So much of Doctor Sleep is silly, but there really is so much. It’s a horror film set in 1980 Florida, no, 2011 New Jersey, no, 2019 New Hampshire, now Ohio, on to Colorado. The bad guys are ghosts. The bad guys are trailer-park telepaths devouring kidsouls for family orgies. The bad guy is alcoholism. Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) flees a quarter-century hangover to a kindly New England burg called Frazier. There is a tourist attraction in the square, a miniaturized version of the city called Teenytown. Dan winds up volunteering at Teenytown, and I don’t know why I’m telling you this, Teenytown doesn’t have anything to do with anything. It’s just there, and it’s wonderful. Teenytown. Teenytown.
Dan is a middle-aged trauma case, chasing away demons real and paternal with a lifetime of booze. Newly sober, he gets a job at the local hospice, where an adorable cat senses whenever a patient is about to die. Much like the cat, Dan has a sixth sense. He has a special name for his supernatural power, and that name is: Sorry, going a different direction here, I have to mention 15-year-old Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), who steals wallets from pedophiles and mind-controls them toward dangerous confessions. Andi meets Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a mysterious woman with a terrible hat. All will connect to Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a teenager overflowing with mystical energy, who spends eight years talking to Dan through a chalkboard wall.
That’s Abra, as in “cadabra.” What fun names are! Rose leads a whole band of superpowered nomads, including Madge Ick, Spellon Mee, and Whit Chiznwizards. No, no, no, but Rose does have a trusted lieutenant who goes by Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon). His hat is okay, still not great. Their whole crew has turned nigh-immortal from devouring the souls of children who have the shining. Or maybe not souls. When the superchildren die, they release steam, and the bad guys breathe in the steam, and their eyes glow, and then they make out with each other. It’s precisely how Juul works. Right, and yes: There are shinings, plural!
Doctor Sleep adapts the 2013 book by horror legend Stephen King, which carried young Danny Torrance from the 1977 novel The Shining into cruel contemporary adulthood. King’s original haunted-hotel novel was made into a 1980 film by Stanley Kubrick, which — important to admit this — is one of my favorite movies ever. (I like the book fine, but it wouldn’t crack my King Top 25.) The author has often stated his profound dislike for the feature adaptation, and his sequel ignored Kubrick’s plot alterations.
Now, writer-director Mike Flanagan has turned his own Doctor Sleep adaptation into an attempt to reconcile the twin Shinings. He recreates some of Kubrick’s famous visuals. The soundtrack integrates elements of the nails-tickling-your-grave musical score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Etkin. Carl Lumbly does a decent Scatman Crothers impression as Dick Hallorann, once young Danny’s mentor, now grown-up Dan’s Jiminy Cricket, unfortunately. Alex Essoe has a few scenes as Danny’s mom Wendy, and I mean no disrespect, but Shelley Duvall is the only Wendy, and that’s that.
Flanagan already made one Stephen King film, 2017’s Gerald’s Game. Last year, he became a household name with the Netflix miniseries Haunting of Hill House, a nominal Shirley Jackson adaptation with visible King influences. He’s the rare American horror director who remembers that the world has more colors than dark gray. And he overpopulates Doctor Sleep with juicy supporting turns. McClarnon, an awesome figure in Fargo, is making a fine career for himself as the henchman who should be the boss. Lind is great in a role that seems crucial and then simply isn’t. Dan’s best friend Billy is played by Cliff Curtis, and Cliff Curtis is so swell that he even made the 35th hour of Hobbs and Shaw almost bearable.
But Doctor Sleep is a mess. It’s way too long, clashing somber sobriety with loony cheap thrills. The Shining homages turn shameless and cheap. The jumpscares are more funny than scary. Dan is a problem. McGregor used to be such a livewire performer, but he’s frozen stolid here. It’s admirable to explore how family alcoholism and a childhood history of abuse can still affect a man forty years past his murderdad. But the language of pop therapy can make for deadly dialogue. At one point, Dan introduces himself by saying, no joke, “I’m running away from myself,” whoof. There’s a bit of spark in McGregor’s pairing with no-nonsense Curran, but the diffuse plot of Doctor Sleep keeps the principals separate for a very long time.
Meanwhile, Ferguson, so great in the recent Mission: Impossibles, is trying 10 kinds of something. Rose lives in an RV overdecorated in a style I can only describe as “rugpunk.” In a truly stunning setpiece, she astral-projects herself across the country, floating through the stratosphere into Abra’s bedroom. Rose is occasionally fun without ever being scary. And Doctor Sleep never really makes a cohesive argument for why this movie about centuries-old telepath kidkillers is also a Shining sequel, even when the action leads back to the Overlook Hotel.
Maybe Flanagan’s pinpoint recreations will astound you. All the homage left me cold. Kubrick’s film has a chilly reputation even among fans, but it’s an achingly humane freakout, with Duvall and Danny Lloyd barely breathing from the perpetual tension of living with Jack Nicholson‘s dear old ragedrunk dad. For all his revisions, Kubrick picked up on a primal fear in King’s novel: The Torrance family is a biosphere of terror even before they get to the hotel. Doctor Sleep aims for redemption — it’s Feel-Good Horror — but the scary hotel is just a scary hotel now. And not even so scary, when you’ve seen it all before.
Conversely, I’ve never seen a gang of psionic cultists vape infanticide stream as a life-extending aphrodisiac. So there are still new ideas. C+