When you go to a horror film you expect to be terrified, frightened, and maybe unable to sleep that night. It's not a classically empowering experience. Mike Flanagan's "Doctor Sleep" is nominally a horror movie, but its dynamics are more like those of a superhero narrative: You get to identify with someone strong who protects the weak and crushes the evil monsters.
As a sequel to Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," one of the most celebrated horror movies of all time, "Doctor Sleep" is both a disappointment and an education. It's not really horrifying. But it also shows that horror has often been less about scares, and more about providing its viewers with a pleasurable imaginative rush of power and control.
Mike Flanagan's "Doctor Sleep" is nominally a horror movie, but its dynamics are more like those of a superhero narrative.
"Doctor Sleep" is based on a 2013 novel by Stephen King, which was in turn a sequel to King's 1977 classic novel “The Shining.” The film version of "Doctor Sleep" draws on both books, and on the 1980 Kubrick film. It continues the story of Danny Torrance (played here by Ewan McGregor), the boy with psychic powers whose father, Jack Torrance, took a job as winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains. The hotel was haunted, Jack became possessed, and eventually died after unsuccessfully trying to murder his wife and child.
Forty years later, when the bulk "Doctor Sleep" is set, Dan meets a young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran). Like Dan, Abra has a psychic ability which they call a "shining." Abra is also being stalked by the villainous Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Rose is the leader of a group of peripatetic psychic vampires who eat the pain, fear and powers of shining children. (A bit over the top, you say? That's Stephen King for you.)
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Rose the Hat and her crew are frightening child killers. But they are also hopelessly outgunned from the start by Abra, whose powers include telepathy, telekinesis, psychic blasts and unwavering sangfroid. Supervillain Rose is tossed across grocery stores and has her hand mangled; her friends fare even worse. Abra keeps telling the vampires, "You deserve it!" after she hands them another painful, humiliating defeat. The reminder is needed, presumably, because without it the audience might start sympathizing with these sorry specimens.
Beating up on Rose and company is fun, but the real emotional payoff of "Doctor Sleep" comes in revisiting its famous predecessor. Dan, for somewhat obscure reasons, decides that fighting Rose at the old Overlook will give him an advantage. So he and Abra lure their enemy up to the mountains. That allows the filmmakers to place "Doctor Sleep's” final act in a reproduction of Kubrick's 1980s set.
"The Shining" featured a slew of iconic eerie images, and Flanagan lovingly if clumsily recreates as many of them as possible. This includes the ghost twins standing side by side in the Overlook hallway; the hedge maze in winter; the door to Room 237 slightly ajar; the naked woman in the bathroom slowly rising from the tub.
"Doctor Sleep" even brings in lookalike actors. Henry Thomas reproducing Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance is a high or low point, depending on your perspective. Either way, Dan walks through his past, which is also our past, a tour guide pointing out memories of an older, better movie. You may smile in appreciation along with Rose when the blood starts pouring out of the elevator. Or you may wonder, glumly, why you're sitting here watching this, when it's clear you and the filmmakers would rather be watching that.
The resurrection of "The Shining" isn't just an exercise in nostalgia, though. It's also a reading of the film. In "Doctor Sleep," the Overlook is a trap and a weapon, directed at the bad guys. So this time you're not scared of all those hungry ghosts in the corridor. You're rooting for them.
"Doctor Sleep" gets you on the side of the Overlook. And by doing so, it suggests that you were on the side of the Overlook all the time. The fun part of Kubrick's movie was always the merciless surrealism. Jack Torrance is a boring, corny nonentity before the demons get ahold of him. It's only when he's possessed that his eyebrows start to flex charismatically and he spews crazed, memorable lines like, "Heeerrrre's Johnny!"
Meanwhile, Kubrick doesn't give Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) much to do but cry and scream; she's hard to identify with and not much fun to watch. Are you really supposed to be trembling with the victims? Or are you supposed to marvel in Kubrick's sadistic ability to rig the universe against them? "The Shining" encourages you to gleefully stomp and cackle through the run time at the behest of the director who possesses you.
In this interpretation, then, "Doctor Sleep" is not a betrayal of Kubrick's film, but a perfection of it. No longer do you have to pretend you care about the Overlook's targets. Instead, you are provided with despicable villains, upon whom the film, the protagonists and the special effects department can unleash excesses of righteous violence in good conscience.
Abra, who can move objects with her mind and make her adversaries see what she wants them to see, is effectively a director herself, orchestrating the action right along with Flanagan. She's got the power of film, to make and remake the world, and force it to come out right. You get that power too, when you identify with her.
Who doesn't want the ability to reduce one's evil enemies to powder? Part of why horror is entertaining, or exhilarating, is that it shows you displays of impossible strength and violence. You can imagine yourself as the sympathetic, innocent target of that strength and violence. Or you can imagine yourself wielding it. Or, perhaps best of all, you can imagine that your innocent weakness gives you the right to inflict terror.
"The Shining" is brilliant in part because it successfully obscures these dynamics, encouraging you to identify with the hotel while telling yourself you identify with the menaced family. "Doctor Sleep," though, clumsily drops the mask, making it both more honest and less artful than its predecessor. You get to crush your enemies, openly, without pretending the hotel has taken you over.