‘Doctor Sleep’ film version has Kubrick’s fingerprints all over it
Out of narrative necessity, “Doctor Sleep” is bookended by images of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic take on Stephen King’s “The Shining.” Given the history of the author’s famous disavowing of the film – and its subsequent rise as one of the best horror films ever created – it’s odd to see King endorse this sequel with full-throated certainty (he also serves as the film’s producer).
In 2013, King penned the book in which he revisits the aftermath of the Torrance family’s fateful visit to the Overlook Hotel back in 1980. “Doctor Sleep,” the movie version, borrows heavily from the iconic sights and sounds of the very film King dismissed as “basically a scream machine” and “very cold” due to its lack of emotional investment.
King’s “Doctor Sleep” novel was an effort to reclaim ownership of “The Shining,” picking up in the current day, with a now-grown Danny struggling with the same alcoholism that claimed his father and drifting from town to town trying to escape his own demons, both metaphorical and literal.
Despite King’s reclamation efforts, the film version has Kubrick’s fingerprints all over it. Initially, “Sleep” seems like a blatant nostalgia grab, as we are introduced to “flashbacks” of the earlier film with entirely new actors in the roles. But as the film pushes forward, it establishes a solidly creepy road trip of its own. It is nowhere near the cinematic brilliance of Kubrick’s, but does create its own sense of self.
We follow Danny (played by Ewan McGregor) just before he hits rock bottom, stumbling out of bed with a random woman after a night of boozing, blow and brawling. He heads to a small New Hampshire town, joins a local AA group and takes on a modest job at a local hospice.
While there, he learns to channel his psychic curse into a gift, as he is able to offer bedside solace and companionship for the terminal patients’ final moments.
Simultaneously, we are introduced to a roving band of semi-immortals named the True Knots. They’re led by a top hat-sporting seductress named Rose (played by Rebecca Ferguson) as they trek across the country feeding off children who share Danny’s “shining” gift. The more the children suffer in death, the stronger the “steam,” or spirit, the Knots inhale.
In their travels, the True Knots are alerted to a young girl named Abra, who seems to possess a stronger shining than they have ever encountered, and they set their sights on finding her. Though still in middle school, Abra (played by newcomer Kyliegh Curran) has learned to harness her power, and she connects with Danny to help her stop these otherworldly predators from claiming another life.
“Doctor Sleep” offers a much more fantastical world in contrast to Kubrick’s more grounded, psychological approach, but both films share a dedication to their characters. And when “Doctor Sleep” sheds its predecessor’s skin, the film stands on its own convictions.
Credit is certainly due to director/screenwriter Mike Flanagan, who transformed King’s “Gerald’s Game” into one of the author’s strongest film adaptations to date. He no doubt had a challenging task with “Sleep,” attempting to weave both King’s and Kubrick’s decidedly different legacies into a whole cloth.
It’s only when he paints with Kubrick’s brush that “Sleep” suffers, as we are treated to warmed-over re-enactments of archetypal scenes from “The Shining”: the twins, the rotting woman in the tub, the blood-gushing elevators and the snow-caked labyrinth. The film loses its grip and serves more as an act of extended fan service, even giving us a Nicholson impersonator for a sequence that felt highly unnecessary.
It’s understandable but also unfortunate that Flanagan felt the need to return so often to Kubrick’s well, as “Sleep” nimbly eschews many of the genre’s jump-cut cheap scares so prominent today. Given our current cinematic culture of constantly mining well-trodden turf (as in the over-praised “Joker”), at least Flanagan gives his characters something to say and new territory to cover rather than merely stapling them to superior projects and riding them to the bank.