There’s a scene in Magnolia where Phillip Baker Hall, suffering from cancer with only a few months to live, tells a colleague “the Book says we might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” In other words we might think we’ve conquered our demons but trauma is something we own, and what we own always comes home.
We are currently in the midst of something akin to a renaissance for Stephen King. For the past few years, it feels like there’s a new adaption of one of his works for TV or the big screen every five minutes or so. Movies like It and Gerald’s Game were widely acclaimed, and TV series like Castle Rock and 11/22/63 are just as beloved. So it came as no surprise that Doctor Sleep, King’s sequel to his novel The Shining, was on it’s way to be made into a movie. Equally popular in the past few years has been the work of director Mike Flanagan, who arrived on the genre scene back in 2011 with his weirdly minimalist yet extremely effective (and criminally underrated) feature Absentia, and kept up that trend with films such as Hush, Oculus, Ouija: Origin Of Evil, Before I Wake, and the aforementioned Gerald’s Game. Arguably Flanagan’s greatest accomplishment came in the form of the Netflix original series The Haunting Of Hill House, loosely based on the Shirley Jackson story. Now, we have his second round of adapting a Stephen King story into film with Doctor Sleep.
Making the sequel to a film that is widely considered to be not just one of the greatest horror films of all time but one of the best films of any genre is a tall order. Especially when it comes to adopting a story that is the sequel to a property that was made into one of the creator’s most hated adaptions of their work. King has made no secret of his disdain for Kubrick’s version of The Shining, and many (myself included) believe that disdain to be at least somewhat justified. Kubrick took what was essentially an autobiographical work mixed in with supernatural elements and stripped it down to it’s skeleton in order to make something that was lean and horrific and beautiful but lacking the essential soul of King’s book. The tale of a good man being driven by external forces to do unspeakable things against his family was turned into a surreal ghost story, one in which the character of a loving father struggling with his inner demons was instead a man who even on a good day seemed seconds away from murdering his family. When King wrote the sequel to The Shining, he emphasized the essential goodness of Jack Torrance, which made his eventual fate all the more tragic. At its heart Doctor Sleep was a story of redemption and escaping from the seemingly inevitably returning sins of the past. So while Flanagan was seen as more than capable of adapting a work the screen, there was reason to be skeptical if he could pull off adapting Doctor Sleep.
Doctor Sleep is the story of Dan Torrance, the young boy from The Shining who after escaping with his mother from the haunted Overlook Hotel and the murderous grasp of his father, eventually falls prey to the alcoholism that made Jack Torrance easy pickings to whatever sinister evil lived in the Overlook. Dan is doubly damned; in addition to alcoholism he is also plagued by visions of the undead as a result of the “shine”, the term for clairvoyance in the King-verse. Eventually, Dan gets sober and finds work as a nurse at a hospice unit where he comforts dying patients by using his shine to sooth them as they pass on. He’s eventually befriended by Abra, a local girl who shines stronger than anyone else aside from Dan. Meanwhile, a group of nomadic psychic vampires calling themselves the True Knot have been roaming America for decades if not centuries. Quasi-immortal, the Knot stays young and live abnormally long lives by draining the “steam”, or life force, off young children who shine. Unfortunately for these children, the steam is purified by pain and terror, so the more painful the death the more potent the steam. The Knot, led by the beautiful but sinister Rose The Hat, soon become aware of Abra and her shine, and it becomes a race for Dan to protect her.
Flanagan’s storytelling is at it’s strongest when he’s discussing unresolved past trauma, be it grief or loss or abuse or any number of the horrible things that can happen in ones lifetime. In The Haunting Of Hill House, much of the drama comes from the shared childhood the main characters had and the one terrible night that left them all as haunted as the titular house. In Gerald’s Game, the main character must deal with being sexually abused by their father as a child. Absentia revolves around a woman whose life is thrown into disarray when her husband shows back up after being declared dead in absentia. Put simply, Flanagan excels at telling stories about people trying and failing to escape their own shattered pasts, and how the past always comes back to haunt them. There’s no story better for him to tell than that of Danny Torrance. Ewan McGregor portrays Dan as man clearly ruined by his childhood drama yet desperately trying to avoid dealing with it at any cost. His alcoholism is as much as symptom of the disease he inherited from his father as it is a coping mechanism to shut out the memories of his childhood. He is quite literally haunted by what happened there; we see early on that even after they leave the hotel he is plagued by visions of the various spectral tenants of the Overlook. Flanagan’s version of an adult Danny Torrance is how I imagine King envisioned Jack Torrance: a good man who truly loves his family but isn’t strong enough to overcome his own internal darkness, which in turn makes him easy prey for an external darkness. Kubrick’s film doesn’t touch upon Jack’s own childhood, but King’s novel illustrates that he himself was the victim of an abusive alcoholic father and his biggest fear was becoming the same. In other words, the pain that Danny has lived with his entire life isn’t just the result of a haunted hotel; it’s the result of a generation spanning history of abuse, of pain passed down the family line destroying everything it touches. Unlike his father in Kubrick’s film, Dan is somewhat sympathetic, a broken child that grew into a broken man. At the beginning of the film he has seemingly given up entirely on reassembling his life into something sane and seems to be quite content on engaging in all sorts of self-destructive behavior to blot out the darkness that has haunted him his entire life. He is a violent drunk who spends his nights binging on coke with strangers and waking up next to women he barely remembers going to bed with. Unlike Jack Torrance, Danny Torrance is pitiful and pathetic instead of frightening. And despite all this, despite the fact that this trauma has one very specific source, it’s clear that Danny still loves his father. His only real memories of the man are almost all bad, and yet when he speaks of him it’s obvious he doesn’t think Jack was a bad man. It’s a bleak commentary on the nature of trauma and abuse: no matter how bad someone is to us oftentimes we still cling to the belief that deep down they’re good, and that the abuse isn’t who they really are. It’s not coincidence that Dan is struggling to save a young girl from the grasp of monsters; one could easily argue that the life he lives, and the life his father lived, was what happened when the monsters caught you.
This isn’t a scary film in the traditional sense, even taking into account Flanagan’s tendency to create fear and tension in somewhat unorthodox ways. There certainly is enough onscreen violence that make this film unsettling, with one specific scene alone being more than enough to earn the film an R rating. However, much of the dread and fear of this film comes from what implied rather than what is shown. A cavalcade of ghosts parades through the film, and there’s lots of spooky imagery, but the real horror comes not only from the realization that the True Knot have been butchering children as painfully as possible in order to stay young, but also from the fact that Dan Torrance’s entire life has been one long failed jailbreak from the prison he was put into when he was five years old and he watched his family dissolve under unimaginable circumstances. It’s an unpleasant combination of straightforward horror and existential dread that hits like a train.
Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance might be the protagonist of the film but the spotlight isn’t his alone. Kyliegh Curran makes her onscreen debut as Abra Stone, the young girl who Dan must protect, and she is truly stunning. She brings to life a character who is clearly terrified of what she is going through, and yet the moments when she is taunting Rose and the Knot are the definition of “courage” in that she is clearly pushing through a veil of fear to face the enemy with a brave face Her relationship with Danny is achingly sweet, and the joke of him being her “Uncle Dan” soon takes on a tender new meaning as the two face off against Rose. Alex Essoe and Carl Lumbly are incredible as Wendy Torrance and Dick Halloran respectively. Bringing to life one of the newest and most terrifying additions to Stephen King’s rogues gallery is Rebecca Ferguson as Rose The Hat. Ferguson gives Rose a coiled and Hannibal Lecter-esque poise, moving hypnotically and smoothly throughout the film with an air of quiet yet absolute assurance that she is the one who calls the shots. Her performance is something like a human version of Kaa the python from The Jungle Book: seductive and comforting while remaining unimaginably cruel and sinister, restrained and dignified while being absolutely savage and monstrous. Her every move would come off as rather sensual if you didn’t know her true nature. And rounding out the rest of the cast is a gang of Flanagan’s regular, including Bruce Greenwood, Jacob Trembly, Violet McGraw, and the always-wonderful Catherine Parker.
There’s a touch of Kubrickian cinematography throughout the entire film but especially during the scenes at the Overlook. It’s a perfect emulation of Kubrick’s distinct style done by another brilliant filmmaker. And as for set design, the recreation of the Overlook was near spot on. Flanagan’s attention to detail is almost uncanny. This wasn’t just some wannabe auteur aping Kubrick’s style; this was a fellow master storyteller using the same building blocks to continue the story in arguably even more gruesome and tragic ways. All the references to Kubrick feel earned and appropriate, especially when the story comes full circle and Danny finds himself once again in arguably the most famous of King’s notorious gallery of “Bad Places”: the malevolent and ravenous Overlook Hotel. Certain scenes from Kubrick’s film are not only recreated shot for shot with new actors, but also adapted and reshot to include Danny. There’s one scene in particular that drives home the concept of the wheel turning full circle for Danny, and it is equal parts heartbreaking and terrifying. Flanagan uses Danny as a lens for us to see events from the original film that would end up shaping him as adult. Yes, that scene in The Shining where Jack Torrance is seduced by a rotting hag rising out of the bathtub of room 237 is classic, but Flanagan’s version of what Danny sees exemplifies perfectly his method of scaring the pants of the viewer. It is very non-Kubrickian and a hundred percent Flanagan’s style, but it blends with the rest of the film seamlessly.
There were deviations from the source material, and I won’t touch upon most of them because it not only spoils the movie but also spoils the book if you haven’t read it. The only one I’ll mention is Mike Flanagan’s characterization of Jack Torrance, which is also what I dislike most about Kubrick’s film. The story of Jack is one of a good man driven to do evil things, but who ultimately rejects the influence of the Overlook and commits one final act of love for his family. The version that Jack Nicholson brought to life was brilliant, but was very clearly ready from the gate to murder his family. His was not a good man committing evil acts but a morally questionable man giving in to the darkness and ultimately being destroyed by it. But we must judge art by what it is, not by what we want it to be. Jack’s story, cinematically, was already told. Tragic as it was, it was told and it was completed. There was no redemption. This film is Danny’s story of redemption, not Jack’s, and thus we are going to see Jack the way Danny did regardless of how harsh that view might be.
Great stories live forever, and Stephen King knows this better than almost anyone. I do believe that Doctor Sleep, both the novel and the film, will be regarded one day with the same reverence as The Shining, much in the same way Mike Flanagan will someday be rightfully regarded in the same manner as Stephen King: as one of the great storytellers of our time. The combination of these two gigantic creative forces has given us a film that is dark yet optimistic, absolutely brutal but poignantly tender, horrifying yet comforting. It is a tale about how even though ka is a wheel we still have a chance to actually escape that wheel that is always turning to bring us back to what we desperately seek to rid ourselves of.
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