At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Doctor Sleep

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Horror/ Stars: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Bruce Greenwood, Jocelin Donahue, Alex Essoe, Cliff Curtis, Zackary Momoh, Jacob Tremblay/Runtime: 152 minutes

Ever since its publication all the way back in that far-off, and far-gone year of 2013, I feel that Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep has long been seen by many a filmmaker to be a booby trap waiting to be sprung. Indeed it isn’t that difficult to see why this the case; I mean we are talking about a book that is not only a sequel to a horror story that is one of the most noteworthy of the 20th century, but also a response to Mr. Stephen King’s immense, quite publicized, but not unwarranted hostility towards Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of the madness. Indeed when one actually takes the time to read the book, as I had the pleasure of doing for a few days before the movie in the name of “research”, you really get this feeling that certain choices in the book were made by King for no other reason than just to continue his crusade of spiting not only the movie that Kubrick made, but also the changes that Kubrick himself made in the process of bringing the 1977 book to the big screen all those years ago.

Thus, I think that really leads a lot of credence to the idea that if one wanted to make a Doctor Sleep movie it would definitely be in possession of a unusually high amount of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quality about it. Indeed this is because anyone who would be put in charge of the project would certainly find themselves beholden to two contrary, but equally epic, in terms of scope and vision for this world, masters. This, of course, is due to the fact that even though the amount of love that exists for Kubrick’s film among audiences would demand that any big screen sequel adaptation to his prior work should possess a degree, no matter how small, of fidelity to the cinematic groundwork that Kubrick helped lay, but at the same time there would also exist a simultaneous pressure to also create something involving the world of The Overlook that would actually earn King’s approval. Thus we see that in description and on paper, this is the kind of daunting project that ultimately also, in the eyes of 90% of normal filmmakers, would be looked at as both impossible to do and one that might not get you the most thanks in the world.

Ultimately though Warner Bros. decided to go ahead with such a movie, but when it came time to pick a director, Warner Bros. actually made a smart decision in that respect; I say that because they hired a man named Mike Flanagan. Why was this a great choice for director you may ask? Well aside from the fact that this man is someone who not only came onboard with actual prior experience in adapting Stephen King on his resume, but also because Mr. Flanagan has a tremendous history behind him in that he manages to do a compelling job of telling audiences stories that really do a wonderful job of tackling head on such adult themes as trauma and recovery. Having seen the finished product though I can honestly say that Flanagan was also the best person possible who could have taken this challenge on.  This is because I can honestly say that what he has created with it is both a magnificent movie in its own right, but also a worthy follow-up to one of the most iconic horror films ever made. Indeed by perfectly melding the works of both Kubrick and King, Doctor Sleep is a beautiful in terms of its faithfulness adaptation that when enhanced by the skill of the filmmaker, and the performances of its three central stars, is truly an engaging odyssey full of horror, magic, and drama from the film’s opening all the way to the very end.

The plot is as follows: Picking up almost immediately after the events of The Shining, Doctor Sleep shows us a young Danny living with his mother, Wendy in Florida, and still struggling in his attempts to recover from the nightmarish events that unfolded at the isolated Overlook Hotel the previous winter. However, thanks to nightly visits from the deceased Dick Halloran, who had quickly bonded with Danny because of their shared gifts, Danny is at long last able to quiet some of the demons that have been following him since those nightmarish events unfolded, but at the cost of always living in constant fear of his gift. Of course, it should go without saying, but when one has experiences like this has a kid it is a natural progression towards some serious issues as an adult thus resulting in Dan becoming a drunk drifter that is scarred both because of his childhood, but also because of the despicable things he has committed as an adult. Fortunately, and shortly after hitting as far down in terms of rock bottom as one can go, Dan finds himself in a small New Hampshire town where slowly, but surely he begins to rebuild his life. Of course, despite things looking up for once, everything begins to quite rapidly fall apart yet again when a young girl that Dan has psychically connected with, and whose shine far exceeds even his own, named Abra accidentally gets the attention of a nefarious cult known as the True Knot. Think the Illuminati if the Illuminati was a group of vampire-esque creatures that only feed on those who shine by extracting the shine from people through the highest amount of fear and pain possible, and then inhaling it as a hookah-like steam. So it is that with Abra now in very real danger, Dan finds himself forced to step up to the plate, confront his trauma, and simultaneously tap into and let back into his life the very power he has spent his entire life suppressing if he wants even a fighting chance of protecting her and himself from the cult and their deadly leader Rose the Hat.

Now, given how infamous the now-legendary King/Kubrick conflict is, I must say that it is actually kind of magical to see just what Mike Flanagan has managed to create here. I say this because not only is Doctor Sleep an excellent piece of cinema, but it also manages to operate as a kind of pop culture mediator for 2 titans within that spectrum. Indeed I do not think anyone who winds up watching this could even begin question Flanagan’s clear and immense appreciation for the two true masters that came before him on this as not only is the recreation of the previous movie’s Overlook Hotel production design just straight up awe-inspiring if not moving for those of us who have grown up with it, but also the characters and the most important themes that King chooses to present our reading pleasure with are taken straight from the heart of the novel that inspired this adaption.

Yet ultimately what truly makes this film that much more of a bold endeavor is that it also functions as just another Mike Flanagan film. Indeed Flanagan has really proven himself as the kind of filmmaker with the utmost confidence and skill when it comes to his ability to realize that, instead of mimicking the next-level cinematography that Kubrick utilized or taking verbatim every line of dialogue from King’s book and using that as the script, he should just make the movie his own. The end result of this decision just proves further that this is a story that fits directly in his tool chest as, like previous Flanagan films, this movie proves to showcase Flanagan’s trademark gift for crafting a perfect balance between fantastical elements and realistic, psychology-driven drama, and here he gets the chance to deliver this talent in aces.

With that in mind, it is why when one watches the film with an audience that we find ourselves trading in Kubrick’s perfect symmetry and his fondness for Steadicam-driven tracking shots for not only Flanagan’s dark-but-rich color pallet, but also a unique score that doesn’t abuse the famed synth-played Shining theme, and instead chooses to play it at just the right moments. Now although some changes from the book are out of necessity (like the fact that Dick Halloran isn’t alive at the start of the story), there are also some other shocking alternative choices that are made within the film that don’t deter from the finished product, and instead serve as insightful as they really help to raise the stakes as this film races along towards a third act that can be called no less than truly thrilling.

Now although fans of the director will note that this film does provide him the opportunity to work with a number of talents he has had the pleasure of working with before, it’s nevertheless the three key newcomers who manage to supply what are undoubtedly the most phenomenal performances in the piece. This, of course, starts with film lead Ewan McGregor who, in true, blue, dependable McGregor mode, manages to show that he possesses every single drop of the pathos that is required not only to bring a character that is both damaged and yet at the same time inherently good as Dan Torrance to the big screen again, but also to sell in equal measure the heavy baggage that Danny carries with him everywhere, and the powerful inner-strength that lies within and that ultimately will prove to be just the thing Danny needs if he wants to overcome his past. This of course is matched beat-for-beat by Kyleigh Curran as Abra who showcases that she just might be a tremendously exciting up-and-comer for Hollywood to stop and maybe take serious as Curran manages to give her role a strong sense of impressive charisma and an exuberant amount of energy as well. Indeed this is a performance that, like the character the actress is playing, manages to shine and quite brightly at that, and I suspect that this is just the beginning for this young yet extremely talented young actress.

With that in mind though, I think the one performance that everyone will be talking about when they walk away from this film however, is Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat. Indeed this performance really has managed to make it into the Stephen King Cinematic Villain Hall of Fame alongside Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, Kathy Bates as Anne Wilkes, and Cujo the Dog as….himself (?). Indeed the reason I say that is because Ferguson is wonderful in this as she manages to make herself in equal measure both seductively mesmerizing and viciously sadistic. Thus every moment she is on screen you find yourself either utterly captivated by her, absolutely loathing her, or both and honestly I think that is really everything you could ask for from this particular character, and Ferguson delivers and then some.

All in all despite the presence of some film speed bumps with special regard going towards the pacing near the end of the movie’s first half, it is still the opinion of this reviewer that there is still a significant amount to love about Doctor Sleep. Indeed the stakes couldn’t have been higher for this movie yet what it’s able to accomplish from a legacy, let-alone a stand-alone, standpoint in terms of cinema is breathtaking. Indeed thanks to some truly intelligent storytelling, absolutely jaw dropping photography, and some newly iconic performances for the cast this is not only proof that someone can get Stephen King right, but also proof that maybe there’s still some magic to be mined in them there Hollywood hills after all….On a scale of 1-5 I give Doctor Sleep a 4 out of 5.