Of all the movies to come out this year Doctor Sleep isn’t necessarily the movie I was most excited to see but it was the film I was one of the films I was the most curious about. The film is a delayed sequel to The Shining, an all-masterpiece from Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps more accurately an adaptation of Stephen King’s sequel novel to the original novel of “The Shining” upon which Kubrick’s film is based. Stephen King famously isn’t a fan of Kubrick’s The Shining but I certainly think that movie is a masterpiece and making a sequel to it certainly takes balls. I would normally be kind of offended at the very thought of doing something like that and would dismiss such a project as I would with that 2010: The Year We Made Contact movie from back in the 80s, but I can’t deny that Stephen King does still have some ownership over this story and that he has the rights to write his own sequel and that it would be foolish to ignore Kubrick’s film when making an adaptation of that sequel, so I was mostly willing to give this a chance.
Ironically I think the aspect of the movie that play around with Kubrick’s imagery are probably its most successful. There was something oddly refreshing about the way Mike Flanagan is able to recreating Kubrick’s sets and imagery in a rather low-fi way. I imagine that there was some temptation to dump a bunch of money into an elaborate CGI set like the one in Ready Player One with the original actors somehow recreated in a computer but Flanagan instead just cast a bunch of people who look a lot like the original actors and put them into physical sets that have been carefully fussed over and it mostly works. The problem is that there really isn’t all that much of this in the grand scheme of things. I’ve heard people complain that the movie has too much Kubrick fan service in it, but from where I sit that stuff is a clear minority of the film’s runtime and it pretty much the only part that really delivers on what the film is being sold as. The rest of the film is largely beholden to Stephen King’s own new story which in some ways seems to have been constructed in such a way as to be the opposite of what people would want out of a sequel to Kubrick’s film.
A lot of ink has been spilled about why Stephen King hates the movie version of The Shining but one of this quotes about it that has always baffled me is his contention that the film is supposedly a failure because Kubrick looked down on horror genre, which never really made sense because most of the things Kubrick added to the story were freaky supernatural elements and most of what he took out were endless bits of back story that over explained everything. Granted, I haven’t actually read King’s book so I might not be in the best position to diagnose that but I’ve looked into the differences pretty extensively and that seems to be the case. That complaint is all the more strange given that this King approved sequel doesn’t even seem to be trying to be anywhere near as horror inflected as Kubrick’s movie. Kubrick’s movie is essentially a haunted house story mixed with a psychological thriller that boils over in violent ways. In that movie The Overlook Hotel and the various ghosts inside of it are the real stars while Danny Torrence’s psychic powers are heavily de-emphasized. This sequel instead focuses mainly on Danny’s psychic powers and does a lot of world building on top of them and turns things into a sort of YA fantasy story about other people who “shine” fighting against another group of psychics who hunt and kill people who “shine” to feed off their power like vampires. That’s not the worst idea in the world but it’s not what people want out of a sequel to The Shining and I don’t think it’s overly well executed in and of itself.
A big part of the problem, I would argue the problem that kind of sinks the movie is that these evil psychics are kind of lousy as horror villains. The film spends an unusual amount of time hanging out with them while they’re on the road searching for victims and almost seems to want to establish them as a personable band of misfits. That is the exact opposite of what you want to do if you want to make your villain intimidating and scary, if I were making this I would have cut that stuff to a minimum and made these psychic vampires as simple and mysterious as possible. Additionally, the film doesn’t do a whole lot to make them seem all that powerful either. Their leader, Rose the Hat, is certainly well played by Rebecca Ferguson but our heroes seem to get the best of her at every turn and it’s eventually established that all you really need to do to take these bad guys down is shoot them so it seems a bit odd that by the end of the film we’re still supposed to view her as a threat that’s so intimidating that desperate measures and dangerous methods need to be taken to have a fighting chance against her.
So, what we have here is a movie that doesn’t really work, but the ways that it doesn’t work are kind of fascinating. I almost want to give it a “thumbs up” just because there’s a certain entertainment value in watching Mike Flanagan desperately try to square the circle of making these competing visions work within a single movie. However, I do empathize with anyone who walks into this movie unfamiliar with all this baggage expecting a sequel to The Shining or any kind of Stephen King horror movie for that matter and instead get this weird mishmash of visions. In some ways I wonder if this kind of mess is exactly what King wanted when he wrote this book that doesn’t operate at all like Kubrick’s movie and then gave it a pretty terrible title on top of that. So ultimately I think that hiring consummate Stephen King fanboy Mike Flanagan was a mistake as, at the end of the day, he was more interested in pleasing King than the film’s natural audience. Part of me thinks they should have hired a guy who would have tossed out even more of King’s ideas and made a true sequel to Kubrick’s movie but as I outlined previously King’s partial ownership over the story is kind of the one thing that justifies making a sequel to a Kubrick film in the first place so you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I’ll give it this though, it’s better for a movie to have too many visions coursing through it than to have no vision at all.
**1/2 out of Five