Doctor Sleep (2019)

Directed by Mike Flanagan

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While itself a straight down the middle, somewhat delirious horror/fantasy movie, Doctor Sleep is more fascinating for how it interacts with its prequel, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  Stephen King is widely known to loath that 1980 film for how it deviates from his novel.  The character Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) was an avatar for King, dealing with the same monstrous, corrupting alcoholism as the author.  In his novel it’s the Overlook Hotel which possesses him like the diseases possesses those afflicted, but in Kubrick’s film it’s Jack himself who is the monster, with the barren hotel just the ripe conditions which reveal what was always inside of him.

So King, it seems, is understandably offended by something he can’t help but take personally.  And Doctor Sleep feels like a faithful King adaptation, designed to fall in line with the author’s intentions rather than to reconsider them.  And yet, because so many people are familiar with the film version of The Shining, this movie has to address that film, to show specific moments that are both taken directly from the film and restaged from the film.

So in a way it feels like Stephen King trying to undermine and reconsider the film which itself reconsidered his own work.  He’s trying to take it back.

And as a standalone film this is entertaining enough, even if a bit silly though that’s the Stephen King way.  His villains are cartoonish and absurd, but on paper they work, if only because he digs so deep into them that they start to feel more symbolic of something real.  It’s evil incarnate, and though their weird rituals may differ, it all boils down to abstract evil that has found a vessel.

So that character here wears a black top hat and keeps referring to people’s “steam.”  It’s hard to get used to it, especially as the film keeps referencing The Shining, a film which felt much more grounded even in the face of its horror.

Doctor Sleep has some interesting ideas, stuff here about alcoholism, which Jack’s son Danny (Ewan McGregor) is now afflicted, just like his father.  We see how he struggles with it but then how he recovers.  And since neither the horrors of his ‘shining’ ability nor his demons ever go away, we see how the battle continues even after sobriety has begun.

But much of this is conveyed early on in the film, and then it gives way to the plot.  Things start to feel rushed, and while there’s something kind of admirable about complete and utter sincerity, much of this felt like a hurried Netflix release, with little under the surface.

The heart of the story is laid out in the first thirty minutes, and then a few moments in the final couple of scenes feel like an attempt to again reconsider Kubrick’s film.  Danny’s own struggle with the Overlook’s power and occasional lucidity mirror Jack’s as written in King’s version of The Shining.  Then the big, loud finale similarly echoes what was written in King’s novel.

So all in all Doctor Sleep is fine, but its ambitions feel much larger and perhaps ill-conceived.

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