There is a great Stephen King movie out this fall, and sadly it’s not It Chapter Two. Instead it’s Doctor Sleep, an adaptation of King’s 2013 novel that was heralded as a sequel to his early masterpiece The Shining. The book itself–a story about the adult version of Danny Torrance battling demons both personal and supernatural–was met with mixed reviews. Whether readers and critics were expecting a more direct follow-up to the original novel is unclear.
But director and screenwriter Mike Flanagan, whose resume includes the Netflix adaptation of Stephen King’s “unfilmable” Gerald’s Game, as well as last year’s acclaimed The Haunting of Hill House, has arguably improved on King’s book by streamlining the plot and altering some story points. He’s also fashioned a deliberately paced script that gets you to care a great deal about what happens to the people in the tale. But perhaps most astonishing of all, he’s crafted an eerie movie that serves as a sequel to both the novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 movie version, drawing on our memories of both to deliver something that is unique and respectful of each.
Kubrick’s movie is so ingrained in pop culture that it would take some pretty big balls to literally recreate its imagery and recast its actors, but that’s what Flanagan has done here. While some of his riskier gambits don’t quite work–let’s face it, even the most talented actor in the world cannot erase Jack Nicholson’s leering face from our minds–the rest of it mostly does because it feels organic to the story as opposed to being a hokey attempt to push our nostalgia buttons. The combination of the sets and the music (used with permission from the Kubrick estate) provide a thrill of dread as we venture down the haunted hallways of the Overlook Hotel once again.
It’s a while before we get there though, and the first two acts of Doctor Sleep push the story forward with the same patience and deliberation that Flanagan displayed in the best segments of Hill House. When we meet Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) 40 years after the events of The Shining, he is a lost soul. This is a traumatized who’s descended into the depths of alcoholism to blot out the memories, mental voices, and spirits that chase him thanks to his enormous psychic powers. But he finally begins to achieve some tranquility through sobriety and a job at a small town hospice where he uses his gift to help the patients pass peacefully to the other side. Then he encounters Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl whose powerful shine matches and perhaps exceeds his own.
Abra has accidentally discovered the existence of a malevolent band of semi-immortal psychic parasites known as the True Knot, who feed off the “steam” or energy released by psychically gifted children in the grip of pain and terror. The Knot is led by the ancient yet alluring Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who senses Abra’s presence and realizes that she could be an unending, agonized source of steam for her people for years to come. It is up to Danny to face his own fears and confront his past if he wants to save Abra from the horrors that the Knot have planned for her.
Like all great horror stories, Doctor Sleep is not just about ghouls and shocks. It’s a story of addiction, recovery, and empathy, and McGregor excels as a man who goes through all three and struggles to maintain his basic decency while putting the past behind him. The amount of time Doctor Sleep spends giving you a full picture of Danny’s journey may seem sluggish to some (and at nearly 150 minutes, the movie does have its slow spots), but it also invests the viewer wholly in each character’s fate.
It’s why Ferguson’s Rose can steal the picture every time she’s on screen, as she is one of the most complex villains ever put in a genre movie. Her love for her “family” is equaled only by the merciless way she snatches their prey (we should warn you that one extended sequence in which we see the full extent of how the Knot extracts steam from a young victim is not for the faint-hearted). Ferguson crackles with wanton energy throughout the film.
Flanagan’s synthesis of both the published and filmed versions of The Shining largely pays off because it’s not slavishly faithful to either: the Overlook Hotel had very different fates in King’s book and Kubrick’s film. There are a few moments toward the end of this movie when Flanagan’s visual tribute threatens to push itself a little too far with callbacks, but his clever switch to the source text provides a climax both familiar and worthy of the new context in which it is placed.
Like his literary hero King, Flanagan knows that horror doesn’t work without characters that one can feel for and connect with. He makes that happen in Doctor Sleep, as he has also done in Gerald’s Game, Hill House and his own original films like Oculus. Only here it’s in service of a story with literary flourishes that could easily get lost in translation (a hill that many well-meaning filmmakers, including Andy Muschietti with It: Chapter Two, have unfortunately died on).
Flanagan makes those elements work, gets the most out of his actors and their roles, and provides moments that are genuinely shocking; he honors the literary and cinematic milestones that sparked this off in the first place. Credit must go as well to cinematographer Michael Fimognari and production designer Maher Ahmad for their sterling, textured, and genuinely resonant work. Pulling from a book that had perhaps inordinately high expectations placed on it before it even came out, Flanagan and his cast and crew have crafted one of the richest Stephen King adaptations in years. Sleep through this one, you won’t.
Doctor Sleep is out in theaters on Nov. 8.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye