That Doctor Sleep is even passable is amazing. That it's quite good is a small miracle. The Shining is one of the most iconic and celebrated horror movies of the last 40 years, even though it got mixed reviews at the time and Stephen King famously hated it. In adapting King's follow-up novel while remaining reverent of Stanley Kubrick's classic film, writer-director Mike Flanagan had to walk an extremely fine line. But the man has been knocking it out of the park for years now, including Gerald's Game, one of the very best King adaptations.
Ewan McGregor plays the adult Dan Torrance, coping with the unimaginable trauma of seeing your father try to kill you and your mom while possessed by the spirit of an evil hotel. That would take a lot of therapy to even be a functional adult, but Dan chose his dad's perennial demon: alcohol. For the first half-hour, the film plays more like another shockingly good sequel: T2 Trainspotting. But the film also spends too much time setting up the cult led by Rose (Rebecca Ferguson) that feeds on people that shine, and Abra, an extremely powerful young girl. But once the film leaps ahead eight years, with a now-sober Dan and a teenage Abra, it's thrilling and terrifying.
Structurally, Doctor Sleep couldn't be more different from The Shining. It's a lot more episodic and modern than the slow-burn mood piece of the original. But like Kubrick, Flanagan gets that this is a film about addiction and abuse, and the demonic powers are just a manifestation of that. One seen featuring Jacob Tremblay (Good Boys) is particularly upsetting.
Flanagan also makes a crucial decision that was likely dictated by budget, but feels like a radical artistic choice: Instead of re-purposing old footage, or CGI de-aging or compositing for flashbacks, he simply casts actors who resemble Shelley Duvall, Jack Nicholson and Danny Lloyd. It's actually less distracting and more effective than any of those other options.
McGregor is good as usual, but it's the ladies who really stand out. Rebecca Ferguson plays Rose with the right mix of seductiveness and menace, and Kyliegh Curran handles her first major role with the polish of a veteran actor, alternately vulnerable and powerful with a dark streak. And I'm always happy to see Cliff Curtis (Hobbs & Shaw) and Zahn McClarnon (Westworld) on my screen.
It may be a week late, but Doctor Sleep is the scary movie we deserved for Halloween.