Return to the mystical world of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining 39 years later, this time written and directed by Mike Flanagan, one of the best modern horror directors who continues to deliver phenomenal horror spectacles time and time again.
Doctor Sleep picks up years after the events of 1980’s The Shining with an adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), struggling to deal with the traumatic events of his past, who comes across a young girl, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who also exhibits similar psychic powers. Together they attempt to take down an evil cult threatening their existence.
Much time has passed since we last saw Danny Torrance, once a young boy learning about his “shining” powers, now a man still traumatised by the events that took place in the evil Overlook Hotel and resorting alcoholism, like his father before him. What Flanagan does with the opening act of this story is expertly connect the dots from The Shining all the way to Doctor Sleep, so by the time you’re 20 minutes in, it feels like you never left this world. The story here is constantly moving, constantly on its toes and constantly jumping between locations and characters as it develops at a rapid pace. It takes some adjusting early on to get acquainted with all the moving pieces, but once things start to gradually come together you simply can’t take your eyes off the screen.
This story is thrilling right from the outset. Flanagan phenomenally sets up a protagonist who you’re instantly rooting for and a villain who you despise from the moment you meet her and lets you watch as these two warring factions slowly but surely end up crossing paths. It’s a brutally intense that is shockingly unpredictable. At no point in this film could I see where it was going. I couldn’t even see 2 minutes ahead as it has you so focused on the now, that everything that happens is a genuine surprise. And as a massive fan of The Shining, I love that this sequel has retained that same unpredictability and shrouded every subsequent scene in total mystery. It’s absolutely the most rewarding film experience of the year as every second felt like a whole new adventure.
One cannot go any further without highlighting the score that I’m getting excited over just thinking about. The Newton Brothers helm the score here which is bone-chilling on its own, but when those first few notes of the classic Shining theme kick in I got genuine chills. Experiencing the score is just another layer to this already multilayered film.
No one could have helmed a sequel to The Shining better than Mike Flanagan. His talent when it comes to creating deeply unsettling and effective horror is almost unprecedented in this new era of modern horror. Alongside James Wan and maybe David F. Sandberg, he’s in my top 3 when it comes to modern horror directors. He crafts atmospheric and psychological horror better than most in the industry for a wholly original film or TV experience every time. This right here is phenomenal psychological horror. It’s not as steeped in the horror genre as The Shining as this takes a more contemplative and thought provoking approach to its story and how it scares you. That’s expected as it’s dealing with a protagonist who is trying to overcome some pretty traumatic psychological experiences.
But when it does want to emulate the same deeply horrifying tones as The Shining, it executes it to perfection. It’s hard to think someone could recreate an aura like what is felt while watching Kubrick’s timeless masterpiece but Flanagan captures that magic here. I described The Shining as a pressure cooker being pushed to its limit before shit hits the fan in the third act, the same can be said about what we have here. The tension is constantly building and the atmospheric scares get more and more intense until the third act releases that tension in explosive fashion. One thing that makes a truly phenomenal sequel is the ability for it positively impact its predecessor just as its predecessor sets it up. Doctor Sleep adds another layer to The Shining, so you can go back to Kubrick’s masterpiece and watch it under a slightly new light.
In a single word, Ewan McGregor is captivating! He jumps right into the shoes of an adult Dan Torrance and puts in a riveting performance that shines in every single scene. He disappears into the role and delves deep to really exhibit the internal struggles Dan is going through as he helps Abra fight her demons while still fighting his own. Not only does he carry scenes where he’s the focus but he shares a striking connection with the young Kyliegh Curran who plays Abra. When the two of them are on screen it’s hard not to be drawn in to their interactions as their chemistry is an absolute joy to watch. That says a lot about McGregor, but it says even more about Curran who steps into the spotlight here and may have just kickstarted her acting career in epic fashion.
One element of the film I was trepidatious about from the initial trailers was whether I would enjoy Rebecca Ferguson’s villain and whether I’d find her scary, or at the very least, interesting. Never mind that because as silly as the name Rose the Hat (A Stephen King special) may be, she is surprisingly immensely enjoyable to watch and just the right amount of terrifying. I love that she’s not just a plain evil villain with a maniacal laugh. There’s some depth to her character; she’s got an agenda, she’s got things she genuinely cares about and theres some emotional vulnerability there which is rare to see in a lead villain. I mentioned earlier about this entire story focusing on two sides coming together, Rebecca Ferguson being one of those sides. As a result, she gets a lot of screen-time, much more than I thought we’d get, and because Ferguson puts in such a strong and menacing performance I enjoyed watching her story unfold just as much as our protagonists.
Ferguson shares a great relationship with some of the supporting cast, specifically Zahn McClarnon (Crow Daddy) and Emily Alyn Lind (Snakebite Andi) which really makes her story arc even more engaging. Speaking of the supporting cast, you can’t go past the presence of Cliff Curtis who has a number of shorter scenes as Billy Freeman, but makes a memorable impact in the long run. One thing I do want to highlight is how Flanagan likes to give actors he has worked with in the past roles in his newer films. I love that quality in a director and it shows here with Carel Struycken, Bruce Greenwood, Violet McGraw, Robert Longstreet and Catherine Parker all making appearances in varying capacities.
It’s safe to say that as a massive fan of The Shining, Doctor Sleep has delivered on all fronts. This really is a masterpiece of modern horror from the combined minds of Mike Flanagan and Stephen King. I’ve been so swept away by the incredible performances, phenomenal story and effective psychological horror that I’ve forgotten to highlight just how beautiful this film is. Not only does this follow The Shining in terms of the story and the tone, but visually. Flanagan sticks as closely to the way Kubrick shot his classic film as he can and makes you feel like you’re back in that world even if none of the relevant characters are on screen. It really is the complete package where aside from a brief adjusting to the constant jumping between stories in the first act, I have no real quarrels with how this turned out. If you are a fan of The Shining, be it the book or the film, or just a psychological horror fan in general, I feel like there something in here for everyone.