Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Doctor Sleep” (2019)

Writer/director Mike Flanagan’s sequel to The Shining, an adaptation of Stephen King’s book of the same name, sees an adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) struggling to put the horrible events that happened at the Overlook Hotel behind him, turning to drink and despair but eventually finding salvation in AA and by taking an orderly job at a nursing home, comforting those who are minutes away from death, earning him the nickname “Doctor Sleep”. Elsewhere, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl with an enormously powerful “shine”, is relentlessly targeted by a deadly cult, led by the magnetic Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who feast on the shines (or “steam”) of similarly gifted people and soon, Dan takes it upon himself to protect and to teach the young girl what she needs to know, and the two of them join forces to defeat the terrifying beings who will stop at nothing to become immortal.

When I first heard that Stephen King had written a sequel to The Shining, I honestly thought that it was a pointless idea and didn’t see why a book of such brilliance needed to be followed up on, so when news of an upcoming cinematic adaptation reached me, I wasn’t exactly filled with excitement or anticipation and predicted that the end product would be alright, it being directed by the reliable Mike Flanagan who gave us the impressive Haunting of Hill House, but nothing to write home about at all, but as the positive reactions to Doctor Sleep started to make themselves known, I was filled with a little more confidence in the project and sat down to see it on Halloween. And despite not expecting much from the film, Doctor Sleep turned out to be far better than I was expecting – it’s an entertaining and atmospheric film that pays faithful tribute to its predecessor while doing its own thing at the same time, equipped with a strong story, great characters and a few chills here and there. This ain’t no inferior cash grab.

The writing of Doctor Sleep is particularly strong because the film has a solid and entertaining story that’s not too complicated and it’s all written to a high standard by the director; the film gives us the story elements that we became familiar with in The Shining and then smartly and competently expands upon them, bringing us plenty of brand new ideas and widening the Shining universe, letting us see many others with the same abilities – in many different forms such as “pushers” or “seers” – and giving us a glimpse of some dangerous new antagonists, ones who are far more of a threat than the Overlook ghosts, that hunt and feed on the shines of those gifted individuals. The film seems dedicated to staying true to King’s original writing, explaining the concept of “Shining” as it was explained to Danny in the novel and referencing the book’s original ending, and in addition, the story works so well because while expanding on what we already know, it pays more attention to proper characterisation and in particular, it fleshes out the character of Dan Torrance and explores how his life would have turned out after his harrowing ordeal, finding himself at rock bottom by succumbing to alcoholism but finding redemption by accepting responsibility and acting as a mentor to the talented young girl who needs his guidance and gradually coming to terms with what happened to him and sorting out his troubled relationship with his father.

The direction from Mike Flanagan is accomplished and while watching, you instinctively get the impression that he truly understands and respects the work of Stephen King and while “helming the ship”, he successfully builds up an atmosphere of unease, intrigue and tension and he makes sure that there’s a strong focus on characterisation while also keeping the film as engrossing, entertaining and as tense as possible, keeping the film moving at a smooth pace, having a good grasp on tone, and staging the more kinetic “action scenes” very well so that they entertain and excite, as well as providing much needed darkness in scenes such as the forced “steam extraction” of an unaware victim – nasty indeed! Following on from Hill House and Gerald’s Game, Flanagan is proving himself to be an increasingly reliable name in the horror game and is more suited to adapting Stephen King adaptations than someone like Andy Muschietti, in my opinion.

The film also impresses on a technical level as there are plenty of imaginative shots and creative camera movements strewn throughout, making great use of camera rotation to create a disorienting effect and impressing in a sequence that sees Rebecca Ferguson flying through space, the abandoned, decrepit Overlook is brilliantly designed, and in the final act, DOP Michael Fimognari pays affectionate tribute to the original Kubrick film by recreating some of the famous shots that were used in the film, though thankfully not in an obvious, over-the-top manner.

Doctor Sleep also has plenty of interesting characters and in addition to the further developed Dan Torrance, who is played with commitment and skill by Ewan McGregor, we also have a new “highly gifted kid”, one whose shine is incredibly powerful, in the character of Abra and she proves herself to be a very interesting and watchable character, having these abilities that she’s not entirely comfortable with and instead of being a helpless victim, Abra is very proactive and though she may occasionally fear the dreadful monsters who are coming after her, she also doesn’t shy away from danger and she very often takes the fight to the enemy and confidently acts to beat the evil antagonists; it’s a good character and Kyliegh Curran is impressive in the role, admirably holding her own alongside her more seasoned co-stars. And in the main antagonist role, Rebecca Ferguson is magnetic and mysterious as the incredibly sinister and evil Rose the Hat, finally getting a properly good part after some thankless roles in Life, The Snowman and Men in Black International; her character is undeniably intriguing and very well designed and she definitely brings the scares to the film (as do the equally nasty baddies who make up the rest of the shady cult) with charisma and showmanship.

The Shining may not have needed a sequel but Doctor Sleep is no inferior cash grab; the story is strong, entertaining and engrossing, expanding the Shining universe while introducing some fresh new ideas, the characters are great, the cinematography is appealing, and the references to the original Kubrick film will delight fans.

★ ★ ★ ★