Dir: Mike Flanagan. Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, Zahn McClarnon. 15 cert, 152 mins
It’s common knowledge that Stephen King was never a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In fact, he hated it. The director had thrown out his original ending and decided not to explore the Torrances’ family dynamic. With Doctor Sleep, writer-director Mike Flanagan has tried to stitch up that decades-old wound. It’s an adaptation of King’s own sequel to his book, but one that exists in the same universe as the film. You’ll still see the same distinctive pattern in the hallway carpets and two little girls, dressed in blue, beckoning Danny to “come play with us”.
But melding two distinctive voices into one (make that three, including Flanagan’s) is a major gamble. Here, it doesn’t pay off. We open on an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), doomed to follow in the footsteps of his alcoholic father. He drinks both to banish the memories of what happened to him in the Overlook Hotel and to suppress the telepathic powers he was born with – what he refers to as “the Shining”. One day, a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) makes contact. She’s just like him, only more powerful. But she needs his help. Danny must confront his past in order to stop the True Knot, a group of semi-immortals who feed off the “shine” of young children.
It’s the kind of story that usually populates the pages of superhero comics and, in truth, Doctor Sleep rarely has the feel of a horror film. It’s too entangled in King’s obsessive worldbuilding, switching between characters and narrative threads without actually taking the time to create any sense of terror or dread. The exception is Rebecca Ferguson’s slithering turn as villain Rose the Hat. With a sugary voice and a piercing stare, she plays the master manipulator as a 21st-century update on CS Lewis’s White Witch – an ensnarer of children with an ice-cold streak.
The film’s attempts to recreate The Shining (or, at least, revisit it) range from technically impressive to borderline silly, but never scary. Flanagan might mimic Kubrick’s camera techniques, but he robs them of their significance. All those tracking shots and crossfades helped create the nauseating claustrophobia of the Overlook; when the action takes place over a decade and across several states, it doesn’t have quite the same effect. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s original score, with those electronic notes that sound like foghorns, only appears once. Otherwise, it’s a more conventional mix of orchestral groans and violin shrieks by the Newton brothers, punctured by the sound of a beating heart.
Then there are the signatures of Flanagan’s own work, familiar to fans of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House: everything looks cold and stately, like a portrait hanging in some dingy hall, and there’s a real interest in the effects of childhood trauma. McGregor may be committed to his character, but the script doesn’t give him too much to do. His final confrontation with his own alcoholism is so painfully on the nose, it ruins the sincerity of anything that might have come before. There’s no room for subtlety here – Doctor Sleep is too busy being tossed between the triadic worlds of Kubrick, King, and Flanagan.
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