6/10 As the ‘10s come to a close, the 30-year cycle of media nostalgia for the ‘80s is in full swing. The specific subset of romance for Stephen King media reaches its theoretical nadir with Doctor Sleep, both a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and an adaptation of “Doctor Sleep,” Stephen King’s sequel to “The Shining.” That may sound like the same thing, but because of King’s famous hatred for the Kubrick film, they’re essentially two separate projects at once.
While the resulting movie is better than it has any right to be, the fact that neither should ever have been made is clear within the runtime.
Thirty years after the events of The Shining, Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is a bum dependent on alcohol to suppress his psychic powers, which in the narrative are referred to as his “shining.” He eventually wanders his way to a small town in New Hampshire, where he sobers up and takes a job as a hospice orderly, using his abilities to comfort the sick and dying, earning the nickname “Doctor Sleep.”
Forty years after the events of The Shining and 40 minutes after the start of the movie Doctor Sleep, Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is a hospice orderly who uses his psychic powers to comfort the sick and dying, earning the nickname “Doctor Sleep.” Just as Torrance was mentored in his youth by Dan Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), he has taken on Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) as a sort of psychic little sister. Stone discovers Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and True Knot, a band of psychic vampires that feed on young children who shine, and Rose the Hat discovers her as well. Fearing for her life, Stone goes to Torrance, who, in search of a tactical advantage, returns to the Overlook Hotel.
See that? See how you can just lop the first 40 minutes of a 152-minute movie right off the top there? That’s not good.
When mapping this movie’s main conflict between Stone and Rose the Hat into a traditional three act structure, this 40-minute stretch would be “Act Zero.” Most movies would cut it whole cloth and just start with Torrance’s eight-year sobriety speech, revealing information from the skipped period as it became necessary, but Doctor Sleep might have had to walk through all that to earn King’s approval. The author was more involved in this new adaptation than he was with The Shining. Writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan had worked with King previously to adapt Gerald’s Game, a book previously thought to be unfilmable, for Netflix, and his involvement was likely central to King’s approval.
Even without that knowledge, it’s easy to see King’s fingerprints all over the movie. Doctor Sleep seems more like one of his novels, disorganized, random and overlong, than a streamlined, planned-out film. Flanagan movies are always a treat because he puts so much more attention than normal into making his jump scares work, to the point that he edits all of his movies himself, an exceedingly rare trait, and he’s got a track record of pulling extremely watchable movies out of corporate jobs like Gerald’s Game and Ouija 2: Origin of Evil. It’s his editing choices that make Doctor Sleep stand out, often in good ways, but the mistakes dominate.
Doctor Sleep’s big problem is frontloaded into its narrative structure, which begins with that 40 minutes of backstory that should have just been cut. This stretch is used to establish the lore of the shining powers, set up Rose the Hat as a villain multiple different times and play through Torrance hitting rock bottom and deciding on sobriety and embracing his shine.
But most noticeably, it’s used to walk through the immediate aftermath of The Shining movie, a use that involves recasting the Torrance family of 1980. This is a colossal misstep. Part of this could just be me – The Shining is one of my desert island movies, I know every scene of it like the back of my hand – but there is simply no feasible way to do this. The original performances are idiosyncratic and so well-incorporated into the rest of the film’s iconography that they’re simply impossible to imitate, probably not even by the original actors themselves given how much abuse was going on during that production.
This also creates a situation where the film shows Torrance conquering his demons as a child and then hard cuts to him suffering from those same demons in 2011. It’s not the only time Doctor Sleep comes off as simply disorganized, but it’s the starkest. In an apparent effort to give Rose the Hat equal time to Torrance, it also creates a situation where she and her troupe are established multiple times as well.
The moment-to-moment editing is also a problem. Much of the movie, particularly “Act Zero,” is marked by rapid scene transitions. That’s the polar opposite of The Shining, in which scene transitions stretch on for minutes at a time and become scenes in and of themselves.
There’s specifically a lot of cuts within scenes where there just shouldn’t be cuts. Incorrect edits break up stunts and interactions and make the whole movie seem like it’s speeding through itself, even as it drags on at the same time. It’s particularly noticeable in a frequent room-shifting effect – when shining characters project their astral form, Doctor Sleep repeatedly does a stunt where the room they’re in rolls forward and they fall into the wall they’re facing, but this stunt is always performed in multiple cuts, muting its effect.
The sound design is a little better, making the correct decision to bring back iconic cues from the first film. Flanagan has a habit of inserting big sound stings mid-shot, another hallmark of The Shining, which are much more effective than the average jump in comparable movies.
On the downside, Doctor Sleep brings back its predecessor’s heartbeat sound effect for what feels like the entire runtime. The cue was used to mark when Torrance or Hallorann were using their shine for massive time- and space-spanning scenes in the classic, but in the newer film, someone’s shine is almost always being used for something, sometimes something routine, and that heartbeat is almost always playing.
It’s a bit like the use of the Force in the original Star Wars trilogy measured against its prequel trilogy. There are several parallels, in fact. The original trilogy, as does The Shining, focuses on a young psychic who can barely control his powers and only uses them in extreme circumstances. The prequels and Doctor Sleep transition to a setting filled with similarly powered psychics who use their abilities with practiced ease. It’s not necessarily a problem, but it becomes one when the movies attempt to treat the powers with the same sense of wonder and mystery.
As much as the movie focuses on exploring the nature of the shining, its real problem is it isn’t gross enough. Like The Shining, the points of horror in Doctor Sleep are simple, extended sequences of human pain and fear. Most of the violence is completely mundane, and to fulfill the sense of dread Doctor Sleep cultivates in a movie that purposefully eschews jump scares, these scenes need to be cranked all the way up. There’s a scene in this movie where a 10-year-old child is tortured to death, and it’s not all that hard to watch. The deaths of the True Knot vampires, in which the effects of aging that have been delayed by their foul magic catch up to them all at once, is another major missed opportunity to up the gore factor.
This all gives the impression that I didn’t like the movie very much, and that’s not true. I’m glad it was made, I’m glad I saw it, it’s nice to see Danny Torrance is OK when he grows up — well, he isn’t really, but it’s nice to touch bases with him — it’s just that with such a wonderful memory to build on, a genius at the helm in Flanagan and casually brilliant lead performances from McGregor and Ferguson, it’s hard to see past how much better Doctor Sleep should have been.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.