The first thing you hear in Doctor Sleep is the chilling thrum of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s iconic synth-based score for The Shining. The motif has been re-recorded for Mike Flanagan’s long-awaited sequel, but it is unquestionably the same.
New yet familiar, an approach used for many a reboot, remake and rehash over the past few years. But, luckily, this latest Stephen King adventure is less of a nostalgic retread and more of a story in its own right.
Set years after Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) went bonkers and tried to hack his family to pieces, Doctor Sleep finds son Danny (Ewan McGregor) in a world of pain. Addicted to booze and drugs, the supernaturally powered grown-up has taken the opposite route to his long-dead pops – all play and no work. We watch as he stumbles from drunken bar-room brawl to late-night coke-fuelled hook-up, spooky spirits in hot pursuit.
There are more than a few nods to the Overlook Hotel throughout Doctor Sleep – and in this early section, the ‘old woman in the bathroom’ proves a bit of a nuisance. Popping up at the most inopportune moments (when Danny’s in bed with a one-night-stand, for example), the decrepit crone is just one of several spectres that continue to haunt our protagonist.
Elsewhere, a creepy cult (known as ‘The True Knot’ in King’s 2013 novel) preys on children with similar powers to Torrance. Eventually, an older and now-reformed Danny meets a young girl (Kyliegh Curran, in a stunning debut) who also “shines” – and together they resolve to take down the murderous gang.
There’s a lot of plot to explain in any review of Doctor Sleep. Stuffed with new storylines, as well as fan-service recreations from Kubrick’s original, Flanagan clearly didn’t want to dress up a reverential remake as a back-to-form sequel. Stuck between hardcore King-heads and studio execs desperate for The Shining 2.0, the horror veteran has managed to craft a gripping chase movie filled with enough easter eggs and clever references to keep fans satisfied. The word ‘Redrum’ is carved into chipped plaster at a halfway home, the door to room 237 creaks open once more and Danny peaks through the axe-cleaved crack in the Overlook’s bathroom door. Still not had your fill? There’s plenty more where that came from.
Likewise, the decision to recast Wendy and Jack Torrance in flashback scenes might have proved tricky. After all, you can’t really improve on Shelley Duval and Jack Nicholson’s iconic performances. Get it wrong and prepare for The Last Jedi levels of backlash. But get it right – as Flanagan largely does – and you’re whistling all the way back down the snow-covered mountain.
In terms of horror, Doctor Sleep often plays more as an adventure-thriller. There are jump scares a-plenty and some ghoulish baddies on the prowl, but the dread-filled tension of The Shining is mostly absent. Perhaps this is due to a lack of ambiguity. Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic was often deliberately vague, leaving viewers to puzzle out answers in sprawling YouTube videos for decades after.
Flanagan’s sequel does its best to explain what exactly Danny’s powers are, while Kubrick didn’t bother. Everything is clear and meticulously laid out, but in its efforts not to confuse the audience, Doctor Sleep takes some of the fun out of the experience. In its defence, there is one dreamlike sequence in which Rebecca Ferguson’s cult leader floats high above the clouds, thousands of miles across a star-studded night sky. But that’s about it for nightmarish surrealism à la Kubrick.
For the most part, Doctor Sleep is a thrilling, nostalgia-fuelled ride that does its best to appease fans of the original, as well as those brought up on newer King flicks like Pet Sematary and It: Chapter Two. However, you can’t help but feel this adaptation has more in common with the latter than The Shining. It’s much cleaner narratively and the inevitable twist is sort of predictable. King famously hated the way Kubrick turned his supernatural tale into a psychological story about one man’s journey into madness. Although strangely, anchoring the horror in human emotion made the otherworldly elements that much more terrifying. Doctor Sleep is a ripping yarn, no doubt, but it never quite steps out of its big brother’s shadow.