It’s one thing for Stephen King to revisit the Overlook Hotel, as he did in his 2013 novel; it’s quite another for a filmmaker to try to recreate the ambience of the place visually, simply because the images from Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 1980 adaptation of “The Shining” (fashioned in collaboration with production designer Roy Walker and cinematographer John Alcott) are indelible, and the mood the director and his cast achieved unforgettable. Even Steven Spielberg found it difficult to recapture the magic in the homage to his friend’s film he included in “Ready Player One”—the look was all one could wish for, thanks to the wonders of CGI, but the spirit was gone.
So writer-director Mike Flanagan, a capable if uninspired journeyman in the horror genre, labors under an enormous burden with his filmization of “Doctor Sleep.” In the sequences that bookend the movie, he’s locked into Kubrick’s vision, which pretty much defines “The Shining” for everyone—King didn’t much care for that remaking of his work, but when he tried to respond to it with a mini-series based on the book, the result bombed, and surely no one would care to see its idea of the Overlook resuscitated.
So Flanagan must try to literally recreate, and embellish, what Kubrick wrought, using different actors in roles that are inextricably associated in viewers’ minds with those who originally filled them. It’s a device that frankly doesn’t work: even given that Maher Agmad’s sets are supposed to be dingy, they lack the character of Walker’s, and Michael Fimognari’s workmanlike cinematography isn’t a patch on Alcott’s creepy work. And “E.T.”’s Henry Thomas trying to mimic Jack Nicholson? Not a good idea. Nor does the movie generate much suspense or fright; indeed, the only really scary moment in it is an abrupt insert from Kubrick’s film featuring the authentic Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.
But actually the Overlook elements—both longer sequences and occasional brief flashbacks—amount to only about a fifth of this overlong (two-and-a-half hours), very deliberately paced film. By far the greater portion is devoted to the recent events that take Dan Torrance (played by Ewan McGregor, who was traumatized by the place as a child), back to the haunted hotel.
Having survived a young adulthood of alcoholism—and the ghosts that have followed him from the hotel, which he locks up in mental boxes as recommended by the spirit of dead mentor Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly, channeling Scatman Crothers)—Dan gets his life back on track by travelling to a small New Hampshire town, and, after being befriended by nice-guy Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), joining AA and taking a job at a hospice, where his placid deathbed manner (and ability to implant soothing messages in a patient’s head) earn him—with the assistance of a beautiful cat that knows when residents are about to die—the name Doctor Sleep.
His shining power thus rejuvenated by getting clean, after some years Dan finds himself drawn into a dangerous situation by Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl with shining powers even greater than his. She contacts him telepathically about a fearsome “family” of long-lived, soul-sucking vampires who feed off the essence of children with shining powers. When she observes the group, headed by malevolent Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and including such members as Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), Snakebite Ally (Emily Alyn Lind) and grizzled Grampa Flick (Carel Struycken), abduct and savagely torture and kill an Iowa boy (Jason Tremblay) in order to feast on his power as he writhes in agony, she travels to visit Dan in person to ask him to join her in destroying the evil clan.
Thus begins their supposedly harrowing adventure, which will also involve Billy and Abra’s father (Zackary Momoh), and will eventually take them to the Overlook, where Dan will have to face his fears but also unleash the place’s ravenous ghosts to do battle with Rose, whom they cannot hope to defeat on their own.
This central plot line has a good deal in common with that of “It,” Rose serving as a replacement for Pennywise but the kid victims being limited to those with “special” mental powers. But as played here—at the pace of a dirge and with an atmosphere that aims to be spine-chilling but comes across as pedestrian—it never generates much traction. The only sequence that’s truly unsettling is that of the death of the Iowa lad plated by Tremblay, which is so protracted and nasty that it works, but for all the wrong reasons.
Much of the problem arises from the fact that the characters are just not very interesting. McGregor makes Dan morose and haunted, but he never manages to get much beneath the surface, while Curran is spunky but little more. Flanagan invests most of his hope for scares in the members of the evil cult called the True Knot, but apart from Struycken, who brings a cadaverous John Carradine look to Flick, and Lind, whose amoral teen “pusher” has a grim intensity, they’re a disappointing bunch.
That extends to Ferguson, whose Rose is intended to be utterly terrifying but doesn’t manage the trick. One need only watch her in the final sequences at the Overlook, where she ambles around through the hotel and its maze with a positively blasé air, to see how bland the characterization really is. And earlier special-effects moments when she engages in what appears to be astral projection to track down Abra are conspicuously poorly executed.
“Doctor Sleep” should have been made with greater energy, and Flanagan, who also did the editing, would have been well advised to do some further trimming. Although the result isn’t not as somnolent as the title might suggest, it certainly doesn’t deliver the genuine creepiness and shocks one wants in a follow-up to a classic like Kubrick’s. To put it another way: Flanagan’s “Doctor Sleep” is to Kubrick’s “The Shining” as Peter Hyams’s “2010” was to “2001”—an unnecessary, misguided sequel.