‘Doctor Sleep’ has creepy moments, for sure. There’s an pervading sense of dread from a chockfull of suspenseful scenes of walking into dark corridors with an overbearing musical score to let you know something frightening might happen. There’s even one or two shocks and surprises but the film’s R-13 rating tells us that this Stephen King adaptation and sequel to the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation of King’s ‘The Shining’ is not going to be that gruesome, grotesque, or horrifying.
Writer and director Mike Flanagan seems more interested in the three intersecting stories of individuals with a special gift that one character, Danny Torrance, calls 'the shining' (hence the title of the book and the movie of the same name). The shining can be many things: astral projection, telepathy, illusions, and many other abilities. There’s an intricate world here and an order to things. The ghostly and horrific elements of ‘The Shining’ are a part of it, but ‘Doctor Sleep’ is more interested in the humans with the gift.
There’s Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who is trying to put his life back together after the events of ‘The Shining.’ He was but a child in that secluded hotel when his father went mad and tried to kill him and his mother. He’s turned into an alcoholic and at his lowest point, we see him finding his way into a small town in the east coast, asking for help from a stranger, and putting his life back together in Alcoholic’s Anonymous.
There’s Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl, whose shining is so strong it rivals that of Danny’s. It’s so strong, she manages to capture the interest of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her group, the True Knot.
The True Knot, under the leadership of Rose the Hat, are gifted people themselves but they seek out young boys and girls who have the shining (what they call 'steam') so they can murder them and take their steam to keep them young and powerful.
These three stories play out with Rose and Danny having the most of the scenes to truly flesh out their characters before they all come colliding into each other because of Abra’s growing power.
While ‘Doctor Sleep’ falls under the horror genre with its mood and cinematography and suspenseful moments and the constant threat of danger to our lead characters, director Mike Flanagan takes more time to build on this rich world of people with gifts. He gives us a feel of Rose the Hat’s community of what is essentially magical cannibals, and of Danny’s need for salvation and redemption as he is dealing with the trauma of his past and the alcoholism that came with it.
In fact, there are resonant themes in the use of the shining: how Danny hides away from it because it reminds him of his trauma, how Abra is careless with it like a child enjoying a newfound power, and how the True Knot hunger for it, like an addiction that consumes them and breaks their morality completely.
Despite all of its expensive Hollywood special effects to show off the mystical battles in the mind, at the very core of this seemingly horrifying tale, is a story about addiction and redemption and of not being able to let go. For Danny, the events are forcing him to face his past, while Rose the Hat has to face her need to stay young and live for as long as she can.
Because Abra is a power to behold, more powerful than Rose the Hat or Danny can fathom. It’s an interesting reversal that the villain is overpowered by her prey. It makes Rose the Hat not as menacing for an antagonist, but Ferguson is having a wonderful time playing her in all her seductive glory, brimming with the confidence of a mystic who has lived for so long that you keep your eyes on her all throughout the film.
Ewan McGregor, on the other hand, is hell-bent in really playing Danny on the edge, constantly about to relapse, and it’s this constant battle that keeps his character human.
Here, the shining is a powerful force, a metaphor for that which is special inside us all, and it can be addicting and it can frighten us that we would hide it away or be reckless with it, but it is ours and the movie asks us to embrace it. Find the light that is similar in others. It’s a bit literal and it can be in-your-face with that message, but it plays out well in the gloss and sheen of ‘Doctor Sleep.’
It’s more of a drama with mystical gifts that only keeps it in the horror genre by adhering to many of the genre’s conventions, though not fully committing to it. It could be more gory. It could be more horrifying and gruesome. But I don’t mind. I’m engaged with McGregor’s Danny and I’m captivated by Ferguson’s Rose the Hat. I like the world that Flanagan built using Stephen King’s characters and concepts. There’s a lot of tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining,’ which is a nice touch.
It’s not an all-out horror film, though, and it could have been. That’s my only real caveat.
Doctor Sleep opens in Philippine cinemas on Thursday, November 7, 2019. Find showtimes and book your tickets in advance!