By Matthew Simmons
As the Halloween season ends, filmgoers will have one last chance to experience scares in theaters next weekend with the release of DOCTOR SLEEP.
Serving both as an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel as well as a sequel Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic THE SHINING, the film follows an adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) as he struggles with sobriety and the trauma he suffered as a child at the Overlook Hotel. Looking to turn his life around, he moves out east and runs into Abra (Kyliegh Curran in her film debut), a young girl who also possesses the same psychic abilities Dan has. Abra tries to convince Dan to help her take down the True Knot, a cult who feeds off of people’s shines seeking immortality lead by the cunning Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson).
Director Mike Flanagan is no stranger to adapting Stephen King’s work — he directed 2017s fabulous GERALD’S GAME — and routinely channels King’s heart and emotional storytelling into his other works (HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is more Stephen King than Shirley Jackson), so it’s no surprise that Flanagan manages this aspect well, especially when focused on the relationship between Dan and Abra. Dan slowly becomes a role-model to the ambitious Abra, mirroring his own relationship with Dick Hollorann (Carl Lumbry takes over the role, originally portrayed by Scatman Crothers). McGregor and Curran are both stellar and are able to make this friendship believable and heartwarming. The film also tackles themes such as alcoholism and trauma accurately, which is refreshing to see in a big-budgeted film like this.
The film is at its best when it’s focused on the True Knot’s quest for immortality. Their various kidnappings and rituals are the highlights of the film, resulting in some truly disturbing and visually stunning sequences that will be hard to forget. Most of that is thanks to Rebecca Ferguson’s ferocious and instantly-iconic Rose the Hat. Ferguson is a magnetic screen presence, and she injects a wonderful, sexy swagger to Rose. She’s simultaneously captivating and fear-inducing in a way that it makes sense why so many would be attracted to her cult.
While there is a lot that works, there are a few gripes — the first act is a bit jumbled as it jumps to too many locations and times to set the story in motion. Its two and a half hour runtime doesn’t do the film too many favors either, with some scenes either dragging or overbearing in explanations towards the audience. The worst parts of the film are easily the recreation of iconic scenes from THE SHINING. While Flanagan’s craft and attention to detail are nothing short of praise, having different actors portraying these characters feels more like half-baked impersonations than something real.
DOCTOR SLEEP doesn’t try to mimic THE SHINING’s dread-inducing tension. Instead, it creates its own identity by taking a more contemplative approach. Minus a few key scenes, it’s not all that scary, but that’s not a bad thing. Flanagan is clearly more focused on inner demons than actual demons, and that, along with strong performances and direction, is more than enough to create an engrossing and well-made supernatural thriller.