The tension between Stephen King’s 1977 novel “The Shining” and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation has lingered for decades, from King’s disdain for the movie to its legion of fans who obsess over every Easter egg in the frame. Mike Flanagan’s “Doctor Sleep” is a literary reckoning that enters into the center of that battlefield, attempting an ambitious homage to Kubrick and King as well as an adaptation of King’s own “Shining” sequel, while proving why — as King himself has said many times — the original book and movie never could click.
With his superb Netflix series “Haunting of Hill House” and previous King adaptation “Gerald’s Game,” Flanagan proved himself adept at combining genuine pathos with deep-seated dread. “Doctor Sleep” musters a similar combination with an intriguing look at intergenerational addiction and childhood fears, stuffed into an alluring gothic horror landscape. But the idea of following haunted “Shining” alcoholic Jack Torrance’s offspring Dan Torrance (a superb Ewan McGregor), grown up and struggling with internal and external demons alike, always feels like something of a stunt.
Part of that has to do with King’s own oddball narrative, which finds Dan teaming up with wide-eyed 10-year-old Abra (newcomer Kyliegh Curran) who shares his supernatural abilities as they take on a gang of soul-sucking murderers. But “Doctor Sleep” never manages to find the balance its cinematic high-wire act demands. This peculiar muddle of a movie stuffs the material of a vivid horror-fantasy saga into King’s blunter storytelling instincts, adding cheeky Kubrick nods wherever it can slot them in. Flanagan’s considerable talents work best on their own terms, but aside from a handful of stunning visual tangents, “Doctor Sleep” never escapes the labyrinthine shadows of its predecessors.
And in this 150-minute curiosity, they loom large. Diehard fans of “The Shining” may already consider the very idea of “Doctor Sleep” as sacrilege, King’s blessing or not, but the sequel is less desecration than paradox — equal parts homage, repudiation, and hokey death drama. It’s also a fascinating application of cultural memory in the service of storytelling, considering how much its central emotion mandates audience investment in the earlier events.
To that end, “Doctor Sleep” opens with its most sacrilegious move, in an extensive 1980 prologue unfolding not long after the climax of the original movie. In a high-minded act of cinematic chutzpah that at least gets points for effort, Flanagan actually casts actors who bear vague resemblances to the two survivors of “The Shining.” Jack Torrance is dead, frozen in the hedges outside the Overlook Hotel with the generations of lavish ghouls trapped there across generations, but poor Danny (Roger Dale Floyd) and Wendy (Alex Essoe) are adapting to a new life even as the telekinetic Danny continues to see dead people. The decision to use lookalikes at once preys on audiences having only the vaguest recollections of Danny Lloyd and Shelley Duvall in the original and creates a bizarre dissociative effect for anyone who remembers exactly what they look like (think uncanny valley with a sweded twist).
Fortunately, the movie only lingers in this time period long enough for Danny to find an antidote for his nightmarish malady, thanks to phantom guide Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), the ill-fated Overlook chef of “The Shining” whose own shining talents guide Danny into a deeper understanding of his ability. After a quick park bench discussion, Danny gets the gist: When the creepy bathroom lady who first assaulted him in the Overlook’s Room 237 surfaces in their new home, Danny uses a mind trick to lock her inside his head. This coda — taken directly from the novel — epitomizes King’s ability to find entrancing metaphors for deeper psychological concerns. Obviously, Danny can only bury his ghosts for so long before they come back to haunt him.
And so the movie flashes forward to 2011, as the drug-addled adult Dan Torrance careens through empty affairs and hits the bottle wherever he can. Eventually escaping to a small town to get clean, he meets a sympathetic soul (Cliff Curtis) who gives him free room and board while looping him into local AA sessions. Of course, present-day Danny gets cleaned up just as the situation around him gets especially messy, but this prolonged second chapter practically works as straight addiction drama — and it’s one of his most sincere, fragile performances in recent memory.
But it’s also paired with the setup for the movie’s eventual new threat: an itinerant group of murderers known as The True Knot, led by the menacing Rose (Rebecca Ferguson in femme fatale mode), who roam small towns murdering people with strong minds and devouring the cloudy essence that emerges from their deaths. Rose’s accomplices, including main squeeze The Crow (Zahn McClarnon) and new recruit Andi (Emily Alyn Lind) could easily anchor a standalone King story loaded with devious potential. But King’s original decision to shoehorn them into “Doctor Sleep” is a puzzling choice that remains off-putting here, as the grindhouse monstrosities upend a subtler mood piece that never resettles once they overtake the plot.
Still, The True Knot remain a chilly and effective creation, cut from the same cloth as the ruthless family killers of “The Devil’s Rejects” but with more daunting powers. Flanagan gives them one truly horrific sequence involving the murder of an innocent child (a random cameo from “Room” breakout Jacob Tremblay) that forms one of the most harrowing moments in any American movie this year. (The idea that the True Knot “eat screams and drink fear,” as one character puts it, takes on a shocking literal manifestation.)
Those circumstances reach across the country and into the mind of young Abra, who shines like Dan and emits enough powerful energy for Rose to pick up her scent. At the same time, Abra manages to find a mental pathway to Dan, forming a curious telepathic relationship with him that never quite finds its center. Regardless, their dopey team-up eventually turns into a road trip, as “Uncle Dan” (as Abra decides to call him) inhabits the paternal role that has eluded him since his own dad went bonkers long ago.
Flanagan excels at ambitious montages and misdirection, mustering one beguiling dream sequence in which Rose and Abra face off in a nighttime suburbia that recalls the powerful “Ballad of the Bent-Neck Lady” episode of “The Haunting.” But once the movie circles back to The Overlook Hotel for a prolonged half-hour climax, the whole endeavor collapses into cliché. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s wry Overlook recreation in “Ready Player One,” the spooky hotel has been relegated into an empty backdrop for an aimless application of the cliché Roger Ebert termed “The Fallacy of the Talking Killer,” and the callbacks to Kubrick ring false throughout. While his version of “The Shining” was a tapestry of visual sophistication, King’s novel had more of an internal quality, and Flanagan turns both sides of this equation into a superficial salute.
Even so, “Doctor Sleep” shows considerable effort to ingratiate itself to discerning cinephiles, from the moody Newton Brothers score to cinematographer Michael Fimognari’s dark blue nighttime palette; as a whole, the movie conjures an eerie and wondrous atmosphere that blends abject terror with a somber, mournful quality unique to Flanagan’s oeuvre. But his pandering to dueling source material results in a jagged puzzle beneath both of their standards.
The best filmic tribute to “The Shining” already exists in the form of Rodney Ascher’s documentary “Room 237,” a collection of conspiracy theories and fan worship that shows how viewers have been remaking this material with their own imaginations for years. “The Shining” didn’t need “Doctor Sleep,” but it does provide a reminder of why King and Kubrick remain among the most appealing mainstream storytellers of their generations. Any attempt to resurrect their work is bound to look meek by comparison, but it’s a welcome reminder of everything that made “The Shining” — both versions — so worthwhile in the first place.
Warner Bros. releases “Doctor Sleep” on in theaters on Friday, November 8.