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In Theaters: DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)

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DOCTOR SLEEP
(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Mike Flanagan. Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Carl Lumbly, Bruce Greenwood, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Robert Longstreet, Carel Struycken, Jocelin Donahue, Zackary Momoh, Alex Essoe, Henry Thomas, Jacob Tremblay, Nicholas Pryor, Selena Anduze, Catherine Parker, Roger Dale Floyd, Dakota Hickman, Violet McGraw, Michael Monks, Hugh Maguire, Sadie Heim, KK Heim, Danny Lloyd. (R, 152 mins)

There are no shortage of reasons to be apprehensive about a sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 1980 classic THE SHINING. It's been almost 40 years since it opened to middling reviews and disappointing box office (and got Razzie nominations for Kubrick and co-star Shelley Duvall) only to become one of the most iconic masterpieces of cinema and a ubiquitous pop culture touchstone, even though Stephen King, the author of the 1977 source novel, still hates it. The sequel is based on King's own 2013 follow-up Doctor Sleep, and isn't considered one of his better books. Mike Flanagan, who did as good as job as he could turning King's almost unfilmable GERALD'S GAME into a Netflix film a couple of years ago, opted to fashion the movie version of DOCTOR SLEEP as both a King adaptation and a direct sequel to Kubrick's film. Flanagan (OCULUS, HUSH, Netflix's THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE) is one of the top contemporary horror genre craftsmen, but to say DOCTOR SLEEP is a daunting task is an understatement. He seems to realize the gravity of this endeavor and the time and thought he put into his screenplay and his choices as a director are ample proof that the need to do right by both King and Kubrick was a responsibility that he absolutely did not take lightly.






To put this on a more personal level, THE SHINING is my all-time favorite film. I first saw it at the drive-in with my parents in 1980 when I was seven years old. Maybe they couldn't find a sitter, maybe they assumed I'd go to sleep, but all I know is, once the plot kicked into gear, I started paying attention and I was riveted from the backseat of the car. Partially because it was obvious that I shouldn't be watching it ("Close your eyes!" my mom said as the woman in room 237 got out of the tub; I didn't), and partially from the story, which I probably didn't fully get, but also from the look of it. My dad started taking me to movies a couple of years earlier, around the time I was five, and I remember seeing JAWS, JAWS 2, SUPERMAN, and ROCKY II on the big screen and I remember watching the good parts of THE GODFATHER SAGA (the re-edited network TV version of the first two GODFATHER films) with him, but they didn't look like THE SHINING. I didn't realize it at the time, but Stanley Kubrick would be the first instance where I was actively aware of who the director was and that it was a person of importance. I've seen THE SHINING countless times since. I stopped keeping track at 100 and that was probably 20 years ago. I've been obsessed with it since the summer of 1980. It was one of the defining moments of my life. The dialogue is committed to memory. I could recite the whole thing for you. My point is, for someone whose love of THE SHINING is somewhere in the vicinity of the maniacal, it would be a small victory if DOCTOR SLEEP simply managed to not be terrible, and even that's only because Flanagan's involvement meant approaching it with cautious optimism instead of immediate dismissal.


Running an epic 152 minutes (eight minutes longer than THE SHINING), DOCTOR SLEEP occasionally feels like it should be an HBO or Netflix limited series, but works just fine as a feature film. Flanagan paces it like an engrossing novel, cutting back and forth between three different narratives that eventually intersect. That's following an opening prologue set in 1980, just after young Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mom Wendy (Alex Essoe, doing a spot-on Shelley Duvall) have relocated to Florida following their horrific winter at the Overlook Hotel. Danny still "shines" and is still haunted by the ghosts of the hotel, particularly the rotting woman in the bathtub in room 237, and is frequently counseled by the spirit of Overlook chef and fellow shiner Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly in place of the late, great Scatman Crothers), who was killed in Kubrick's film but survived in King's novel, and whose presence is a perfect example of creative ways Flanagan does his best to stay true to both Kubrick and King.


Cut to 2011, and adult Dan (Ewan McGregor) hasn't dealt with the trauma of his childhood and is now an alcoholic drifter some years after his mother has passed on. At the same time, a nomadic cult known as "True Knot," led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), moves around the country seeking recruits as well as victims, psychically-gifted children that they kill to absorb their life force--"steaming," as they ingest the steam that exits their mouths as they die, thus healing wounds and holding off the aging process, enabling them to live hundreds of years and adapt to a changing society. Dan ends up in a small town where he befriends Billy (Cliff Curtis), a recovering alcoholic who knows one when he sees one. He sponsors Dan in AA and helps him achieve sobriety and get a job as an orderly at a local hospice, where he earns the nickname "Doctor Sleep" for his ability to sense, via his psychic abilities, when a resident is about to die. At this same time, Dan starts getting vague "shining" messages from a young girl named Abra, who then goes silent for seven years. Cut to 2018, Dan is still sober and still working at the hospice. True Knot is still on a quiet rampage undetected, though their latest victim is a child (Jacob Tremblay) who shines to a now-13-year-old Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who then tries to alert Dan. She even tracks him down, and while he offers sympathy and describes his experiences with The Shining, he advises her to keep her head down and ignore it. But as Abra continues to psychically connect in a dangerous game with Rose the Hat and her minions, the stakes increase and Dan has no choice but to help her, especially when Rose realizes Abra's abilities far exceed her own.


After the 15 minute opening sequence taking place in 1980, DOCTOR SLEEP settles into its own groove and the overt SHINING references are dialed down, at least in terms of the developing plot (check out the visual shout-out to the Overlook manager Stuart Ullman's office when Dan meets with the head of the AA group, played by Bruce Greenwood in a rare sympathetic role). This gives Flanagan enough opportunities to make the film his own, and during this majority of its duration, it sticks generally close to King's book (the "True Knot" cult is very reminiscent of the RV-travelling vampire clan in NEAR DARK). One of King's major gripes about Kubrick's film is that he felt it lost the humanity and the central themes of alcoholism, violence, and the traumatic effects of abuse on a family in exchange for the "coldness" that typified Kubrick's work. Flanagan keeps those ideas intrinsic to the heart of DOCTOR SLEEP, with McGregor very believable as a man still haunted by ghosts both literal and figurative, whether it's the woman from room 237 or the psychological specter of an abusive father who tried to kill him and his mother, eventually using alcohol and self-destruction as the quickest coping mechanism. DOCTOR SLEEP resonates on a more emotional level than THE SHINING ever could, especially in the few scenes where the spirit of Hallorann appears (it should be mentioned that Lumbly is just terrific here). A SHINING fan might actually get a little choked up when Hallorann tears Danny a new one over his reluctance to help Abra, telling him "You was just a kid when you wandered into my kitchen all those years ago and here I am, still on the hook." As good as those dramatic elements are, it's Ferguson who creates the most indelible character with Rose the Hat, who's quirky and terrifying at the same time ("Well, hi there!").


It's not until about the two-hour mark that Flanagan has a Kubrickgasm and takes a deep dive into full-on SHINING worship. Some may feel it's an awkward shift in style and tone, but I found the transition to be handled in an effective way that, in lesser hands, would've seemed like a tacked-on compromise akin to the out-of-nowhere, studio-mandated exorcism finale in THE EXORCIST III. On the run with Abra, Dan decides to lure Rose the Hat to the long-shuttered, boarded-up, moldy-walled ruins of the Overlook, where he's been mentally locking away the spirits that have haunted him all these years. It's giddily, dizzyingly surreal to see McGregor's Dan wandering through almost perfect recreations of those legendary sets at England's Elstree Studios (except for one thing--there were steps going into the Torrance apartment). Everything is as it was left in 1980, looking like a combination of a crime scene and a SHINING museum (plus there's that droning, rhythmic beat, a crescendoing "Dies Irae," and a little "Midnight, the Stars and You"). The attention to detail is actually breathtaking at times (even after Steven Spielberg's tribute in READY PLAYER ONE), and it results in what should be one of the most crowd-pleasing comeuppances in recent memory once Rose the Hat shows up for the big showdown in the Colorado Lounge.


But something unexpected has happened: DOCTOR SLEEP flopped its opening weekend. Nobody cares. There's a million ways this could've shit the bed, and almost any other filmmaker would've been content to play it safe and rely on easy SHINING fan fiction. Flanagan doesn't cave to the lowest common denominator, and maybe that's why it's not playing well or bringing in the crowds despite acclaim from critics and hardcore SHINING fans. IT kickstarted a King renaissance a couple of years ago, but are we already suffering from fatigue and burnout? The inferior IT: CHAPTER TWO made a lot of money a couple of months ago but it definitely didn't have the fan adoration or the lasting impact of its predecessor (and does anyone remember we had a new PET SEMATARY earlier this year?). Or do the kids just not know THE SHINING like Warner Bros. assumed? I saw the 4K restoration of THE SHINING theatrically in September and there were a lot of younger people in attendance, and "Here's Johnny!" didn't even register with them. They don't know who Johnny Carson is. Has it been too long between films to attract anyone but the most devout--and likely middle-aged and older--superfans? A similar fate befell the 35-years-later sequel BLADE RUNNER 2049, which opened big with devotees of the 1982 Ridley Scott classic but dropped nearly 66% in its second weekend after everyone who wanted to see it saw it immediately. DOCTOR SLEEP is an entirely different beast than THE SHINING, but speaking as someone who regards the Kubrick film as sacrosanct, it surpasses all expectations and is the most worthwhile sequel that a Shining and SHINING fan could hope to get, and maybe the best big-screen Stephen King adaptation since 1994's THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Like THE SHINING, DOCTOR SLEEP will stand the test of time and hopefully find an audience on streaming and cable. In the meantime, I just don't know what the hell moviegoers want anymore.





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