Last year’s Ready Player One identified Stephen King’s The Shining – or, more to the point, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – as a commodity, an engine for nostalgia. Doctor Sleep makes that official, taking an eerily similar approach of plunking its characters into a virtual playground of that movie, featuring its most enduring imagery. Although Doctor Sleep is a legitimate sequel to The Shining written by King, you could argue that Steven Spielberg’s approach is more honest in its satirical representation of how we live in our nostalgia and have it fed back to us in a constant loop. Significantly, the use of The Shining in Ready Player One originates with Spielberg, or co-screewriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline anyway, as Cline’s popular novel makes no mention of it. That’s significant because it’s movies, not literature, where we are being fed this stream of nostalgia masquerading as new art.
That’s not to say there’s nothing new in Doctor Sleep, which actually expands on the rules the author established in his original work. Danny Torrance, the little boy in The Shining, has now grown into Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), a man of many substances and loose women, who awakens most mornings not knowing where he is. He’s still got “the shining” – an ability to communicate telepathically with others who have the same gift, sometimes at great distances, which has presumably allowed him to slide by without a career, as he can also use it to learn things about people and influence them. The traumas that left his father dead at the Overlook Hotel some 30 years earlier have never fully released their hold on him.
The expanded rules consist of something called “steam,” which is the essential life force of gifted seers like Danny, who are rather more plentiful than you would think. Plentiful enough, anyway, to sustain a marauding band of what we might have once called gypsies, led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Kidnapping these children and causing them intense fear or physical pain, they force the release of this steam from their victims’ throats, inhaling it to keep themselves eternally young. Needless to say, their paths are likely to cross with not only Dan, trying to get his life straight in a small New Hampshire town, but the young girl Dan has unwittingly taken under his wing (Kyliegh Curran), much as Dick Halloran once taught him about his own gift. Abra Stone is more powerful than he ever was, meaning her steam could feed Rose and her kind for decades – especially the final release that occurs when the victim dies.
Doctor Sleep is clearly a comfortable fit for director Mike Flanagan, who made the solid King adaptation Gerald’s Game a couple years back. It’s a step forward into something more ambitious than the string of tidy little horror movies he’s made, as the canvas is much larger and the narrative generosity – to put it in kind terms – is that of a Netflix series, as we spend a lot of time both with Dan and with Rose and her crew. There’s a lot of plot in Doctor Sleep, resulting in 152 minutes of movie. Flanagan corrals it all in and offers us something coherent and reasonably satisfying.
However, it’s clear that King’s famously stuffed style of writing should have had some of its details pruned away. The title itself, for example, has to do with Dan’s job as an orderly on a hospital wing of terminal patients. That he ushers people into the great beyond, replacing their fear with calm thoughts in the moment of their deaths, actually has almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie.
The real problem with the movie, though, is that is just isn’t very scary, a fault that can be traced to two particular narrative choices. One is to spend almost as much time with the villain as we do with the hero. Rebecca Ferguson has a huge amount of charisma, which usually warrants every minute of screen time she gets. But the more time you spend with a villain, the less mystique they have, and the fact is, learning so much about the day-to-day existence of these “gypsies” inevitably saps them of a sizeable amount of their threat. As just a random comparison, it would be kind of like if Christopher Nolan gave us scenes of Heather Ledger’s Joker doing his laundry and paying his phone bill. Not so scary.
The second choice is that most of what is supposed to scare us is returned directly from Kubrick’s movie. It’s probably not a spoiler to say that this movie does return to the Overlook Hotel, rather improbably, and that that rotting corpse of the old woman in the bathtub in Room 237 is just one of the indelible images from Kubrick’s film that makes a reappearance – about five reappearances, actually, in her case. We don’t tend to be scared, though, by rehashed imagery. Twin girls standing ominously in a hallway, making sing songy chants, send chills down our spine because they are a fresh vision. When they are presented to us again for reasons of fan service, fan service is all it is.
This must be an interesting film for King to watch, as he surely recognises Kubrick’s film as a main reason The Shining has endured as one of his most popular novels – a main reason he probably thought a sequel would be viable in the first place. But King never liked Kubrick’s film, which helped prompt the making of a disastrous 1997 miniseries version of the novel. He can’t trick himself into thinking of this as merely a filmed version of the sequel to his novel, as it is indebted to Kubrick at every turn, including the use of lookalikes for Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson to play Wendy and Jack Torrance in flashbacks and new scenes. The Nicholson lookalike is actually Henry Thomas, the boy from E.T. – bringing our Spielberg-related nostalgia loop full circle.