who puts people to sleep through hypnosis, and Cliff Curtis is also good as Dan’s AA sponsor Billy.

McGregor is a comforting, sympathetic presence, though his character is clearly worn down by life and the presence of dead people constantly turning up in his peripheral vision; he finds a sense of purpose by working in a hospice, helping the dying to transit peacefully to the beyond.

Where director Flanagan gets into a bit of audience pandering is when the movie shifts to characters from the Kubrick classic: we get “reenactments” of Nicholson, Duvall, young Danny, and Scatman Crothers, and it’s a bit cheesy at times. These bits seem to skirt the line between homage and parody, and almost place it in the zone of collective pop consciousness goosed by Steven Spielberg in Ready Player One, where the Overlook Hotel becomes just another gamer’s paradise.

Flanagan describes it as “walking the tightrope between Kubrick and King,” and you know what he means: the movie does not hold back from pushing those Kubrick/Shining buttons like a Vegas slot machine on a lucky streak: we get a scene where grown-up Dan Torrance seeks a job in the hospice that’s an exact replica of the scene where Jack Torrance seeks a job taking care of the Overlook Hotel, way back when. There’s the scene with Dan repeating his father’s routine with a bartender in the Gold Room… who’s now played by an actor made up to look like Jack Nicholson! (And this has added meta resonance because the actor playing Jack/the bartender is… grownup Henry Thomas! Who played Eliot in E.T.! So, ponder on that, meta heads.) And of course there are countless recreations of rotting old women in bathtubs (good ’ol Room 237), elevators gushing rivers of blood in slo-mo, and hallway shots of odd twin girls insisting that Danny come play with them… “forever… and ever… and ever…”

The visual nods begin to feel a little superfluous, or else like shameless fan servicing, when a simple approach to Dan and Abra’s confrontation with Rose the Hat might have served just as well. But hey, if you’re doing a sequel, you gotta dance with the one that brung you.

Pop icon status for the Kubrick film has reached such levels that the audience at our screening of Doctor Sleep let out an even bigger collective murmur upon first seeing the snowy Overlook onscreen than they did for those reenactments of Jack and Wendy. So that means we’ve somehow crossed into an era where we don’t hanker for sequels so much as the idea of sequels (reminding us of Don DeLillo’s iconic red barn in the novel White Noise, the one that you don’t even have to photograph anymore, because it’s the idea of photographing it that counts); thus the visual nods to The Shining become just icing on the cake we’ve already eaten. Does this mean we no longer experience things as they’re unfolding in actual reality, but rather only as trailers of upcoming attractions? I dunno.

Ice queen: Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) messes with Abra (Kyliegh Curran) in a familiar location.

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Follow @scottgarceau on Instagram.


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