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Reigning in Torrance
It’s not exactly a secret that author Stephen King was not thrilled by Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel The Shining. Anyone taking on the sequel had to get the blessing of both King and Kubrick’s estate. Camus visits DOCTOR SLEEP...
 
  "That was always the hope going in, if there was some universe in which Stephen King and the Stanley Kubrick estate could both love this movie, that is the dream. Threading that needle has been the source of every ulcer we've had for the last two years."
  Director Mike Flanagan*

 

There is a narrow genre of books and movies that I simply cannot resist. If I had to call it something, it would be 'Ultra-gifted but naïve character discovers their great powers'. The first story that comes to mind is John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. In the novel, a group of characters with (for all intents and purposes) 'the shining' discover that one of their number, Petra, the young sister of the hero, has the ability but off any scale known to the group. They try and keep their abilities secret (to project and receive 'thought shapes' as communication) as they live in a strict fundamentalist society that would cast them out or slaughter them if their gift was known. I knew nothing of Doctor Sleep before taking my seat, except of course that it was a follow up to The Shining (both book and movie). But I was delighted to fxind out that one of the main characters was an '...ultra-gifted but naïve character discovering their powers'. Sign me up.

As I have noted before on the site specifically in my article on The Shining called Overlooked, I didn't buy the supernatural elements of the original film as much as I tracked Jack Torrance's descent into madness. But something or some physical entity let the mad bastard out of the larder. Kubrick in interviews said that it was this event that forced the audience to accept the ghosts as demonstrably real. And I still didn't buy it. In Doctor Sleep, the first scene sets up the supernatural in such a way that you have to accept it. A group of misfits known as the 'True Knot' (all with 'the shining', a psychic gift) live by finding fellow children 'shinees', torturing them to death and feasting off 'steam' that they excrete while in pain. In so doing these people elongate their lives beyond normal human lifespans. Young Danny Torrance is living in Florida with his mother. He is still haunted by the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel. He shares time with Halloran, the ghost of the Overlook's cook who gives him some advice on how to deal with the ghosts; lock them in ornate boxes inside his mind. Armed with the knowledge that he can do just that, young Danny faces his fears and deals with the putrefying old woman in the bathroom.

Danny (Ewen McGregor)

At a screening of Casablanca the True Knot leaders observe a fifteen year old with the gift. She uses it to mark sexual predators. She is recruited, somewhat easily, by the promise of a longer life. Grown up Danny moves to a new town and gets cleaned up after using alcohol to deaden his psychic ability. There's a quote which won't threaten Lost Weekend's winner on alcoholism" (...one is too many and a hundred not enough,") but I did like McGregor's insight thus; "The man has a drink. The drink has a drink. The drink has the man." I can relate to that. On Danny's apartment wall he receives written messages from another 'shinee', a young girl, Abra whose abilities outstrip even Danny's considerable talents. When the True Knot kidnap a young baseball player (who reads the minds of his pitchers to always know what's coming), Abra senses his plight and what follows is one of the most unpleasant scenes in a horror film I've seen for a long time. The leader of the group, Rose the Hat, senses Abra's powerful mental presence and knowing what her pain and death would bring to the group as sustenance, she's determined to hunt her down. Danny and Abra have to join forces to fight them.

'Doctor Sleep' (so called because he soothes close-to-death patients with his gift) is Danny's recovery identity as he works humbly as a hospice warden. Played sympathetically by Ewan McGregor, Danny is a tragic figure whose suppression of his demons continues once he's left the bottle behind. McGregor can play a romantic lead and an action hero with little trouble. He has an everyman quality allied to his good looks, which means he has managed to eke out a career unburdened by all-encompassing and narrowly defining stardom. He can still play a range of characters. There is no 'Ewan McGregor' role per se (maybe Trainspotting's Renton) and I say that about the man who was saddled with playing Obi Wan Kenobi in Lucas' dire prequel trilogy. He is nothing but convincing in this role as a recovering alcoholic. Rose the Hat, the principal villain of the piece, is played by Rebecca Ferguson and she has such fun with it. Sexy, smart and in denial that there may be someone out there more powerful that she is, she rules her group with a firm grip but you keep having to remind yourself what these monsters have to do to survive. In that horrific scene mentioned earlier, she's the leader and as the staked out young victim (superbly played by Room's child actor Jacob Tremblay who makes you feel every ounce of his stark terror) asks Rose "You're not going hurt me, are you?" She simply says "Yes," and proceeds to do just that with not a flicker of conscience.

Abra, the young, powerful shinee is played by Kyliegh Curran and it's a superb performance from one so young. There's nuance, humour, earnestness and a rod of steel for a backbone. Another stand out is Rose's lover, Crow played by Zahn McClarnon. Each of the group has to have abandoned conventional morality to feed as they do but McClarnon gives Crow a human side even though he's quite content to let Abra know what fate is waiting for her as she's drugged up to the eyeballs. I love the mix of ages and races in the group, cementing the idea that the gift of the shining can occur in anyone. It's also very nice to see Star Trek The Next Generation's Mr. Homn again, Carel Struycken as the gaunt elder of the clan. As Billy, a man who befriends Danny as he recognises 'that look', Cliff Curtis is a steadfast rock who has to take a lot on faith until he gets proof of the claims his friend is making.

Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson)

Director Flanagan is no slouch when it comes to horror. He created and directed 2018's TV series The Haunting of Hill House, which got great reviews and gained significant prestige (I've not yet seen it. I know, I know, it's on my list). His directorial touch and taste are both sure and on target. He also edited Doctor Sleep, which I find a little surprising. Usually an editor is hired to get a head start while in production. If you're directing the film, you can't be editing it at the same time unless you are in some way superhuman. He coaxes performances from his cast that are all first-rate and his 'horror' moments are presented with some restraint but they retain their power to shock and disturb. The biggest 'jump' moment is reserved for the whoosh of a fluorescent lamp flashing into life. I thought there may be a danger of fan-boy overkill but the original film references are precisely contained and used when necessary to the plot. It's nice to see 'quotations' from Kubrick's original and the look-alike cast do a superb job of aping their predecessors. There's the moment of a terrified Wendy cowering in the bathroom that I had to really concentrate to realise it was a different actress mimicking the moment in the original with uncanny skill. This makes Doctor Sleep its own self-contained movie and not dependent on the original film for its power.

Whenever 'the shining' is utilised, a slow to faster heartbeat is brought into the mix. I thought I'd get sick of it but it integrates well with a very lovely overall sound mix. A lot of creative thought has gone into what 'the shining' actually sounds like. The imagery of Rose projecting herself into Abra's mind space is a cinematic coup of real beauty. She flies above the clouds with the twinkling of lights beneath her. She upsets physics by slipping into Abra's bedroom and in a moment of real 'punch the air' heroics, Abra temporarily gets the better of her nemesis and inflicts a wound that's deeply felt. How that wound in reality manifests itself is one for the philosophers. Watch out for the baseball player's father. That's Danny Lloyd, Kubrick's young Danny in the original. Speaking of actors all grown up, yes, that is Eliot from E.T. playing Jack Torrance. He of course is the first billed star of the Hill House series. McGregor's US accent is not one hundred per cent there but to be honest, that sort of thing never really bothers me.

Doctor Sleep won't knock The Shining off that odd pedestal it's been thrust on to, confirming a reputation for chills I still don't understand but it is a superior horror film with fine performances, restrained and intelligent direction with a villain to hiss (and to be honest, simultaneously love) and a reluctant hero and enthusiastic and brave heroine. It treats its relationship with its predecessor with respect and never overplays the first movie's hand. I was worried it may drag at over two and a half hours but its pacing is just perfect. Congratulations, Mr. Flanagan. The Doctor will see you now...

 


* https://www.slashfilm.com/doctor-sleep-qa/

All images © Warner Bros.

Doctor Sleep poster
Doctor Sleep

USA 2019
151 mins
directed by
Mike Flanagan
produced by
Jon Berg
written by
Mike Flanagan
from the novel by
Stephen King
cinematography
Michael Fimognari
editing
Mike Flanagan
music
The Newton Brothers
production design
Maher Ahmad
starring
Ewan McGregor
Rebecca Ferguson
Kyliegh Curran
Cliff Curtis
Jacob Tremblay

UK distributor
Warner Bros Entertainment UK Ltd.
UK release date
31 October 2019
review posted
5 November 2019

See all of Camus' reviews