Doctor Sleep may not be making a killing at the box office, but it's one of the best-reviewed horror movies of the year. Directed by Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House), the movie has the unenviable task of being a sequel to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Ewan McGregor stars as the adult Danny Torrance, who is drawn back into a world of ghosts and monsters when a girl with the shining is targeted by a sinister group of immortal beings who want to feed on her.
Stephen King published the novel Doctor Sleep in 2013, 36 years after The Shining was originally published. The film adaptation is explicitly a sequel to Kubrick's version of The Shining - which King famously hated. In an interview with Rolling Stone, King explained that the book version of Jack Torrance is at least trying to be good, whereas Jack Nicholson's version is "crazy from the first scene." He also felt that the movie was misogynistic, with Shelly Duvall's Wendy Torrance "presented as this sort of screaming dishrag." Yet despite the high regard in which Flanagan's Doctor Sleep holds the original movie, King has said that he loves the sequel: "Everything that I ever disliked about the Kubrick version of The Shining is redeemed for me here."
King isn't the only one who's a fan of Doctor Sleep, as the movie has received glowing reviews from some critics - but others are decidedly unimpressed by it. The movie currently holds a score of 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, and even within the reviews themselves the praise and criticism are decidedly mixed, with few critics outright hating the movie. Here's what some of the negative reviews have to say:
Add Doctor Sleep... to the list of movie and TV adaptations based on the author's work that shine at first, before flaming out down the stretch... The film devolves into a sort-of extended homage to Kubrick's movie, striking in its familiar visual imagery, but in terms of the larger story, an overlong mess.
None of this is remotely worthy of The Shining. The most entertaining thing here is trying to imagine how Kubrick would have reacted to the entire notion of “fan service.” It’s a frightfully regular approach to moviemaking today that should, at the very least, have the sense not to mess with Kubrick. All sequels and no originals make us all dull boys.
Doctor Sleep is a not a Stephen-King-scares-the-pants-off-you kind of movie. It’s a Stephen-King-invites-you-to-ponder-the-nature-of-evil kind of movie... There are some bad sections — the gratuitously sadistic rendering of a Knot victim’s fate — and some not-bad ones. Nothing that will keep you awake at night, but you probably won’t fall asleep in the middle either.
Writer-director Mike Flanagan opted to approach Doctor Sleep as both an adaptation of the book and a direct sequel to the 1980 movie. The resulting film suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Compounding the already considerable disconnect between King’s two stories, Doctor Sleep can’t always seem to decide if it wants to be its own thing or a kind of throwback fetish object, a tribute to the cult of Kubrick.
The general consensus among reviewers, both those who liked and disliked the film, is that Doctor Sleep works best in the first two acts, when it's trying to be its own thing, whereas the final act falls into the shadow of The Shining and turns into fan service. The parts of Doctor Sleep that feel original - space-bending astral projection scenes, Rebecca Ferguson's hippie vampire villain Rose the Hat, and Dan Torrance quietly ruminating on how he became an alcoholic to feel closer to his father - play to Flanagan's strengths as a storyteller. These reviewers felt that, despite its reverence for The Shining, Doctor Sleep is strong enough to stand on its own feet:
Doctor Sleep is full of indelible imagery — bodies made bloody, an endless hedge maze dappled with snow, a woman gliding across the night sky shot through with stars. And its pleasures don’t end there: A score by the Newton Brothers thumps like an errant heartbeat. The actors sparkle with chemistry. At times, its aesthetic and thematic pursuits click into place and the film sings at a mournful register as it charts the generational trauma and addiction of Dan Torrance
Credible in its characterisation, rich in mythological detail, and touchingly sincere in its treatment of alcoholism and trauma, the film is impressive in all sorts of ways. But its greatest achievement is that it makes The Shining seem like a prequel – a tantalising glimpse of a richer and more substantial narrative.
It’s no The Shining, but maybe that is just another way of saying that it is something different. After all, once we have confronted our unresolved feelings about the past, we all, like Dan, need to move on. This finely-crafted, often affecting film points not necessarily to another sequel, but to a future where the Overlook and its eerie occupants have been frozen in time and locked away, forever and ever and ever…
Doctor Sleep may not deliver as many scares as The Shining, but fans of Flanagan's previous horror works - including Oculus and The Haunting of Hill House - should definitely give it a chance. If you've seen the movie, let us know what you thought of it in the comments.