Stephen King is the pop culture treasure which keeps on giving. 43 years after Carrie hit movie screens, heralding the authors arrival into the truly big time. This week, the King universe expands once again as Doctor Sleep arrives in theaters. Should you check out the horror sequel? Here’s what you need to know.
Doctor Sleep follows the now grown Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor). He’s recently shaken his post-trauma resulting alcoholism, but finds himself pulled back into the hell he’s running from when a young girl — Kyliegh Curran— with a massive set of super-powers discovers that a group of ne’er-do-wells are killing and eating children who “shine”. The movie is a sequel to the fan favorite The Shining and is based on the book by Stephen King. Rebecca Ferguson and Jacob Tremblay costar. Mike Flanagan directs the film from his own script.
I’m just going to take a moment for you King aficionados… I haven’t read the book. So, I’ll be staying away from any King universe deep dives here… I wish I were better at that, but not yet.
Once again, we find ourself talking about a long-awaited sequel. While The Shining has been remade a number of times, Doctor Sleep does take most of its influence from the iconic, Stanley Kubrick version, which hit theaters in 1980. Ultimately, the movie has big shoes to fill. Huge. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you’ve certainly watched some clips.
With something which occupies as big of a space in popular culture as The Shining— particularly the Kubrick version— there’s going to be a lot of fan service-y moments. These hit fast and furious in the third act of the film as the action relocates to the Stanley… er… uh…. the Overlook. Flanagan gels well with his effects and set design crew to create a realistic feeling version of the famous hotel. As the characters step into the domineering location, the world created by Stanley Kubrick almost forty years ago practically jumps off the screen, providing the most direct tie-in to the King universe.
One part of these fan service-y moments did give me pause. The movie casts Henry Thomas and Alex Essoe to fill the iconic shoes of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as Jack and Wendy Torrance. In a world where— granted, for a little bit of money— production companies are now reconstructing deceased actors, it felt strange to see barely look-alike actors taking on these — now iconic— parts. While Essoe does do a heck of a Shelley Duvall impression, Thomas just doesn’t work as Nicholson. He’s loosely made up to look like the actor, but physically the resemblance just isn’t there. So, while most of the third act is constructed to really pull audiences into the environment of the Overlook, this less than stellar casting has the ability to pull them right back out again.
I’m a Ewan McGregor fan dating back to the prequel days… help me, Danny Torrance, you’re my only hope. At the most basic root of McGregor’s star persona, he’s incredibly likable. This serves him well in Doctor Sleep, as Danny starts the film in a rather… dark place. I mean, his Dad did try to kill him, you’d probably have your struggles too. As the narrative develops, the movie is well served bringing in McGregor because Danny is not the strongest character. Danny largely exists to tie the story’s action into the world of The Shining. This story could exist in its current form in the hands of a different character with only a few minor tweaks. However, this is where the importance of someone like Ewan McGregor as a lead actor comes into play… he brings depth and liability to what is ultimately a relatively shallow character.
The movie is overall very well cast. Curran is incredibly entertaining as Abra. She manages to escape without falling into some of the usual child performer pitfalls, and she even carries a great deal of the film’s humor on her shoulders. Meanwhile, the always delightful Rebecca Ferguson is surprisingly frightening as Rose the Hat. She taps into some of the complicated layers of the character. All at once, she manages to be fun and quirky enough to intrigue a child, but still be terrifying. At time, the performance felt reminiscent of Bill Skarsgård‘s take on Pennywise, tapping into the root of childhood terror.
Writer/director Mike Flanagan worked his way up, and is very much a horror specialist. However, his script feels decidedly uneven. The first act feels a bit laggy as the script struggles to deliver what must have been an intimidating amount of groundwork… this is the struggle with sequels coming 40 plus years after the original. Doctor Sleep really finds its footing into its second act. While the movie takes a very… dark… left turn at this point, it ratchets up the horror which is sorely lacking in the first act.
However, there are a number of moments throughout the movie where problems seems to be fixed by the super-powers of the… unseen hand of the screenwriter. Perhaps it is an issue with the script? Maybe it’s with the editing… maybe even a bit of both. There are vital moments, particularly spoilery ones deep into act three which feel awkward and jarring in the lack of onscreen closure.
Doctor Sleep shows the unbelievable power of Stephen King in the popular culture consciousness. More than forty years after The Shining hit theaters in 1980, the King universe is still just as popular. Doctor Sleep captures some great fan-service-y moments, which should make this an entertaining watch for fans of the Kubrick film, and likely for King fans as well. Just keep your expectations in check.
Doctor Sleep hits theaters this week.
Stay tuned for more here at Female Gaze Productions as we look at classic pop culture through a historical and feminist lens. My name is Kim, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram and as always if you like what you’re seeing, please like and subscribe.