You’d think a sequel to one of the greatest psychological horror films of all time, the 1980 Kubrick classic “The Shining,” would be a disastrous, pointless mess. So it’s a bit of a minor miracle that “Doctor Sleep” is every bit as good as the movie on which its based. This continuation of the original story is engaging, well acted, skillfully shot, and touches on deeper themes that you wouldn’t expect from a horror film. It stands on its own as well as being a satisfying sequel.
Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is now all grown up, and is a struggling alcoholic. Still scarred by the trauma he endured as a child at the Overlook Hotel, Danny is doing his best to turn his life around and accepts the help of a kind stranger (Cliff Curtis) to get back on his feet. Everything is going well until one night he gets a “shine” vibe from teenager Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who has one of the strongest gifts he’s ever encountered. But Danny isn’t the only one who’s picked up on Abra’s powers, and she’s soon the target of the villainous Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her gang of followers who feed off the “shine” of others.
The first-rate performances elevate the material with McGregor and Ferguson turning in some of their career-best work. They inhabit their characters so well it’s downright scary. Even the supporting cast leaves an impact, especially Jacob Tremblay, in a small role as an abducted boy. His scene is one of the most terrifying in the film, and it’s unforgettable.
Fans of “The Shining” will delight in a couple of throwback sequences that are incredibly clever. We see Danny and his mom and dad as their younger selves but instead of utilizing hokey de-aging CGI, director Mike Flanagan chooses to cast look-alike actors. By the time the movie turned back to the Overlook Hotel, I was on the edge of my seat (fueled by an uneasy nostalgia) until the very end.
The ominous tone is carried throughout, blending well with the significant themes of intense fear, trauma, addiction, grief, and healing. It’s cerebral and thoughtful, but still thrilling and entertaining. “Doctor Sleep” is one of the better movies of the year, and it should be embraced as a modern instant classic by fans of “The Shining.”
For better or worse, modern-day sequels to classic films from generations ago are popping up. The best of them, like the Creed series or Blade Runner 2046, avoid the pitfall of poor replication (pun intended) by going for their own cinematic identity, even if there is a storyline lineage and common universe (that was often never envisioned when the original film was produced). Doctor Sleep, the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic film The Shining, does an admirable job in establishing it’s own identity, avoiding the temptation of paying too much homage to its predecessor.
There are two key components to Doctor Sleep. Firstly, there is the connection to The Shining, a story that is simultaneously one of Stephen King’s most popular novels and one of Kubrick’s most celebrated films (despite the two auteurs having very different views on the film version). Then there is the Doctor Sleep story itself, which, despite having also been written by Stephen King, is a vastly different book. This gives director Mike Flanagan (Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House) the license to make a vastly different film.
The sequel is much more conventional and high concept, although packed with new character and story concepts that didn’t exist in The Shining. In Doctor Sleep (and in accordance with the novel), people with shining abilities exist, although they are still few and far between. They can establish psychic connections with each other, much like Danny Torrance, the gifted but troubled child in the first story, and Dick Hallorann, the uncle-like chef of the Overlook Hotel, did. But new to this concept is “steam,” a gaseous energy that shining people emit when scared or in pain. A ragtag band of gypsy types called the True Knot, led by a bewitching supernatural vixen named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) lives on this steam in a vampire-like fashion, as they travel throughout North America hunting and feeding on shiners.
Meanwhile, Danny (now “Dan”) Torrance is now a grown adult and eeking out a meager existence working in a nursing home. He battles demons in alcoholism and the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel, who continue to haunt him decades later, but largely has them under control. Dan shares a shine connection to a cat named Azzie, which lives in the facility and has the ability to determine which patients will die next. When this happens, Dan uses his shine ability to comfort them in their waning moments, earning him the nickname “Doctor Sleep.”
Dan also shares a shining connection with 13-year old Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who demonstrates a shining ability beyond anything ever seen. With her immense capabilities comes her ability to produce endless steam potential, making her a target for Rose the Hat and the True Knot. From there, the cat-and-mouse chase to save Abra and stop the True Knot ensues.
Suffice to say, these all these new ideas are a far cry from the brooding, macabre, cold world we knew at the Overlook Hotel. But with this novel sequel being written by King himself, one has to at least give the ride a chance. Some may be disappointed that Doctor Sleep doesn’t more closely resemble its predecessor, but for such an iconic standard as The Shining, trying to catch cinematic lightning in a bottle would be a fool’s errand. Thankfully, Mike Flanagan, his producers, and the studio execs recognized this.
The ties between Doctor Sleep and The Shining are tangential at best, and that’s a good thing. The storyline connection makes for a fun third act in which we do return to the Overlook Hotel and its cast of macabre characters. Having the wise audacity to be its own film, the original film’s characters are recast, and classic moments from The Shining are reshot. There is one set design Easter egg and at least two literary elements from King’s The Shining transfused into this cinematic sequel, but these are subtle enough that fans can appreciate the respectful nod to the original work while still enjoying the further adventures of Dan Torrance.
Jay Tan is a guest critic for Screen Zealots. This is his second review for the site.