Any director who willingly follows-up a film made by Stanley Kubrick is, to my mind, either monumentally brave, or self-destructive to a worrying degree. Not only are you following a classic, you’re following a classic made by one of the best to ever stand behind a camera.
Having said that, it’s not a baseless sequel; in fact, it’s based off a sequel book written by the original scribe, Stephen King. No, King has been on record for a long time as not particularly liking Kubrick’s film, objecting to the changes he made, while conceding that it stands up well as a film, his decision to write a follow-up pretty much guaranteed that someone would eventually transfer it to the big screen, such things are inevitable with Stephen King stories.
Many years after the events at the Overlook Hotel, Danny Torrance is barely surviving; an alcoholic at the bottom of the barrel, he takes a bus to New Hampshire in hopes of a fresh start. There he encounters a young girl who ‘shines’ just like him, and they find themselves on the run from ghosts of the past, and greater threats in the present.
My main concern going into this film was that it would shackle itself to the legacy of The Shining, something that wouldn’t show either film in a good light, and spend most of its time reminding us of how great the first film was, as opposed to how great this film could be.
I’m pleased to say that, despite a few gentle homages, and a few blatant ones, Doctor Sleep manages to find an identity of its own.
I think it helps that the story’s differ so greatly; The Shining is a claustrophobic nightmare, being trapped in an enclosed space and perused by a deadly force, like being trapped in a fun house with a serial killer. Doctor Sleep is an odyssey across America, being followed through various landscapes, again by an I see capable enemy, like the serial killer keeps catching the same flight as you.
The effect is quite different to the first film, whereas that film was a constant creeping dread, knowing that something will happen but that feeling never dissipates, whereas this film ebbs and flows with its atmosphere, sometimes to its advantage, and other times to its detriment.
The films main drawback is its length. As the old proverb goes: ‘its not the size, it’s how you use it.’ The film is long, but doesn’t really need to be, like a short man wearing an absurdly large hat. It has its ideas in the right place and its events competently strung out, but there’s a lot of wasted time in the middle; The Shining, which I would stop banging on about but the film almost invites comparisons to its predecessor, was a concise thrill ride, not a moment too long, and not a second too short, it was perfect, and this just seems flabby and wasteful.
I also feel that a second screenwriter may have been a good idea, as writer/director Mike Flanagan takes the reins on his own, and as a result the dialogue sounds like it should have gone through a second pair of eyes in parts, at its worst it’s extremely exposition-heavy and redundant, but it’s not atrocious throughout, indeed it has strong character moments throughout, so I’d call it more of a stumbling block than a hurdle.
One of the films major strengths is its leading man, Ewen McGregor, long-considered a very talented actor, he shows off some of his lesser-seen dramatic chops here, showing a broad range, from grim determination to unbridled terror. He had big shoes to fill after Jack Nicholson, almost impossibly big, but he managed it.
The story, I feel, deserves close attention, and perhaps further exploration in a broader write-up about King’s writing in general, but Stephen King has this knack for, what I like to call: ‘the mundane supernatural’. By that I don’t mean his stories are boring, far from it, he’s a wonderful storyteller, but rather, the world in which his stories exist are a far-cry from the usual settings for supernatural events. He takes these bizarre concepts, like a cult that feeds on psychic children, or a multi-dimensional demon, and introduces them to a world that we recognise, he brings them into mundane life, and somehow he makes it work, it’s absolutely remarkable.
In terms of direction, I’d say Flanagan pays tribute to the films lineage without completely ripping off Kubrick, there are a few moments in the film that feel ‘Kubrickian’ for want of a better term, such as a scene where someone mentally projects themselves and it reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and other times when he deals in typical modern horror tropes, such as close-ups and a quickly rotating camera, it all blends together quite seamlessly, and marries the more artful flourishes of the films cinematography to its more by-the-book elements.
In conclusion, I think Doctor Sleep was the best possible outcome for this film, it’s flabby and over-long yes, but it doesn’t tread on its forebears toes and manages to tell a story that is all at once unconnected to the first, yet completely interlinked with it. It jiggles the expectations of both fans of the film, and the books to deliver a film that is well directed, excellently acted, and suitably tense. Some could argue over its right to exist, but it is ultimately a brave and well+executed follow-up to an all-time classic.