William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That quote resonates when applied to The Shining. The past manifests itself through the Overlook Hotel, whose ghosts and ghouls come alive as the traditional family breaks down, while each character, especially Jack Torrance, carries around personal trauma that they can’t quite shake. Fast forward nearly 40 years later and we have Doctor Sleep, directed by Mike Flanagan, a film where Danny Torrance’s (Ewan McGregor) anguish is front and center, while the film itself is in conversation with the legacy of Kubrick’s masterpiece and both of King’s novels. Flanagan has crafted an intertextual work, while at the same time creating a compelling narrative that explores trauma and addiction.
Photo Courtesy of Warner BrosThe opening minutes are a nod to Kubrick’s masterpiece, beginning with a sweeping long-shot reminiscent of the type of camera angels used at the beginning The Shining when Jack (Jack Nicholson) drives to the Overlook for his job interview. Similar jagged percussion music is heard, resembling Kubrick’s score, which is used later in the film for a brief period when Danny returns to the Overlook for the climax. During the first few scenes, we see how the events at the hotel impacted a young Danny (Roger Dale Floyd), who rarely talks and has flashbacks of the woman in room 237 rising from the bathtub, her bloated body dripping bathwater. His mother, Wendy (Alex Essoe), is essentially powerless in helping her child cope. Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) teaches Danny to deal with the past by locking it away in a mental box so it can no longer hurt him. In other words, bury the past.
Yet, in recreating certain scenes from The Shining with different actors, Flanagan shows us that the past can’t be tucked away so easily, including the legacy of The Shining.
This point is reinforced even more when the movie shifts in time and a grown-up Danny mirrors his father’s sins by chugging bottles of whiskey, getting into bar brawls, and repeating his father’s phrases, especially “take your god damn medicine,” as he bludgeons a bar patron until his knuckles are bloody and bruised. Eventually, Danny sobers up, moves to New Hampshire, and makes some new friends, including clear-eyed Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) and Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran), a young girl whose shine is so powerful that she draws the attention of the vampiric group the True Knot, an ancient clan who feed on people with the gift.
Led by the riveting Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the group spends much of the film chasing her. As far as villains go, the True Knot work well. From the moment Rose is introduced in a Maria/Frankenstein-like scene, the clan evokes dread whenever they’re on screen. One particular scene involving a child they kidnap is both gruesome and nerve-rattling. They’re also a terrifying representation of addiction, especially when they swarm over a body as its lifeforce is drained so they can feed on the shine. They grow more threatening the hungrier they are, doing whatever they can for a fix.
The rest of the film spends its time fleshing out the characters and developing the relationship between Danny and Abra, who is especially endearing, thanks to Curran’s performance. The scenes where she goes toe to toe with Rose, setting mental traps for her, are some of the best in the film, until the characters reach the Overlook Hotel for a final showdown. When the percussion music returns and Danny’s car inches up the snowy mountains, we’re treated to the type of climax that’s well-earned after a gradual build up.
*Light Spoilers Ahead*
Danny walks through the carpeted hallways, passing the elevator that gushed blood and the bathroom where his father tried to murder his mother with an axe. During these scenes, Flanagan uses some original Kubrick footage but uses new actors to bring the past into the present, including what may be the film’s best scene, when Danny has a seat at the famous bar, only to be met by his father, grinning down at him, urging him to take his “medicine” and drink. The back and forth dialogue enlivens the hotel, as Jack bemoans the struggles he had trying to support his family and how alcohol dulled the pain while Danny lets his old man know the torment he put his family through. Here McGregor, center frame, really shines in delivering some of the film’s best dialogue that allows Danny to cope with years of baggage. Finally, he lays into his old man for causing years of anguish and turmoil. On the flip side, in an earlier scene, Danny acknowledges his father’s struggle to get sober during an AA meeting. Doctor Sleep reminds us that everyone has both light and darkness, and in the case of Jack Torrance, those forces can be at war with each other.
The film builds to a decent crescendo, complete with cameos by some of the hotel’s most famous ghosts, including the Grady twins, but at its core, Doctor Sleep isn’t trying to recreate the most iconic scenes in Kubrick’s film. Instead, like Flanagan’s take on The Haunting of Hill House, it’s more interested in addressing how we carry the wounds of the past and how we deal with them in the present. That’s also the theme most resonant in both of King’s novels. For some, Doctor Sleep may be too slow-moving and lacking enough scenes at the Overlook. However, the hotel and its ghosts are paramount in the film, always present in their own way. Danny carries them with him every time he struggles with the bottle or when he hears his father’s chilling words echoing in his head. Flanagan has other interesting characters to work with, especially Rose and Abra. Their back and forth battles push the narrative forward until its eventual conclusion at the ghostly Overlook.
Instead of trying to recreate The Shining, a film that carries immense weight and legacy within the genre and pop culture in general, Flanagan gives us new characters to root for, pulled from the pages of King’s sequel, while exploring trauma through Danny’s evolution, or Uncle Dan, as Abra lovingly calls him. Flanagan creates several solid scares for the horror hounds and uses tilted camera angles to bring the uncanny to the surface, but generally, Doctor Sleep is a character-driven film that takes its time returning to the Overlook. The long journey across several states is enjoyable, as we learn about these new characters and get to know Danny in the present. Doctor Sleep is a worthy sequel to The Shining, both the film and text, and at the same time, it is its own film. It manages to exist within the present, acknowledging the past without being shackled to it.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.