(Just as a heads-up, I’m probably gonna spoil both The Shining and this over the course of this one, so if you have somehow never seen The Shining, go rectify that immediately and then come back to this.)
I am normally not one for sequels. I think horror works best when the audience is left hanging a little, when there are loose ends, when not everything is explained. Sequels tend to overexplain, bleeding off the mystery that gives horror its power. At their worst they create some kind of mythos for the world the story exists in, turning what should be scary into what is basically a gory action film.
So I’m already not on board with sequels, but a sequel to an iconic horror film? Come on. Come on. At that point, you aren’t just making a film, you’re also taking on the original film’s legacy. You’re making a film under a very long shadow. You’re going to have to reckon with the original, otherwise what’s the point? And how do you do that in a way that doesn’t devolve into “hey, remember how cool this movie was?” It needs to be something more than a retread, it needs to not overexplain, but it still has to acknowledge its source material.
This means that Doctor Sleep has…a lot…on its shoulders. And I don’t think it drops the ball, but I think in its attempt to be faithful to the novel from which it was adapted and engage with both the original text of The Shining and the film adaptation, it…well, it ends up being a lot of things, but I’m not sure a horror film is one of them.
It begins as The Shining does, with the same ominous, minor-key synthesizer and a long tracking aerial shot. In my write-up of The Shining, I pointed out how just changing the soundtrack would turn it into a family vacation film, and that’s exactly what we get here. The car driving the long road belongs to a family who stops for a picnic, and their young daughter Violet wanders off to pick flowers. Down by the riverbank, she meets a woman singing a lovely tune and picking flowers of her own. There’s some conversation, and soon enough, Violet has become another face on another missing-child poster.
Elsewhere, Danny Torrance is living in Florida with his mother Wendy. They moved there so they’d never have to see snow again. But Danny - cursed to see the dead around him - hasn’t earned a quiet life yet. The Overlook was condemned following the events of The Shining, and its ghosts grow hungry, drawn to Danny like moths to a candle. As he gets older, he learns ways to deal with them, to lock them in boxes in his mind, where they can’t ever, ever get out.
And then meanwhile, in yet another movie, young Abra Stone celebrates her birthday with her parents and friends. Her mom and dad have hired a magician for her birthday, and Abra - delighted - does some magic tricks of her own, much to her parents’ bemusement. She’s gifted, like Danny is gifted.
This is how the movie opens, and I think you get a sense of one of its biggest problems right off the bat. The first third of the film is almost entirely world-building and table-setting. This is even assuming we’re familiar with the original film - if you’ve never seen The Shining, it’s going to be pretty confusing, and that film had a lot going on as well - “psychic boy moves to a haunted hotel where his abusive, alcoholic father goes insane” is a lot of balls to keep in the air, and this film tacks on even more. This film employs the same title-card device that The Shining did, and it ends up being equally as disorienting, though I don’t think that was the intent - it just highlights how much we’re bouncing around in time and space trying to connect three different stories.
So we have a flash-forward. Danny Torrance is a grown man, and he isn’t doing well. He may have quieted the ghosts of the Overlook, but he continues to see the dead. He is very much his father’s son - he drinks to numb himself and has bouts of violent rage. He loses nights to booze and coke and fistfights. He sleeps on the street. And then he hits bottom in horrifying fashion, bringing together the worlds of the living and the dead. He jumps on a bus and heads for New Hampshire. He gets a room, starts going to meetings. One day at a time. He takes a job at a hospice, sitting with the dying. A big part of recovery is being of service to others.
Meanwhile, Abra has grown into an extremely bright teenage girl who can hear what other people think, who can move objects with her mind, who can reach out across vast distances to other similar minds. Minds like Danny’s.
And then there are the people behind the disappearance of young Violet. They’re a group who call themselves the True Knot. They’re very, very old. Much older than they look. The oldest of them cheered gladiators in the Coliseum. They live a nomadic existence, traveling across the U.S. in a caravan of campers, looking for the food that sustains them. They call it “steam,” and it prolongs their lives. Steam is produced when you take someone with Danny or Abra’s gifts and torture them to death. Pain makes the steam better. Fear makes the steam better. And it’s always better in the very young.
So they travel across the country, leaving a trail of missing-child posters in their wake. But it’s getting harder and harder to feed. The steam isn’t so pure anymore, and there’s less of it out there. As their leader Rose tells their newest member: “Eat well, and live long.” But it’s been a very long time since any of them ate well.
Like I said, just getting all of the pieces onto the board takes the entire first act, and then the second has to start bringing everyone together. Abra learns about the True Knot (in another genuinely horrifying moment), calls out to Danny for help, and Danny has to reckon with all of his old, buried ghosts to help keep Abra alive once the True Knot gets her scent. The chase is on.
What I think this all means is that you don’t have to worry about this film merely recapitulating the original. But I also think that The Shining made for a better film (despite King’s dislike for it, more on that in a bit) because it was such a tight, focused story. Doctor Sleep is so sprawling - geographically, temporally, and in the sheer volume of ideas it presents - that it feels throughout like you aren’t watching a movie so much as you are bingeing a miniseries. It’s two and a half hours as it is (about the same run time as The Shining, come to think of it), but it feels like you could have tacked on another hour and a half and turned it into a four-part miniseries (an approach that has been tried with the even more sprawling King novel The Stand, and it’s still not enough time to do that story justice). The problem with this is that the amount of exposition needed leaves very little room for any kind of atmosphere or tension to develop, and in positioning Abra and Danny against the True Knot, we end up with more of a good versus evil story than a horror story. Not that horror films don’t deal in good and evil, they often do, but it’s usually on much more personal terms, rather than being about some kind of cosmic struggle.
The result of this (and a pretty heavy emphasis on action in the back half) is that what we get is closer to dark fantasy than horror per se. Dark fantasy and horror can certainly coexist (I have high hopes for the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stories in the works at Netflix in that regard), but once we widen out from Danny Torrance’s personal hell, it really becomes something other than horror. It isn’t bad, but there’s just too much going on across too many places and too many ideas being juggled for it to really bear down and get scary.
Which is too bad, because there’s definitely horror to be mined here. One thing I really appreciated about this film was that it does something lots of sequels don’t do well, if at all - it actually deals with the consequences of surviving a horror movie. Danny’s downward spiral is illustrated vividly - he’s a rage-fueled alcoholic on his way to bottoming out when the movie starts. Putting your nightmares in boxes isn’t confronting them, and I think that under other circumstances, there would be a much tighter, more personal, honest-to-goodness horror movie in the story of Danny’s trauma. We get glimpses of that movie in the beginning, and it’s responsible for one of the most unsettling sequences in the film.
This isn’t to say that the film as it stands is insubstantial - despite its sprawl, there are some clear thematic through-lines here. Letting go is a big theme here - Danny works at a hospice and comforts the dying, helps them to let go, where the True Knot do monstrous things to delay death because they can’t let go of the world. In the end, Danny lets go of the ghosts (literal and figurative) of the Overlook, who’ve been with him for most of his life, because that’s how you find peace. The film is also, in ways textual and otherwise, about service. Service is important to recovery, so Danny engages in service. By contrast, the True Knot are profoundly selfish in how they feed on the lives of others. They serve nobody but themselves.
Which leads to another way of think about service. Questions of fanservice attend any adaptation or revisiting of a popular story, and this film has to contend with the legacy of The Shining, both the original novel and the film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, an adaptation that author Stephen King has always vocally disliked. I understand King’s criticisms, but other than his problem with how Jack starts off the film well on his way to losing his mind (something that really leapt out at me on my recent rewatch), I don’t really share his objections. A lot of them are to do with how impersonal the film is and how much the characters have changed from the novel. They have, but Kubrick isn’t going for fidelity to the text, he’s going for mood and atmosphere and vibe and his version of The Shining has that in spades. The best you can say about the King-approved miniseries adaptation is that it’s more faithful to the text and less cheesy than I feared it would be, but it’s still most notable to me as an example of why strict faithfulness to a text isn’t always a virtue. Bottom line, it’s just not that scary, and King’s distinctive authorial voice doesn’t always work as well coming out of people’s mouths as it does on the page.
Stuff doesn’t always translate well from page to screen and part of adapting a book into a film is knowing what to keep and what to jettison. So this film reckons with both the text and the more notable of the two adaptations and does so deftly and with intelligence. It’s filled with visual allusions to The Shining throughout - matching shots, recreated flashbacks, some sly locational references where you aren’t expecting them - and that’s before the action arrives, as it must, at the Overlook, long-condemned and abandoned, a ghost of its former self. Here, it all becomes explicit, the location and visuals speaking to the film, and the action and dialogue often speaking to the original text, creating a place where both come together, just as past and present converge at the Overlook. It could be reduced to trivia (and certainly it’s going to be more rewarding to people familiar with both the book and film than to people unfamiliar with them), but I think that misses the point. It’s not just a bunch of references, it’s the way the present recapitulates the past, the way the son threatens to make the same mistakes the father did, the way trauma doesn’t just go away - avoidance and repression aren’t confrontation. The ghosts are both literal and metaphor alike.
That’s a huge legacy to live up to, and a heavy burden for a film to bear, and honestly I think it’s impressive how well it manages to evoke its predecessors, but here’s where one last contrast comes in: My central thesis when I talked about The Shining was how much it worked at the irrational, lizard-brain level for me. It was a film almost entirely about feel, which is why I think it was so effective. This film, rich with textual, subtextual, intertextual and metatextual allusion, works better as a comment on the original than it does as a stand-alone film. For anyone who has seen and read The Shining and appreciated both film and novel, this film is going to be intellectually rewarding. But thinking isn’t feeling, and the impression I was left with was “hmmm…well done,” not “holy shit.” Which, I have to say, is a little disappointing. But I’m not sure what else I could have expected from something that had to serve so many masters on its way to getting made.
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