‘Doctor Sleep’ Disrespects the Master
Holy shit. We’re back in the maze. Wendy Carlos’ whommmp-whommmp-whommmp-whommmp fuzzy Satanic synch music is ringing in our ears. Danny Torrance is riding his Big Wheel trike over the funky red-and-orange-hexagon hallway carpet. The lights are flickering on again in the Navajo-meet-Beelzebub-festooned lodge of our nightmares. And that rotting, naked old lady is climbing out of her bathtub.
DOCTOR SLEEP ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Written by: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis
Running time: 152 min
Except. Wait. Hold on. That rotting, naked old lady keeps climbing out of the goddamn bathtub. She keeps popping up. Like, in literally a half-dozen different scenes over the course of two and a half hours. Oh, sweet Christ, this isn’t scary, it’s just embarrassing. That poor, rotting, naked old lady. Someone get her a towel!
Only. Kubrick. Can. Make. Kubrick. Films. Can we all just agree on that? It seems supremely self-evident that the director of 1980’s monolithic masterpiece The Shining created a horror movie of such bone-rattlingly sui generis dread that any extension or recycling of its iconography is bound to fail. It’s the cinematic equivalent of graverobbing.
Some serious forehead knuckle-rapping is in order, especially after Steven Spielberg’s profane resuscitation of the Overlook Hotel in 2018’s Ready Player One. Sorry, Steven, I know you like to have fun with sharks and dinosaurs and big Aztec boulders, but the Gold Room is not a theme park ride. And neither is Room 237. Just because filmmakers can conjure these paralyzing visions with the CGI-fueled click of an Enter key or rebuild them with a studio’s million-dollar resources doesn’t mean that they should. The only place where the murdered Grady twins deserve to play with us forever and ever and ever is in our horribly scarred collective imaginations.
So now we have Doctor Sleep, an unrequested continuation of The Shining. It’s as though someone made a sequel to Kubrick’s 2001! Oh, that’s right, they did and they called it 2010, and no one ever talks about it because it was so misguided. Arthur C. Clarke decided to write 2010, just as Stephen King decided to write Doctor Sleep. And that’s completely fine because those authors came up with the characters in the first place and decided that, as storytellers, they had more to say. But Kubrick transposed and elevated their original written works into groundbreaking films that redefined their respective genres. Show some respect. Better yet, have some common sense.
The plot points in Doctor Sleep are engaging enough, with a still-tortured but now-grown Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) chronically confronting the pain of his nagging past. How to deal with the trauma? By compartmentalizing his demons. Literally. Like, with little lockboxes in his mind. He’s also a like-father-like-son alcoholic who’s 8 years sober and putting his on-the-down-low psychic powers to good work at a nursing home. Torrence’s spooky/soothing consolation to dying patients has even earned him the nickname Doctor Sleep.
But he’s not the only person in the world with The Shining. In fact, a vampiric caravan of death-defying hippies known as the True Knot roam the country, having prolonged their lives for generations by tracking down children with those supernatural abilities and feasting on their gifts. “They eat screams and drink pain,” confides a specter to Dan. Their ideal victims are young boys and girls whose powers are at their most potent. “Steamy,” as they say. And the more they torture their prey, the steamier they get.
The ringleader of these child murderers is the beguiling Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) who generates a type of earthy-sexy patchouli-scented Stevie Nicks vibe as she bewitches those around her. Her gang is increasingly starving for food as these gifted children become harder to find, until Rose stumbles on a geyser in the form of 15-year-old Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran). Her abilities are so off-the-charts that she actually scares Rose. And when the True Knot decides to focus all their dark energy on hunting her down, it’s up to Dan to intervene. With a third-act assist, of course, from the Overlook.
Mike Flanagan wrote, directed, and edited Doctor Sleep with what is clearly deep affection and reverence for the source material. He’s a King fan, and even got the Maine man of letters to bless this mess. Flanagan’s film adaptation comes from a place of good intentions, and a wish to bridge King’s famous dislike for Kubrick’s interpretation of his haunted house story.
I’m not going to lie: it’s an absolute thrill to be back at the Overlook. But then the visit wears out its welcome, as the hotel’s potent menace melts away and leave only the banal whiff of a tourist attraction. If as a filmmaker you find yourself casting a Scatman Crothers lookalike, not to mention a Jack Nicholson lookalike and a Shelley Duvall lookalike, you might be making poor life choices. Does seeing them evoke what genre fans might call a feeling of unease? Yes, but not that classic sense of dread. It’s more an uncanny-valley sense of nausea.
In leaning on Kubrick’s vision for depth, it’s opportunistic but unremarkable. More than that, it’s irresponsible, because doing so only trivializes Kubrick’s deeply unsettling accomplishments. I have an idea. If you want to feed on fear that badly, just go back and re-watch The Shining. It still wants to play with us. Forever and ever and ever…