Stephen King fans know he hated Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for trivializing Jack Torrance's alcoholism and redirecting the evil powers of the Overlook Hotel. In essence, Doctor Sleep, his sequel to The Shining, almost seems to exist partly to right some of the wrongs that King perceived in Kubrick's movie.
Alas, Mike Flanagan, the man behind the excellent and creepy The Haunting of Hill House, makes the decision to incorporate Kubrick's film into his own adaptation of Doctor Sleep. The results are a mixed bag of genuinely scary moments and passages that make the film too dependent on the glory of Kubrick. Trying to recreate a Kubrick moment without Kubrick? Not advised.
The film starts with Danny Torrance riding around the Overlook on his Big Wheels, and making that dreaded stop in room 237 where the old lady has stayed in the bath tub way too long. The film then jumps ahead to Dan as an adult, played by Ewan McGregor. Dan, like his daddy before him, drinks a lot. He also still has discussions with the now dead Dick Halloran (played by Carl Lumbry here, and Scatman Crothers in The Shining). So Dan not only still “shines”—communicates telepathically—but he talks to dead people.
The monsters of this movie are the True Knot, a band of gypsies who look like they're killing time between Burning Mans. Their thing is to hunt down children who shine. When they find them, they murder them and eat their essence, which leaves the body as steam. So they're basically vaping vampires who, while not immortal, have prolonged their lives.
The Knots are led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), so named because, well, she wears a hat. Rose is the one who rations out the steam for her Knot crew, which they keep in thermoses that have sucked in the essences of the dead. This element of the film, along with Ferguson's disturbing performance, gives Doctor Sleep some memorably scary moments. A sequence where a young baseball player (Jacob Trembley) encounters the Knots is as harrowing as anything you'll see in a movie this year.
In some ways, which I won't give away, King gets a chance for some do-overs, as some of the scenes and themes in Doctor Sleep reference parts of King's original novel, as well as the sequel book. King has long bemoaned the ending of the Kubrick's film, but I can see why he might like the Doctor Sleep conclusion.
As for me, I thought the movie was better when it wasn't hanging around the Overlook Hotel. The moments in the Overlook, although visually impressive for sure, felt like little more than a stunt, with no real, viable reason for the protagonists to be running around in Kubrick's nightmare. Doctor Sleep works fine when it's about a nasty band of soul suckers messing with kids who have special powers. It's a confused muddle when it tries to do Kubrick.
It's as if this film is trying to provide further relevance and depth to the ghosts and deranged characters that haunted Kubrick's Overlook. That's something that can be deemed absolutely unnecessary. What Kubrick accomplished doesn't need to be monkeyed with, and that's exactly what Doctor Sleep does, especially in its finale. There's a sequence near the end that's supposed to be the scary payoff, but it provided me with unintentional laughs.
McGregor is good in the central role, and Ferguson is fine as the villain. At over two-and-a-half hours, Flanagan could've cut out his expensive Overlook finale, and probably would've had a better, more cohesive film. Instead, Doctor Sleep winds up being an elaborate imitation, and strange sort of King apology, for a classic Kubrick film.