‘Doctor Sleep’ can stand on its own

Jackson McMurray, Staff Reporter

You don’t need me to tell you that “The Shining” (1980) is something of a sacred text when it comes to the horror film genre, and making a sequel to it seems, on paper, about as good of an idea as making a sequel to the Mona Lisa. 

As impossible as it seems, this is the task the makers of “Doctor Sleep” (2019) have been given. It’s a thankless project, but “Doctor Sleep” threads a couple of very tricky needles and manages to be not only an acceptable sequel, but a truly singular and exciting story in its own right.

The most important needle director Mike Flanagen needed to thread was simply that of source material. When Stanley Kubrick was adapting Stephen King’s “The Shining” for the big screen, he famously did so fairly inaccurately. 

The novel features many more horror setpieces than the fairly restrained film does, including living topiary animals and a supernatural wasp attack. The most important deviation though, is that the novel ends with the overlook hotel’s boiler exploding, reducing the building to rubble.

Stephen King’s novel “Doctor Sleep” is obviously a sequel to his own version of “The Shining,” building on many of those book-exclusive ideas, so that begs the question: Should this movie be a sequel to “The Shining” or an adaptation of “Doctor Sleep?”

In execution “Doctor Sleep” manages to have its cake and eat it too. It follows the plot of the book fairly closely, except for when the book contradicts the movie continuity, in which case the events are adjusted, sometimes drastically. Just in the trailer you can see Ewan McGregor exploring the Overlook Hotel, which simply no longer exists in the canon of the source material.

“Doctor Sleep” is a tightrope walk, balancing not just influences of Kubrick and King, but also constantly teetering between reverence and imitation of Kubrick’s masterpiece, and having its own filmic identity.

“The Shining” has perhaps the most iconic visual language of any film ever made, so not resorting to imitation except for a few special occasions shows a tremendous amount of restraint on Flanagan’s part. “Doctor Sleep” feels much more modern, much more mainstream, complete with complex drone shots and CGI  supernaturalism.

Rebecca Furgeson, who plays the role of Rose the Hat, the whimsically-dressed leader of the True Knot, gives a broad scenery-chewing performance that would make Kubrick roll in his grave. It’s the kind of decision that sets the film apart in audiences’ minds from its predecessor. That performance would never have flown in “The Shining,” but in “Doctor Sleep” it’s effective and believable.

Another movie released this year, “Joker”, has such a deep devotion to its inspirations that it comes off as pathetic, like a baby sibling imitating their older brother. “Doctor Sleep” could have easily fallen into this same problem, it could have just dressed up and pretended it was a Kubrick movie, tried to imitate the inimitable, but it didn’t, and the movie stands on its own two feet because of it.

For most of the movie, the story is such that you could almost forget its Shining connection. In terms of characters, plot, and theme, the two stories couldn’t be more different.

“Doctor Sleep” tells the story of an older, recently sober Dan Torrence, (played by Ewan McGregor, giving his best performance in recent memory) who is still haunted (literally) by the tragedy at the overlook. He inadvertently forms a psychic connection with a young girl named Abra, who is even an even more powerful psychic than Dan.

At the same time, an evil group of pseudo-immortal beings called “The True Knot,” members of which have such over-the-top names as “Crow Daddy” and “Snakebite Andi,” are tracking down, torturing and killing children who shine in order to extend their own lives by consuming their power.

Both versions of “The Shining”  are about abuse and violence and the habit evil deeds have of sticking around long after they’re committed, but “Doctor Sleep” doesn’t seem to be bothered with such earthly problems. 

Thematically, the movie has more in common with Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” (1989 and 2019) than it does with “The Shining.” It’s an upsetting and existential story about fearing death and the grotesque lengths that people will go to in order to stay on earth for as long as possible.

At the end of the day we shouldn’t be asking whether “Doctor Sleep” is better than “The Shining.” Not only because we all already know the answer to that question, but also because it does a disservice to the movie and what it’s doing. 

It’s not trying to be better than “The Shining.” It’s not trying to be anything other than a great story in its own right. It uses “The Shining” as a springboard, but uses it to tell a story that is, at its heart, completely different and completely worth telling.