Film Review | Doctor Sleep: Oh Danny boy, the ghosts, the ghosts are calling

The Haunting of Hill House’s Mike Flanagan gets his slice of the Stephen King cinematic renaissance pie with a fun any pacy slice of horror with a late-hour sequel that draws on both the source material and the King-hated Kubrick classic, The Shining

Published in 2013, Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep presented itself as a late-in-the-game sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining, which left a far wider cultural stamp thanks to the 1980 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick. And while King is certainly no stranger to adaptation – he is experiencing something of a multi-platform renaissance in that regard, of late – The Shining is so far the only book of his to be transferred to the big screen by an undeniable titan of cinema, Kubrick’s standing in the cinematic hall of fame being long assured by now.

However, King sees it in far less flattering terms, having infamously gone on record with his active dislike of Kubrick’s typically icy take his otherwise emotionally wrought and paranormally-specific tale of alcoholic writer Jack Torrance, who is given a job as a caretaker of the secluded Overlook Hotel during off-season, stringing his young wife Wendy and son Danny along for what becomes a fight for survival after he succumbs to the demonic calls of the Overlook’s many ghosts and turns murderous psychopath.

Fast-forward a few years later, and Danny (Ewan McGregor) is an adult still struggling to shake off his father’s toxic legacy. He does appear to have dealt with the pesky and enduring presence of the Overlook’s ghosts, with the celestial help of the posthumous presence of its chef, Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly, masterfully mimicking Scatman Crothers’s performance and mannerisms from the Kubrick original).

But the very real spectre of alcoholism lingers on, and finally drives Danny away to a small town in New Hampshire, where he begins to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and look for odd jobs, one of them being that of an orderly in an old people’s home, where his paranormal ability to ‘shine’ helps dying patience shuffle restfully off the mortal coil – an ability that gains him the titular monicker ‘Doctor Sleep’.

But his abilities also alert him to the presence of another of his kind, a young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who is in turn being made to witness child-snatching atrocities by the ‘True Knot’, a band of ‘psychic vampires’ led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her team of near-immortals on a warpath to capture, kill and drain all the kids who ‘shine’. It now falls to Abra and Danny to stop them, though the latter appears to be more keen to keep his head down lest old demons resurface to devour him.

Moving at a steady-enough clip despite its various time-jumps forward, Mike Flanagan’s adaptation does one better on the misjudged IT: Chapter II – the previous large-scale King adaptation of the year – by leaning into the adventure side of things in favour of contriving grotesquerie and jump scares at every available opportunity. With their nomadic lifestyle and ‘evil gypsy’ trappings, the members of the True Knot are more Ray Bradbury than Stephen King, and their presence lends a refreshing aura of dark fantasy to the experience, making a bona fide quest narrative out of Danny and Abra’s reluctant partnership.

It’s an approach that will only further alienate a certain section of horror fandom who scoff at ‘15-rated horror’, which keeps the blood and body count relatively low and does not succumb to total nihilism. However they may still be amused by the obvious call-backs to Kubrick’s original, unless they deem such efforts as tacky pastiche, or all-out sacrilege.

Whichever side of the debate one leans on, it’s difficult to deny that Flanagan crafts a fun ride that doesn’t skimp on the human element, effectively course-correcting what King deemed to be the biggest blunder of the Kubrick adaptation. It’s hard to imagine that his impressive handling of the Netflix family-horror ensemble that was Haunting of Hill House did not contribute to him being hired for Doctor Sleep, and it pays off.

He’s certainly helped along by a couple of great performances from its duelling leads. McGregor is unassuming and likeable throughout: a convincing portrayal of a broken man who just wants to do his best. And the always-enchanting Ferguson – a dark diamond of the latter-day Mission Impossible franchise – has a blast hamming it up as the leader of a vampire-cum-witches’ coven, but she modulates her performance into something resembling a maternal register in key moments, adding a delicately diabolical twist of the knife that is bound to stick in the memory.

The verdict

Far more a product of earnest Stephen King fandom than a bona-fide sequel to Kubrick’s classic (an adaptation notoriously despised by King himself) Doctor Sleep leans into the teenage-friendly genre trappings that its pacy plot affords, and a delicate and un-showy performance by McGregor helps secure some likeable humanity for our beleaguered protagonist as he faces demons both old and new, both supernatural and banal.