The further a Stephen King adaptation gets from the source material, the better the movie. This goes for Brian DePalma’s reincarnation of Carrie, Rob Reiner’s unearthing of The Body (Stand By Me) and Misery, and especially for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. A favorite among horror buffs, Kubrick’s masterpiece traps audiences in a maze of mystical images and hysterical performances. Despite the films’ success, King wasn’t happy with the way Kubrick traded his warm tone for cold atmosphere. In trying to keep fans of both happy, director Mike Flanagan takes a melded approach, and the result is a lukewarm sequel.
Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall weren’t available to reprise their roles as parents, but Flanagan does bring back two of the main characters. The Overlook Hotel is still peering through the mountain clouds, and Danny Torrance is still riding his tricycle through the halls. Accompanied by the pounding organ of Pope Gregory’s “Dies Irae,” for a second it feels as if nothing has changed since the 1980 classic.
But think again. Now, the memory of running from his lunatic father in the hotel is nothing more than a picture on the wall as seen in flashbacks to Danny (Ewan McGregor), who’s in his 40s. His life today is even more of a mess; he’s an alcoholic like his dad was, jobless and subsisting in New Jersey. That all changes when Danny’s “shine” suggests a move to New Hampshire, where he makes a friend at AA (Cliff Curtis). He can’t avoid pain for long, though. Like the King novel of the same name, Doctor Sleep is about how a ghastly past can come back to haunt the present.
McGregor recalls a young Donald Sutherland here, his understated panic not unlike Sutherland’s in Klute and Don’t Look Now. And his character has every right to be worried. A psychic cult lead by Rose (Rebecca Ferguson) feasts on the souls of those who shine. One memorable scene sees the cult members descending on a child’s corpse like moths fiending for light.
But novel scenes are few and far between here. Flanagan admitted prior to shooting that he’s “no Kubrick.” So it’s odd that he spends so much of the run time attempting to copy, frame by frame, famous moments from The Shining. Shot on a sound stage in Atlanta, audiences will once again get to see blood pouring out of elevators and the hexagonal carpets originally fashioned by interior designer David Hicks. But there’s nothing new, and that’s the problem with sequels these days — their writers are as repetitive as a possessed Nicholson at the typewriter. There’s a lack of fresh ideas, and without adding new ingredients, these leftovers expire the second they leave cinemas, never to be seen again.
Still, Flanagan does breathe some life into this dead corpse of a script. While most horror directors build tension, this one builds tone. As in his hit show on Netflix, The Haunting of Hill House, the director makes environment-building his priority, crafting an epic with the claustrophobia of a chamber piece. Since the bad guys can tap into people’s minds from across the country, Danny, despite being thousands of miles away from trouble, doesn’t feel safe enough to sleep.
No one is losing more sleep than Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran). She’s a little girl with tremendous powers, the perfect target for Rose. That’s when Danny comes to the rescue, luring Rose to the Overlook Hotel in hopes that he can kill the demons of his past and present.
“Dare to go back” read the posters, and for those looking for fan service, going back is all they could ask for. Those excited to see the latest Mike Flanagan film will leave disappointed. The same way Marlon Brando hired Kubrick to direct One-Eyed Jacks, only to fire him once Kubrick set everything up, Flanagan steals the maestros’ original vision without adding anything new. Even if Flannagan is talented enough to master the dolly shots, zoom-outs and set designs, what’s impossible to mime is that larger-than-life atmosphere, the overwhelming feeling that comes from great story-telling. When a director gets it backwards, assuming the closer to the source material the better, the result is just redrum.