Upon its release in 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” polarized critics. In fact, at the first-ever Golden Raspberry Awards, not only did Shelley Duvall compete for Worst Supporting Actress but so, too, did Kubrick for Worst Director.
But, like the majority of Kubrick’s films, it was only a matter of time before “The Shining” became a classic. Modern reappraisals of the film are overwhelmingly positive; in 2019, there’s hardly a soul unfamiliar with its iconic lines or its infamous locale.
However, even 40 years later there remains one critic steadfast in his disdain: “Shining” author Stephen King. The king of horror famously despised Kubrick’s film for its countless creative liberties; its status today as a beloved adaptation only rubs salt in the wound. So in 2013 King published “Doctor Sleep,” a sequel to “The Shining” meant to reclaim the story for himself. Now, six years later, we have “the major motion picture.”
Director Mike Flanagan (“Oculus,” “Hush,” fellow King adaptation “Gerald’s Game”) is no Stanley Kubrick, but his catalog in the horror genre has nevertheless generated a small but spoken following. And to be fair, “Doctor Sleep” is at its best when he’s let off his leash (the “astral projection” sequence, in particular, is a sight to behold.) The only problem is that Flanagan wastes the majority of the film on an impossible task: juggling the expectations of King with the legacy of Kubrick. And no matter your preference, “Doctor Sleep” ultimately disappoints.
In retrospect, maybe King didn’t hate “The Shining” because it was a “bad movie” but because his and Kubrick’s styles are fundamentally incompatible. King’s fondness for dense, sometimes silly mythology and the stoic, interpretive qualities of Kubrick feel like opposite ends of the same spectrum, and in its attempts to bridge that gap “Doctor Sleep” plays like a cinematic identity crisis. References to the original never evolve beyond fan service; on the other hand, the new story often feels unsuited for the first. Think “2001” versus “2010”; “It: Chapter One” versus “It: Chapter Two.” The best King adaptations strip his stories to the bone, but “Doctor Sleep” wades too far into the deep end.
That being said, there are plenty of compelling components to “Doctor Sleep,” and many are of King’s own making. The film follows an adult Danny Torrance (a solid Ewan McGregor) just as he’s hit rock bottom. He’s an unemployed alcoholic, still haunted by the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel. The story begins right as he forms a connection with Abra (Kyliegh Curran in a breakout role), a young girl who “shines” just as strong — if not stronger — than himself. What’s more, a crazed cult led by “Rose the Hat” (a deliciously sinister Rebecca Ferguson) is fast on their trail, hoping to feed off of Abra’s psychic abilities in order to live forever.
On paper, that sounds like a pulpy good time, and in all fairness, some of it is. But never do these characters or their stories feel like extensions of “The Shining.” Instead they feel tacked on, as if King himself could tell the book wouldn’t sell without them.
Perhaps I’m too keen to compare “Doctor Sleep” to its predecessor. But can you blame me? Kubrick’s silent, spine-chilling atmosphere has been replaced with skullcrusing dialogue; his revolutionary steadicam cinematography with a bland, blue-green hue; genuine horror with an occasional thrill. I get it: “Let it stand on its own!” And sure, as a separate Stephen King adaptation, the film would be passable. But as it stands today, “Doctor Sleep” is guilty by association. 5/10
This review was originally published on November 15, 2019 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.