Review: Doctor Sleep

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Director: Mike Flanagan

Writers: Mike Flanagan, based on the novel by Stephen King

Composer: The Newton Brothers

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran

Genre: Horror

Right from the outset, the concept of creating a sequel to The Shining seems fraught with problems. Stanley Kubrick’s rendition of Stephen King’s novel of the same name is frequently lauded as a masterpiece of cinema. A timeless example of psychological horror, the movie has made an impressionable mark on film history, with its eerie tone, unsettling images and memorable performances. Which only makes the prospect of creating a follow up all the more daunting.

To add to an already nightmarishly difficult project, Stephen King has famously stated several times that he dislikes Kubrick’s version. So then how does one adapt the sequel? Do you stay true to the film that most people would be familiar with? Or do you follow the author’s vision, even when it may contradict the film version that is being referenced? It’s a fine line that must be walked, though director Mike Flanagan is no newcomer to the genre itself. Boasting a slew of well-received movies within his filmography (including a decent prequel to the painfully bad horror, Ouija), can Flanagan pull off his touch of film magic once again, creating success out of an assumedly doomed project?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The film’s group of villains prey on children, mercilessly murdering them in ways that cause a long and painful death. A boy is stabbed multiple times. Blood splatter and close ups on blood-drenched wounds and peeling skin. Gun violence. One character suicides by shooting themselves. A person’s skeleton and musculoskeletal structure is seen – the image is overlaid on top of how they appear normally, and it rapidly switches back and forth in a scary fashion. Numerous physical assaults. An axe is swung at others. Multiple deaths. Decaying bodies, one reactivated and walking around naked. Shot of character with no eyeballs.

Language/Crude Humor: Infrequent but strong swearing (f-bomb, s-word, female dog and variations). Jesus and God’s names are used in vain at least once, though are mostly used in context.

Drug/Alcohol References: Alcoholism is a major theme throughout the film. It depicts drinking irresponsibly and to excess, but does so in order to highlight the problems of substance abuse. A character is seen snorting cocaine (once again, portrayed in a negative light). The villains consume a steam-like substance, which is reminiscent of substance abuse and being high.

Sexual Content: A fully naked old woman is seen multiple times (she’s scary – nudity is not portrayed in a sexual light. Ew.). A man and woman have premarital sex – they are seen lying naked in bed together, on their sides, with the curvature of their bare bodies (back and bottom) displayed. Some kissing. How the villains react to a kill feels sexualised/orgasmic in some situations.

Spiritual Content: This film features strong and positive depictions of well-adjusted Christian males. A member of a church community helps another character get their life back on track, through supporting them and otherwise displaying Christ’s love. The tail end of a sermon is shown. In this film’s world, the afterlife exists, though there are ghosts, demonic beings, and mysterious powers that some people have which allow telepathy, telekinesis, and seer abilities.

Other Negative Content: A lot of inappropriate predatory behaviours are seen, though not promoted within the story. For instance, there’s an older man that tries to have an affair with an underage girl. The villains lure and hunt down children, forcing them to do things without their consent.

Positive Content: The film explores the fear of falling victim to one’s nature; to follow in the footsteps of an abusive father, or whether one can overcome their horrific past in order to walk their own path. It contrasts both bad and positive male role models, pressing the need to help others that are more vulnerable than ourselves. A good vs. evil plot, where evil acts cannot be ignored but must be obliterated entirely.

Review

Can we be honest here? Brutally honest? Kubrick’s The Shining may contain some of the most iconic and eerie cinematography in film history, but as a story, there is room for improvement. The horror was mainly derived from the movie’s atmosphere as it contained a nightmarish quality, though like a semi-conscious state of mind, it was lacking the level of logical cohesion that is normally encountered in more traditional narratives. It is a piece of art because it delivers an unnerving experience, brought about by intentionally leaving out important fragments of exposition.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the classic 1980 film was that it barely touched on the significance of Danny’s powers (which was also the movie’s namesake), instead choosing to focus on the craziness of Jack’s character. While Stephen King acknowledges the film’s masterful aesthetic, he has repeatedly disparaged Kubrick’s version for its inability to tell a good story.

Mike Flanagan’s straightforward sequel certainly doesn’t suffer from the same weaknesses as Stanley Kubrick’s stylistic original. It’s abundantly obvious that Flanagan is a joint screenwriter and director that is a master of narrative storytelling. He knows how to craft a ripping tale, and additionally how to break the rules when required.

Doctor Sleep is a rare film in many ways. Its most shocking aspect on a technical level is that it features the narrative’s most pivotal moment – the Inciting Incident (or Call to Adventure if you so prefer) – one hour into the piece. That’s an extraordinarily long first act, given that the recommended time for a standard film is between twenty to thirty minutes. The only movies that typically do this are a) bad ones, or b) rare Oscar-winning masterpieces like Rocky. Thankfully Doctor Sleep shares more in common with the latter.

What’s shocking is that such an extension isn’t noticeable until the inciting incident finally arrives. The film is utterly captivating with its world building, with Flanagan making the most with his borrowed time. In fact, the first act of could almost pass as a self-contained short film. If The Shining is the story about Danny’s trauma, then Doctor Sleep is the tale of the character’s challenging rehabilitation and recovery. The long first act operates as an epilogue to The Shining, finally addressing the unanswered questions inherited from Kubrick’s version, whilst also realistically fleshing out several of the story’s main characters.

The film’s terror resides in the narrative’s themes. While Danny is still haunted by the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel, it’s his father’s shadow that looms over him the most. He is crippled by the fear of becoming like his alcoholic father, and the depiction of his journey isn’t as far fetched as one might expect, reflecting a tragic cycle of abuse. Yet while society is currently obsessed with pointing out examples of toxic masculinity, Doctor Sleep has the sense to also offer positive male role models to balance out its viewpoint.

It is therefore pleasantly surprising to report that Doctor Sleep features some of the best Christian characters seen in cinema this year. If you’re searching for a wholesome vision of a working men’s ministry, then look no further! Unlike some films in the Christian genre, Doctor Sleep isn’t pushing an agenda – it doesn’t have the same mistaken vested interest in making sure it portrays the perfect follower of God, as though a single human flaw somehow tarnishes the good news of the Gospel.

Instead of attempting to manipulate the audience into converting, essentially turning the movie into a propaganda film, the Christianity represented naturally stems from the narrative. Danny’s life story is one that is engrossed by the sins of the past, and the Christians he encounters serve as an ideal and symbolic counterpoint to his journey of self-destruction. Like a typical proverb, the film toys with the possibility of Danny travelling along one of two paths – one of folly, and one of righteousness.

Another rarity seen within the horror genre is that every decision made makes sense according to the character. Nothing feels contrived, where in order for the story to work, it must rely on a series of stupid decisions. In many ways, you begin to see where this film must head, and while some people may complain about the movie’s predictability, this is actually a good thing. It means the story and characters have been properly established, with an appropriate level of foreshadowing. Falling into step with those on screen, you not only agree or at least understand their choices, but you desperately want to see them progress in certain directions. Doctor Sleep masterfully shapes the audience’s desires and then repeatedly delivers what they want, making for a wonderfully satisfying cinematic experience.

Ultimately we become familiar with four, well-established and fully realised characters (which once again, is very rare to see in a horror film). One of which is the villain, Rose the Hat, played magnificently by Rebecca Ferguson. Doctor Sleep is a film with stakes, not just for the protagonists but for the antagonists as well. While we certainly don’t agree with Rose and her evil comrades’ actions, we understand their motives, their drive, and why everything is so important them – information that is normally absent from a horror film unless its revealed during a dramatic speech at the end. Feeling emotionally connected to the characters means that the cannon fodder isn’t as easily identified, and like Game of Thrones, you know that every death of an established character will pack some grievous weight.

This isn’t some mindless slaughterhouse where the entertainment stems from the gory death itself, like Final Destination where the characters are cruelly pitted against insurmountable odds. Nor is it like Greta where all the suspense is removed because the villain is painfully weak compared to the hero, making for a frustrating watch. Instead, Rose the Hat and her followers are an even match to Dan Torrence and newcomer Abra Stone, making for a thrilling battle between good and evil, where the film doesn’t play it safe in regards to whom might win. Some of the story’s fear stems from the uncertainty of the outcome, despite the clarity of the characters’ goals and the direction of the plot.

The rarest element found in Doctor Sleep is its fitting conclusion. It’s so common to see horror films develop a rich world built upon an intriguing concept, only to falter at the very end with the narrative divulging into silliness. Yet Doctor Sleep stays strong with its themes and message all the way through, completing several satisfying character arcs, and even putting the other heavy hitting 2019 horror films – such as Us – to shame.

Yet it’s not a perfect film. Horror is subjective, and viewers that prefer their scary movie littered with jump scares will find little pleasure here. It’s a long movie. It may be too long for some. It’s essentially a character study where the terror is hidden amongst the protagonist’s psyche as opposed to being overt and resorting to gruesome imagery or torture porn. Simply put, Doctor Sleep may not be the style of horror film that you desire.

But for those that enjoyed the psychological chills present in The Shining, then Doctor Sleep will be a fantastic accompaniment. From a technical standpoint, it’s hard to fault. Ewan McGregor makes a marvellous Danny, whilst Kyliegh Curran successfully pulls off a difficult role as a precocious pre-teen; she never once comes across as annoying, as can be the case whenever a film is forced to rely on the skills of a child actor. The score recaptures the essence of the original, allowing the cinematography to sometimes transcend into the surreal. So it’s not only a thematically stunning film, but a visually and aurally beautiful one as well, which for this critic is not just worth a look, but rather a buy. 

While Flanagan cannot take all the credit (as King is the creator of the story), he can be praised for successfully reaching in and grabbing the guts and essence of King’s overloaded works, combining it with Kubrick’s visually iconic yet unfaithful and unruly movie adaptation, in order to produce one of the best horror films of the year. So yes – someone actually made a sequel to The Shining. Not only that, it’s good. Sometimes dreams come true.

Positives

+ It ties off The Shining's loose ends. + Multiple characters are properly developed. + The narrative is incredibly satisfying. + Cleverly blends both Kubrick's and King's visions. + Fantastic display of a Christian men's ministry. + Acting. + Gorgeous cinematography. + Haunting score. + Well rounded story that avoids the pitfalls of most films in the genre.

Negatives

- Some people won't find it scary (no jump scares, little gore). - Some will find it's too long and drags.

The Bottom Line

This film had everything going against it. Yet Mike Flanagan has proved himself to be a screenwriter/director to watch, as he tackled every obstacle and created a sequel that many wouldn't even dare to touch. An incredibly satisfying film, this is a must-see for fans of the original, or for those that enjoy psychological horrors with a supernatural spin. It's no Shawshank Redemption, but this is a top tier King adaptation.

 

9.2

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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