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‘Doctor Sleep’ Review: An anti-nostalgia sequel to ‘The Shining’

Doctor Sleep
Warner Bros.
 
 

It’s no longer enough to allow the past to reverberate through the present, for something to merely be felt. Instead it must be rehashed again and again through endless variations on the same notes. A classic movie gets a sequel, then it’s remade, and the remake gets a sequel, which gets a TV series, which is cancelled only to be renewed two years later by a competing network, which results in a spinoff film, which the fans endlessly complain isn’t true to their idea of whatever the damn thing was in the first place. And it seems Hollywood is eager to fuel this cycle, in order to to baby us, to force-feed us somebody else’s childhood nostalgia, all while insisting it is our own. This trend is perhaps why Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep felt so fresh, at times daring, despite being yet another belated sequel to a classic film.

Based on Stephen King’s 2013 novel, a direct sequel to his version of The Shining, Doctor Sleep presents itself as a canonical sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version while also attempting to stay true to King’s vision of the material. The film opens shortly after the events of the first movie: Jack Torrance is dead, his son Danny and wife Wendy have relocated to Florida (“she never wanted to see snow again”), but they are still haunted by the events that happened at the Overlook Hotel, which has been boarded up. The boy is regularly visited by the spirit of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly filling in for the late Scatman Crothers) who teaches him how to use his psychic abilities — his shining — to lock away evil spirits in metaphorical boxes. With the Overlook shuttered, the spirits of the hotel begin following Danny, and over the years he locks away each one of them in his mind.

Fast forward to 2011, the adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is an alcoholic drifter who after arriving in a quaint New England town is taken in by the kindly Billy (Cliff Curtis) who takes him to Al Anon and finds him an apartment. Dan takes a job at the local hospital as an orderly, where his shining allows him to comfort patients in hospice as they pass on. Eight years pass, and in 2019, the sober Dan has finally come to terms with the trauma of his childhood. Concurrently, teenage Abra (Kyliegh Curran) has an extremely powerful shine herself. Acting like a radio for other shiners, she unknowingly begins communicating with Dan from across the country, striking up a friendly and comforting rapport. But her powers also make her a target for a gang of vampiric shiners known as The True Knot. Led by the sadistic Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), The True Knot use their powers to locate other shiners — mainly children — and murder them in order to eat their lifeforce, which they call “steam,” and maintain an eternal youth. 

Doctor Sleep certainly bears the hallmarks of King at his most fantastical and convoluted. This is the Stephen King that put a giant turtle in It and wrote whatever the hell The Dark Tower is at this point. And although Flanagan builds aesthetically on Kubrick, it’s hard not to feel King’s hand in every moment. Great news for fans of the author, but Kubrick truthers might roll their eyes. But the absurdity and psychic wars and globetrotting hippie vampires and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and Massachusetts backroads are what make Doctor Sleep feel like so much more than another franchise play — even if that’s what the studios execs who greenlit this were likely thinking when they signed off on the budget.

In the lead up to the film’s release, there have been articles bragging about how the movie was longer than The Shining, reports that have a whiff of money-laundered PR to them, like the dozens of handy guides to when you could piss during Avengers; Endgame that made their way into national newspapers. The trailer emphasized Dan’s return to the Overlook, focusing on when Flanagan recreates Kubrick’s most iconic images, promising the audience that this would indeed be another rehash — the thing you love repackaged to set off all the pleasure centers in your brain. But, in practice, Flanagan’s film is more like Twin Peaks: The Return, an anti-nostalgia piece wrestling with itself to not become its predecessor. Dan Torrance dreads becoming his father, giving up alcohol and fighting internally to be a good person, but the spirits of his past are fighting to corrupt him. In the film’s climax — spoilers ahead — Dan and Abra lead Rose to the abandoned Overlook, a place that “feeds on people like” them. It is here where Dan confronts his past and his father, and it’s here where Doctor Sleep confronts the titan that is The Shining.

Kubrick’s film is so deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche, one of those films whose most famous images have penetrated our entire society, from the Grady sisters standing in the hallway to Jack Nicholson’s iconic “Here’s Johnny.” It is a movie that feels uniquely singular, it has an atmosphere so engrossing and so sinister it, like so few movies like it, feels truly haunted. Of course, the film is not without its influences, it’s just that Kubrick was a master of masking and converting them into his own vision. From The Phantom Carriage to Last Year at Marienbad to Eraserhead, Kubrick’s The Shining is so indebted to a cinematic past that it’s nearly collage art. These films haunt the The Shining, but they never make appearances they’re only felt in every frame.

The cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote that “The Shining is about repetition in a cultural, as well as a psychoanalytic sense.” It is in part about “the inability to imagine anything other than the past.” Its characters are hung up on their past actions — Jack tormented by his past abuse of his family, the hotel’s spectral manifestations ripped from its own history. Jack Torrance is never able to write his book, never able to love his family, never able to move forward and grow because he is caught in the Overlook’s labyrinth of the past. Here, Dan visiting the same hotel that ruined his father threatens to trap him in this very same cycle. While Kubrickian framing is scattered throughout the film, it is only in the climax where Flanagan borrows the same shots, recreates those famous moment. If The Shining is the father then Doctor Sleep is the son, and the son is fighting tooth and nail not to become its father, but knows their DNA is inexorably entwined. But like Dan, Flanagan’s film fights to maintain its own identity, to not just be another sequel, not to be another reminder of the childhood we never let go of and the adulthood that never came.

In Doctor Sleep there are good ghosts, like Dick Hallorann, and there are evil ghosts. Remembrance of the past, even visiting it, does not have to be a bad thing. But it can consume us if we are not careful. Flanagan’s film may not be a great film, but for all the metatextual navel gazing that can be wrought from it, it’s also just a fun, weird as hell ghost story with heart. And that’s more than welcome.