DOCTOR SLEEP (2019, Mike Flanagan)
Ewan McGregor plays grown-up Danny Torrance exactly like he should — which is as a cross between his compassionate but fearful and tortured mother Wendy and his alcoholic, violent and dangerous father Jack. Similarly, Flanagan directs this Shining sequel with two disparate DNAs: half is indebted to Kubrick’s one-of-a-kind classic, and the other is linked to King’s outsized imagination dependent on allusions both religious and supernatural.
Take the Overlook, for example. In King’s book of The Shining, it blows up, and a safe Wendy and Danny move to Florida. In Kubrick’s film, the Overlook thrives post-Jack’s-death, enveloping his spirit into the hotel with the rest. So what does Flanagan do? He starts off the movie with Wendy and Danny in Florida per King, but leaves the Overlook in tact, per Kubrick. (And that allows him to do all sorts of Kubrick cosplay, re-casting young Danny and Wendy [complete with identical voices], reshooting the big wheel, the carpet, the creepy girls, Room 237’s ghosts, the blood gushing from the elevator, and even the office Jack — and now Danny — sat in for job interviews; not since Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE has a modern film been so reliant on what Kubrick lent to the cinematic zeitgeist). Eventually, however, the unchecked impulses that have marred King’s later work (absent the merciless editing, edgy danger, and bone-dry humor of his early masterpieces like Cujo and Thinner) rear their heads here, and Flanagan can barely keep all the plates spinning together.
There’s the go-nowhere subplot of Danny (Dan, now that he’s an adult!) working in a hospice center and, along with an ominous cat, ushering the elderly to the afterlife (and granting the movie its title). There’s the relationship between Dan and Abra (her actual name! Short for Abracadabra for real!), a tweener with The Shining whose powers are vaguely superhero-ish — broadly powerful and undefined — in a way Danny never was in the earlier works. And strangest of all is the cabal of hippie vampires led by Rebecca Ferguson, who kidnap kids with Shining and use them as human vape pens to inhale their powers in steam form, which they keep in martini shakers in Ferguson’s RV. I guess they’re… “Vape-ires?”
Flanagan’s career breakthrough was the horrifying OCULUS, both visually scary and emotionally soulful in its examination of grief. But since 2016, he’s been working at such a rapid pace that his characteristic shtick (ruminations on loss and family dressed in horror-movie outfits) is starting to wear thin. In the past three years he’s released HUSH, OUJI 2, BEFORE I WAKE, GERALD’S GAME, the impressive 10+-hour opus THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (season 1, with season 2 forthcoming), and now this. Each one has a different take on grief and trauma, but each one is also photographed by Michael Fimognari, who is developing an annoying digital look drenched in soft blue low-contrast light, color-timed within an inch of its sallow life. DOCTOR SLEEP suffers from the same look, separating it even further from Kubrick and Alcott’s striking celluloid sight. And while he’s always careful to be faithful to King (GERALD’S GAME was maybe too faithful), Flanagan is so much more interested in the subtext that the movie lacks genuine scares. There are striking moments, but they’re devoid of unhinged danger. It’s slick, professional, and maximal, but doesn’t burrow into your brain. I never said that about Kubrick’s film, and I definitely never said that about any Stephen King book written through at least the early ’90s.