Doctor Sleep Movie Review - Balancing Nostalgia And Terror

  • First Released Nov 8, 2019
  • movie

The world's a hungry place.

The idea of giving The Shining a sequel is, to put it mildly, pretty daunting. Sure, Stephen King himself may have done it back in 2013 when he published the novel Doctor Sleep, but given the place Stanley Kubrick's film occupies in horror mythology and the infamous rifts it caused between himself and King for the narrative liberties it took--well, let's just say that going back to check in with Danny Torrance on the big screen presents a considerably more complicated challenge than revisiting his story on paper.

So needless to say, if your gut reaction to the announcement that Doctor Sleep was indeed coming to big screens was a resounding "oh no," I get it. But, let me be among the first to tell you that, somehow, and against all odds, you don't actually need to worry. Writer/director Mike Flanagan (The Haunting Of Hill House) has pulled off what ought to have been impossible: Doctor Sleep is not only a good movie, it's also a fitting follow-up to both incarnations of The Shining.

Picking up in the immediate aftermath of the Torrance family's traumatic experience at The Overlook Hotel which ultimately cost father Jack Torrance his life, Doctor Sleep fast forwards through Danny's life until we meet him as an adult (Ewan McGregor). Now going by Dan, he unfortunately has followed in his alcoholic dad's footsteps. He's down on his luck and has steadfastly turned his back on his psychic abilities, aka his "shine," locking away that part of himself to keep the ghosts of his past (both literal and metaphorical) at bay. Things only begin to turn around for him when he meets an unlikely friend in Billy (Cliff Curtis), whose self-proclaimed "bleeding heart" (or potential shine) leads him to help Dan not only join AA, but rent a room and get a job as an orderly at a local hospice. It's the sort of rapid-fire string of coincidences that, in any other story, would seem out of place--but here, in a world populated by low-level psychics, it just feels like Dan's shine finally working for him rather than against him.

McGregor and Curtis's chemistry carries Dan's arc through his recovery. The two of them manage to imbue their respective roles with such warmth, heart, and honesty that Dan's transformation from down-on-his-luck addict to well-adjusted community staple feels not only natural but completely earned. Their friendship fits neatly into what has rapidly become one of Mike Flanagan's signatures in the horror genre: an unflinchingly earnest emotional center. If anything, Dan and Billy's friendship should have been given more screen time, even though what they were given certainly did the trick.

Things begin to go off the rails for Dan's quiet suburban life when he psychically connects to Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a teenage girl with a powerful shine all her own. Abra has unwittingly pinged the radar of The True Knot, a nomadic group of quasi-vampiric and/or demonic beings who feed on "steam," the psychic energy a person releases immediately after death. Their leader, Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), sees Abra as the potential solution to the True Knot's problems--a dwindling amount of good steam in the world, which poses a threat to their immortality. Without enough steam to "eat" (or breathe as the case may be) the True Knot will starve to death.

Ferguson is electric as Rose, gleefully riding the line between sympathetic matriarch and cold-blooded murderer. She plays off her fellow True Knot members with a twisted take on the warmth and connection seen between Dan and Billy. Sure, she has absolutely no qualms about brutally killing people--usually kids, who apparently have a purer steam--but Ferguson's charisma gives the entire True Knot a sort of romance and dimension that keeps them squarely out of stereotypical horror villain territory.

Similarly, Curran deftly avoids sinking Abra into the same psychic child tropes that were already explored in Danny back in the '80s. She is fearlessly accepting of her own powers and bravely willing to take matters into her own hands, sometimes to a fault. Once she and Dan finally connect in person, the movie levels up. Curran and McGregor play off one another brilliantly, adding yet another wonderfully crafted layer to the repeated motif of found families.

Throughout the first two-thirds of the movie, the specter of The Shining looms large but tactfully. Flanagan finds ways to evoke the ambiance and tone of the Kubrick film that never overstay their welcome with cleverly matched shots, sound design, and character cameos. Even the handful of early flashbacks to Dan's childhood manage to feel tasteful and appropriate. It's in the final 45 minutes or so that the balancing act starts to feel precarious, but by that time, the characters themselves will have you so hooked that you'll be willing to forgive the less-than-subtle nostalgia overload.

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The Good

  • Stellar ensemble cast
  • A strong, engaging emotional center
  • Manages to evoke both versions of The Shining in unexpected ways
  • The True Knot are incredible villains

The Bad

  • A comparatively weak third act

About the Author

Meg Downey is an associate entertainment editor at GameSpot. She likes superheroes and monsters in any combination.