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Doctor Sleep (15)

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Dave Callaham
Rhett Reese

Starring: Rebecca FergusonEwan McGregorCarel Struycken

Review: David Stephens

Consistently voted by various polls in various years as providing the “scariest” film/scene/children/nude-scene/whatever, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) left an indelible mark upon the history of cinematic horror. Even Spielberg included a major homage (and plot-point) to the film in the hugely enjoyable “Ready Player One” recently. But know who wasn’t a fan? (And most horror fans do). Stephen King, the best-selling writer of the original novel. Whatever your opinion of that film, it was still a masterclass in filmmaking and a hard act to follow. But follow it King did, in 2013 when he published “Doctor Sleep”, a bona fide sequel to his original tale which followed troubled young Danny Torrance into adulthood. The current renaissance of King’s work at the cinema and on streaming channels has made the appearance of this film adaptation the complete opposite of a “huge surprise”. However, like “Gerald’s Game”, this is another King-based film to come from Mike Flanagan, a genre director who has barely put a foot wrong in the last few years and (arguably) already created the horror highlight of last year with his superlative take on “The Haunting of Hill House”. So here now in the UK (and next week in US cinemas) is the film which is a cinematic adaptation of the book, as well as a direct movie sequel to the Kubrick film. And YGROY took a look to see if it shines with greatness, or didn’t do Jack for us…

It starts in 1980, but not in the Overlook Hotel. Instead, we see another youngster with “The Shining” fall prey to an uncertain fate. Following this, we catch up with young Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) having survived the axe attack by his father, along with his mother Wendy (Alex Essoe, a dead-ringer with Shelley Duvall’s nervy angst). He’s still dealing (literally) with his demons from the Overlook hotel, but advice from an old friend sees him overcome them. Flash forward to millennium years and Danny is now older (and played by Ewan McGregor), but has basically become a barfly, being permanently pissed or stoned to deal with his memories and “gift”. However, when he’s given a second chance in a sleepy US town, he regains a purpose for living. This is useful because he becomes a long-distance mentor to Abra Stone (an excellent Kyliegh Curran), a young girl with powers as great as his own. She needs his help because a group of would-be immortals called “The True Knot” are hunting down kids like her and consuming their life-force (or “steam”), and the leader (Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat) is NOT going to take “would you kindly sod-off madam?” as a valid response.

Hopefully, most sensible horror fans aren’t expecting “The Shining Part II: Axe to the Future”, because that’s not what this is about. As a self-stated fan of both King’s novels and Kubrick’s film, Flanagan had the tricky task of following up an iconic piece of genre cinema. And to be fair, he’s made an admirable job on honouring both sources. But whereas “The Shining” was undeniably mostly an exercise in dread and atmosphere, “Doctor Sleep” is more of a dark-fantasy (like “Firestarter” or “The Dead Zone”), and a character study with a satisfying narrative thread. That’s not to say that there aren’t some real moments of horror, or that Flanagan doesn’t homage the original film and then add his own twists… because there is and he does. And for those that have read the original novel, the plot differs significantly in several major ways. So don’t sit in your cinema seat and feel smug. There’s still a ride ahead of you.

It helps that both McGregor and Ferguson give top-of-their-game performances. McGregor gives one of the most subdued-but-layered characterisations that he’s offered, which is a mile away from the more “showy” characters of “Fargo” for instance. And it’s absolutely perfect for the adult Danny, with the angst and depth that he needs to show. This is bolstered with a great turn by Ferguson, which is also atypical to her more recent roles. Her “Rose” is actually pretty charming and rogue-ish, with terms of endearment effortlessly dripping from her lovely lips, until you actually realise the depths to which she stoops to in order to survive and that she doesn’t have an ounce of compassion in her body. It’s a very nuanced take on the character, and it’s crucial that you feel a certain way about her (and her “True Knot” chums) for the narrative to work well. Also overlooked (hah!) in early reviews is the performance by relative newcomer Curran, who is tremendously strong and challenging as the current “Shining” adolescent champ, and a fine next-gen version of Danny.

It’s a relatively long experience (over 2 ½ hours) and so takes its time with the measured scares and tension. But the fact that it doesn’t “feel” like an overlong film or slog speaks volumes. Up until the climax, there’s not a huge amount of scare tactics, but there is a certain scene that is both important to the narrative and even slightly hard to watch, as it wrenches some real terror out of a situation, especially for a (UK) “15” rated film. Expect the Daily Mail to start a campaign against the movie. But it’s hugely significant to the plot and cements the reputation of the “True Knot” gang as a formidable bunch of moral-free assholes. No wonder Abra says “I hope it hurts” to a certain character. You’ll be nodding in agreement. As far as further genre influences go, expect more of Flanagan’s subtle camera-play, joined to the hip with plenty of referential nods to Kubrick. So there are plenty of; overhead shots, THAT dirge on the soundtrack, constant heartbeats, recreated sequences (Wendy cowering in the bathroom) and re-edited original scenes (the blood-fall from the elevator). Also expect some of the Director’s trippy visual style. The standout scene visually is Rose astral-projecting into the stratosphere, like a sinister Peter Pan with murderous intent.

We liked this. A lot. Like some other very belated sequels (think “Psycho II” and “Blade Runner 2049”), it has enough of its own identity and invention to stand alone, although it’s never going to reach the same level of fandom as the original. To his credit, Flanagan brings back some old “favourites” but doesn’t use CG-enhanced methods to do so. It’s just quality modern actors (like Alex Essoe) making some good approximations of the originals. (Don’t worry, we won’t spoil further). It’s also missing all the unnecessary analogy baggage from Kubrick’s original (moon landings, Native American massacres, etc.). Here, the main message is using your uniqueness for the greater good and not wasting your inherent gifts. This is coupled with the massively different way in which people treat their fear of mortality and death, with some letting it pervert their sense of morality. Simples. In essence, whilst it won’t have the same impact at the cinema as its predecessor, it’s a really cool and effective love-letter to the cinematic stylings of Kubrick and the literary imagination of King. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Flanagan continues to impress. Recommended.

“Doc Sleep” is a different kettle of scares to the Kubrick film and changes King’s material in several key ways. But Flanagan does a fine job with the story which flies between dark-fantasy, horror-film homage, and genuine nastiness. Surprisingly strong in places, the performances from the leads (especially McGregor, Ferguson, and Curran) help it cling to your brain. It won’t be remembered as a modern-day classic, but it is a very strong follow-up and highly recommended.
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