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‘Doctor Sleep’ Shines When It Isn’t Feeding off Stanley Kubrick

Mike Flanagan’s sequel to ‘The Shining’ has its moments but can’t get out of the shadow of its predecessor

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

As anyone who’s watched The Shining can attest, the Overlook Hotel has a way of sticking with you. Stanley Kubrick’s film, an all-time great horror masterpiece and the gold standard in slow-building dread, has left such an indelible mark on pop culture that it’s fostered a cottage industry of Shining obsessives. These people are convinced there’s hidden, “secret” meanings to the auteur’s project, which could be anything from Native American genocide (sure, the hotel was built on a Native American burial ground!) to confirmation Kubrick faked the moon landing (oh boy). The endless theorizing surrounding The Shining, however, is exclusive to the late Kubrick’s vision; the almost-religious reverence for the legendary filmmaker and his capacity for detail doesn’t apply to Stephen King’s source material of the same name.

King, quite infamously, hated Kubrick’s adaptation, a sentiment that had a lot more pull when the film first came out in 1980. (Critics were initially mixed on it, and Kubrick and Shelley Duvall were both nominated for Razzies.) In King’s defense, Kubrick’s film isn’t all that faithful to the original text: The book elicits sympathy for Jack Torrance falling prey to the hotel’s insidious spirits; in the movie, he’s already a terrible husband and father, and the Overlook unleashes an evil within him that’s previously manifested in abuse and alcoholism. (Also: Given that King considers The Shining one of his most personal works, relating to his own past struggles with alcoholism, you can empathize with him taking offense to Kubrick’s version of Torrance.) As much as King wouldn’t want to admit it, though, the cultural ubiquity of The Shining is indebted to Kubrick’s film. Nobody cares that the scariest room in the Overlook is actually Room 217 in King’s book—Room 237 is canon at this point.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Doctor Sleep—effectively a Shining sequel based on King’s not-so-great book sequel published in 2013—is that writer-director Mike Flanagan somehow got the stamp of approval from both King and Kubrick’s estate. (It’s still undeniably weird to see tweets from a verified account with the name “Stanley Kubrick.”) The seemingly insurmountable goal of Flanagan’s film was to find a way to unite the singular aesthetic sensibilities of Kubrick’s film with the sentimental ethos of King’s material.

In less assured hands, that would make for a disaster waiting to happen, but Flanagan is probably the best director for the job given what he’s already accomplished. In films like Hush, Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Gerald’s Game (itself a King adaptation), as well as the first season of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan is compassionate toward subjects affected by trauma—sometimes at the expense of generating more suspense—and generally susceptive to happy endings, which is nowhere near a guarantee in horror movies. Flanagan’s sensibilities are naturally Kingian (he’d have totally done a great job directing Pet Sematary).

The crux of Doctor Sleep is right in Flanagan’s wheelhouse. Now an adult, Danny Torrance (played by Ewan McGregor) remains—very understandably!—traumatized by his murder-dad winter at the Overlook. He’s still gifted with paranormal abilities, a.k.a. “Shining,” but essentially numbs out the voices and visions by drinking (the sins of the father, etc.). Danny finds a new calling in a small New Hampshire town, working as an orderly and using his Shine to help patients pass away peacefully as he lays off the bottle. The patients give him the nickname “Doctor Sleep,” which I only wanted to disclose because the name of this movie otherwise makes no sense.

A sobered-up Danny also makes a telepathic pen pal, a girl named “Abra” whose Shine is prodigious, which places her in danger of being preyed on by the True Knot, a cult best described as psychic vampires who feed on Shine. The Shine—which is especially delicious in gifted kids, if you take the cult’s word for it—can be coaxed out through fear and pain into something called “steam,” which results in surreal feeding frenzies from the True Knot that look like a bunch of weirdos vaping off a corpse.

It’s objectively silly. The leader of the True Knot is named Rose the Hat and is played by Rebecca Ferguson, who manages to be impressively scary while looking like Stevie Nicks after stealing Amy Sherman-Palladino’s hat. Her right-hand man is—I swear this is true—known as Crow Daddy. (Other members include Snakebite Andi and Barry the Chunk. Has the True Knot ever heard of workshopping?) But the silliness of this stuff—and granted, this is Peak King, as anyone who read It and got sucked into the Ritual of Chud and cosmic space turtles can confirm—is compensated for by the horrific nature of the True Knot’s killings. At least Pennywise the Dancing Clown gets things done quickly; in Doctor Sleep, poor Jacob Tremblay is slowly, gruesomely butchered by the cult in a sequence that feels like it stretches on for an eternity.

Now, none of this is very Shining-esque, in the Kubrickian sense of the term. But the presence of Kubrick’s masterpiece hovers over Doctor Sleep, not unlike the God’s-eye view of the film’s awesome opening sequence. When Danny is interviewed for the orderly position, the room is a dead ringer for Jack Torrance’s first visit to the Overlook. The film opens with an impressive recreation of the Overlook, as little Danny (now played by Roger Dale Floyd) rolls around the halls on his Big Wheel; the familiar, ASMR-y sound of his wheels hitting the floor and carpeting is genuinely nostalgic. Flanagan is obviously thrilled to play around in the filmmaker’s iconic sandbox, and why wouldn’t he?

But even when Doctor Sleep eventually brings the action back to a now-decrepit Overlook, the sequel fails to properly convey The Shining’s spirit, or what made the hotel such an enduring, metaphysical force of evil. It’s not sacrilegious or anything; Doctor Sleep doesn’t pull a Rogue One and recreate any actors’ likenesses with CGI, opting to cast some convincing and well-acted lookalikes for Wendy Torrance and Dick Hallorann. (This is a low bar to clear, but now executives are trying to bring James Dean back to life, sooooo.) But just because Doctor Sleep doesn’t reach 2019 Lion King levels of uncanny valley-ing doesn’t make its Shining redux more affecting. Like Steven Spielberg recreating the Overlook last year in Ready Player One, it’s a fun, well-intentioned homage that’s no substitute for authenticity. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere about Hollywood in 2019 continuously rehashing and repurposing old ideas in favor of new ones.

And that’s a shame, because what Flanagan achieves when he isn’t fetishizing Kubrick is commendable in and of itself. If you’re willing to go down the weird, paranormal rabbit hole of Doctor Sleep’s psychic vampires and precocious, telekinetic children, what you’ve got here is basically an X-Men movie by way of Stephen King. Most of the film’s evocative showdowns take place in the subconscious, but its standout scene comes when Rose the Hat astral-projects herself across the United States to find Abra. It was legitimately breathtaking stuff, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it before. If Doctor Sleep had more moments like that up its sleeve, the film could’ve elevated itself from passably fun to something truly special—rather than hoping to feed off The Shining’s creepy vibes like a hungry vampire. When you’ve already been to the Overlook, it tends to stay with you.