‘Doctor Sleep’ Film Review: King-Crowned Horror Sequel Suffers When It’s a Kubrick Homage

Not overlooking Kubrick is well-intentioned, but the film undercuts its own compelling new story

Last Updated: November 6, 2019 @ 6:15 PM

Like a servant to two masters, “Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep” wants both Stephen King and fans of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film of his book “The Shining” to be happy. But sadly, it isn’t enough of its own chilling entity to have much impact.

When King wrote his 2013 sequel to the novel that cemented his reputation, his author prerogative allowed him to continue the tale of psychically powered Danny Torrance into adulthood while ignoring the changes Kubrick made to his original novel, from the portrayal of Danny’s troubled dad Jack (played by Jack Nicholson) to the Overlook Hotel’s fate. King has famously never been crazy about the liberties taken by Kubrick.

In adapting “Doctor Sleep,” then, in which we meet another gifted child, and a terrifying new villain (that isn’t a hotel), writer-director Mike Flanagan — no stranger to filming the giant’s work (“Gerald’s Game”) — has sought a brokered peace between the engrossing narrative of King’s characters and Kubrick’s hallowed, obsessively analyzed visuals.

Yes, it’s ironic that once again, King’s novel is being changed for the big screen, albeit with both his approval and that of the Kubrick estate. That fusion, however, results in a flat Frankenstein of a fright flick that stops and starts with frustrating regularity as it tries to memorialize the horror maestro’s newer story elements while tipping a filmic hat (in actuality, too many hats) to what the late cinema god etched into our brains.

When we’re reintroduced to Danny, he’s still a child in the Overlook aftermath, lying low in Florida with mom Wendy (Alex Essoe in for Shelley Duvall), and being stalked by holdover apparitions (the wrinkly old woman is back). But he’s also visited by his dead-but-not “shining” mentor Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly gamely channeling Scatman Crothers), who gives the boy a nifty mental tool for handling the scarier visions, while warning him other dangerous forces lie in wait.

That new threat, introduced in an opening scene of casual menace involving a lost girl by a lake, is a top-hatted, meditating soul-eater named Rose, played with sultry malevolence by Rebecca Ferguson even as she resembles a New Age groupie who might teach a yoga class. Rose is evil, though, leading a cultish group of vampirish ancients called the True Knot, who travel the country in RVs and murder kids with the “shine,” keeping their victims’ life force — visualized as an escaping mist — in canisters for inhaled, de-aging touch-ups. (Be warned: the group’s killing of one kidnapped child is a harrowing scene.)

Rose, in fact, looks no different years later when Ewan McGregor is now the grownup Dan, a reformed drunk — alcoholism being more prominent a source of destruction in King’s books than in Kubrick’s film — who lives modestly in a small New England town as a hospice worker. He’s made peace with his otherworldly talent, using it to ease dying patients out of corporeal life, which is how he earns his titular moniker. (And how the well-cast McGregor best conveys Dan’s hard-earned adult grace and empathy.)

His Overlook demons may finally be locked away, but he’s now being contacted telepathically by a suburban pre-teen named Abra (newcomer Kyliegh Curran), whose abilities are powerful enough to put her on Rose’s hunger radar.

The trio of story strands converge when mental pen pals Dan and Abra finally meet and realize that Rose and her ghoulish gang, including a sinister figure named Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), are hunting her. That sets in motion the cat-and-mouse peril of the second half which, after the sputtering nature of the time-and-place-hopping exposition, is a welcome leaning in toward the story’s fantasy elements: body-inhabiting, extrasensory communication, and hallucinations.

The first spectral meeting of Abra and Rose. involving astral plane projection and alternate-universe deceit, is a nifty confrontation that clues us in that these will be formidable antagonists. Though Ferguson is clearly enjoying her villainess, Curran — sometimes stiff, mostly appealing — also takes the opportunity to make Abra a righteous girl warrior with her own relish for battle.

All along Flanagan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari (Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House”) keep to a visual language reminiscent of Kubrick’s judicious movements and framing rigidity, which isn’t terribly different anyway from the assured way Flanagan (often with Fimognari) shoots his other scare pictures. The Newton Brothers’ score is also an homage, particularly its percussive touches and decibel-piercing blasts.

But when Flanagan makes the big swerve toward his own re-formulated denouement, now set at the Kubrickian Overlook, the movie loses what meager originality it had built up in what amounts to a “Shining” theme park, complete with twin girls and a familiar axe.

Kudos to production designer Maher Ahmad (“Noelle”) for the faithful recreation of a legendarily haunting set, from its now disused interior to its snowy exterior. But in terms of a story conclusion, returning to room 237, that cavernous lobby, and the topiary maze feels like a cheapening fan nod, even if certain elements — a bar conversation between Dan and a certain bartender (Henry Thomas), and a starring role for the hotel boiler — are clearly gestures meant to honor King’s original intention for the Torrance family narrative.

Ultimately this well-intentioned but unsatisfactory movie of “Doctor Sleep” suffers just like Dan Torrance does, trying to live its own life before succumbing to the tempting pull of recognizable terrors.

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