I read a thing recently that Stephen King’s The Shining and Doctor Sleep, although two sides of the same coin, are very much in different places thematically. The Shining deals with isolation, confinement and madness whereas Doctor Sleep explores escape, pursuit and redemption. This could be the reason that I loved Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep a lot more than I did Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which felt so much richer, wider in scope, ambition and rewarding in story. The Shining is a cold, hard and admittedly brilliant horror film but going from that aesthetic to Doctor Sleep is like holding your breath until you almost faint and then letting out one monumental exhale that feels a lot better than what came before. Sleep is the exhale, a flowing, horrific, cathartic and gorgeous dark jewel of a horror film that stands as loving homage to Kubrick’s film but just does so much more on a wider canvas.
Flanagan spends the first half of this story establishing setting, characters and history in economic yet leisurely fashion, as this runs for a delicious two and a half hours. Dan Torrence (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mom Wendy (Alex Essoe, not quite a dead ringer for Shelley Duvall but she finds her own essence and I liked her work) survived their nightmarish stay at the haunted Overlook Hotel and did their best to carry on with life. Fast forward all the way to 2011 and Dan is now a haggard looking and near homeless Ewan McGregor, bus hopping his way across the states and arriving in a small county to find help from AA and work at a hospice for dying elderly folks. Elsewhere, a roving band of vampiric creatures calling themselves The True Knot search for kids like Dan who possess the ‘Shine’, and consume it for sustenance. Also out there is young Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a girl with maybe the biggest reservoir of Shine within her and the power to defeat the Knot and their evil leader Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). This power struggle of course eventually leads them back to where Dan’s story originally began, the now derelict and rotting Overlook, fast asleep and waiting.
I loved this film. It’s so much more comprehensive and on fire than The Shining’s chilly aura gave us. Characters are sharply drawn, performances are wonderfully shaped and there are so many ideas, references and nods to the King Dark Tower multiverse that positively gave me chills. Ferguson is a tornado of pure malice as Rose The Hat, embodying shades of Stevie Nicks and playing this evil supernatural gypsy bitch to the absolute height of performance. Curran is a brilliant find as Abra, she radiates the resilience of this kid while clearly showing the fear, uncertainty and vulnerability of someone with such powers. McGregor is gruff and haunted as Dan, a casting choice that seems simultaneously out of left field and fitting like a glove. There are other familiar faces across this landscape including Cliff Curtis, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Robert Longstreet, Zahn McLarnon and Carel Stryucken who we fondly remember as The Fireman from Twin Peaks and The Moonlight Man from Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game. Room’s Jacob Tremblay also shows up as an unfortunate young victim of The Knot who gets slaughtered in a sequence of raw evil that will send a shiver down spines en masse. At the heart of this story is compassion though; Dan, with the help of an adorable cat, eases numerous elderly folks across the threshold of death with kindness and these scenes affect overall and add warmth to his character, while hitting me on a deeply personal level given my experiences with such things this past year. He’s forced to go back and confront the evil that he prayed he’d never see again and it’s a strong ray of redemption, for him and his now dead father who fell victim to such horrors. There is a lot at work here, it blows this world right open and finds connective tissue to King’s universe where Kubrick kept things close to the chest and contained. One of the best horror films, King adaptations and pieces of storytelling I’ve seen in some time.