Alcoholic loner Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) lives an itinerant life, still haunted by the ghosts that killed his father and traumatised him as a child. Even after settling into a sense of normality Dan is dragged back into danger when a young woman (Kyliegh Curran) with extraordinary powers becomes the target of a mysterious gang of supernatural killers.
Mike Flanagan’s 2019 film Doctor Sleep adapts the popular novel by Stephen King; itself a sequel to King’s iconic 1977 work The Shining. It picks up on the life of Danny Torrance decades after the events at the Overlook Hotel, and expands the scope and mythos of that enormously successful book. Of course The Shining itself was adapted into a hugely popular film by director Stanley Kubrick. This leaves Flanagan tasked with following up and honouring not only the novel but the world-famous novel it followed and one of the most famous and beloved horror films of all time. Talk about pressure.
To be honest, it all feels like a little too much pressure for a single film to bear. Despite extensive work having been done to reconcile both its literary and cinematic precursors, the best approach is honestly to by-and-large treat Doctor Sleep as its own discrete film and simply accept the references and call-backs as they come.
That in mind, Doctor Sleep is an excellent piece of work: slow but measured, as thoughtful as it is suspenseful. Unlike many horror films – which keep a focus on frights and scares – Doctor Sleep spends a rewarding amount of time on characters and relationships. So much time is spent in the company of the odd villainous gang of what are essentially vampires that one can develop an odd sort of sympathy for them – that is despite their eager involvement in violently murdering children. They feel as tragic as they are evil. Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the confident and charismatic leader of the group. It is a fantastic performance from Ferguson, combining multiple facets and moods to build one of the most unusually likeable movie villains in years. In a more genre-agnostic world it would be the kind of performance to receive award nominations.
Ewan McGregor is similarly excellent as Dan, building a gentle and fallible character pretty much with a free rein given the limitations of Danny Lloyd’s performance back in The Shining (Lloyd charmingly appears in cameo here during a baseball game). There is an honesty to McGregor’s work here, and it is tempting to speculate how much is inspired by his own self-announced history of alcohol dependency. Certainly the film duplicates the novel’s effectiveness in portraying addiction issues, and provides a troubled undercurrent throughout.
While the film’s more suspenseful and action-filled moments are scattered through the piece rather sparingly, they are all strong and effectively presented. Growing inventiveness delivers some beautiful staged set pieces and surprises, each of which takes good advantage of the unique set-up of characters and psychic powers. It all looks wonderfully handsome too, with Michael Fimognari’s cinematography leading a good aesthetic that both honours Kubrick’s predecessor and finds room to establish its own identity.
Mike Flanagan has established himself well as both a director of horror and a stylist of atmospheric and haunting mise-en-scene. His 2018 Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House demonstrated his talents ably in terms of look, tone, and character – and to its credit Doctor Sleep develops a much more engaging climax and denouement than that series received.
Doctor Sleep is a film with a near-impossible brief and crushing audience expectations. It delivers on those conditions marvellously, and presents one of the smartest, most effective supernatural thrillers of its type in recent years. This one’s a keeper.