DO THE THINGS that go ‘boo!’ in the night still have fresh value of their own to curdle your blood and populate your nightmares? This is a question you may ponder when you see Doctor Sleep, a film marketed with horror novelist Stephen King’s name, which turns out to be a pastiche of quotes from film director Stanley Kubrick, instead. It was recently released on Showmax.
In the 1980s, Kubrick’s The Shining, based on Stephen King’s eponymous novel was broadly deemed ‘the scariest film ever made’. Its nightmare-rich scenarios were handled with timing and class, with vision and perspective and with a sophisticated understanding of how feasible things can turn terrifying. It was also armed with a young and feisty Jack Nicholson in the main role. As well as an incredible soundtrack composed by Krzysztof Penderecki.
Like works of the ilk of Helen Moffett’s Charlotte, where the trajectory of the life of a fictional character is subject to what ifs in another writer’s pen, Doctor Sleep takes on the tale of Danny Torrance from The Shining. He’s the little boy, son of Jack Torrance, who in 1980, in Stephen King’s novel, escapes from the nightmare that the Overlook Hotel had turned to, in the depths of a Colorado winter, at the height of his dad’s cabin fever. He’s about five years old, and has a psychic gift that enables him to see things beyond the real world. And some of them are very scary. If you haven’t seen The Shining, you may be lost by all the references to it that Doctor Sleep depends on.
So, here we find an adult Danny (Ewan MacGregor) with a drinking problem all of his own, but his psychic gift still intact. Add to it a coven of wannabe immortals under the aegis of a creepy woman called Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Rose and her buddies need to sniff up the ‘steam’ released when people die in order to feed their longevity. Like vampires, only slightly cleaner.
With a contemporary psychically endowed teenager called Abra Stone (Kaliegh Curran), the stakes are high and the thrills and chills plentiful. A task is outlined: Abra’s in the crosshairs of the baddies and Danny must save her. But more than an adaption of King’s novel, it feels like a mash up of several of King’s novelistic premises – including Firestarter, The Stand and others, where psychic powers, sinister leadership and the human fabric come under scrutiny.
But that’s not all. The value of that adrenalin rush which presents something from your worst nightmares is its ability to raise the hair on the back of your neck. And the way in which that was achieved way back in 1980 was with split second timing. But since those days, you, as an audience member, have not changed physiologically. When you see the scary ghost for too long, it loses its mystique. Just like that. And sadly, Doctor Sleep strips so many of those iconic Kubrick moments so baldly that you’re urged to giggle rather than shriek.
Further, the work is deeply inconsistent in its design. As it begins, you’re contextualised with dates and places. But as the plot unfolds, these yardsticks turn murky. And are oft omitted. But more seriously, there is also a bit of grubby filching of ownership which lies very uncomfortably with this film. While the story is a mish-mash of quoted and re-enacted footage from Kubrick’s Shining, including Penderecki’s astonishing music, nary is there an acknowledgment.
The film is not without its own sense of self, however, which almost redeems it. The idea of someone else’s mind as a rich library of filed texts, is beautifully articulated. The presence of Emily Alyn Lind as Snake Bite Andi offers an evocative gloss on what can happen to child-molesting men. And there’s a scary warning for children who go about their business unheeded by responsible adults, but these are narrative threads which ends in tears, lots of blood and gore and basically stripped of the real old-fashioned stuff designed to keep you awake for years.
Doctor Sleep (2019) is directed by Mike Flanagan and features a cast headed by MacLeod Andrews, Selena Anduze, Shane Brady, Met Clark, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Jason Davis, Jocelin Donahue, Evan Dumouchel, Alex Essoe, Marc Farley, Rebecca Ferguson, James Flanagan, Roger Dale Floyd, Mistie Gibby, Alyssa Gonzalez, Johnnie Gordon, Charles Green, Bruce Greenwood, Sadie Heim, Kk Heim, Dakota Hickman, Sallye Hooks, Zahn McClarnon, Callie Brook McClincy, Bethany Anne Lind, Emily Alyn Lind, Danny Lloyd, Robert Longstreet, Carl Lumbly, Hugh Maguire, Violet McGraw, Ewan McGregor, Logan Medina, George Mengert, Zackary Momoh, Michael Monks, Deadra Moore, Sarah Morrison, Katie Parker, Juan Carlos Romero Perez, Nicholas Pryor, Mollie C. Quinn, Fedor Steer, Carel Struycken, Chelsea Talmadge, Henry Thomas, Peggy Tillman, Jacob Tremblay. Written by Mike Flanagan, based on The Shining by Stephen King, it is produced by Jon Berg, and features creative input by The Newton Brothers (music), Michael Fimognari (cinematography), Mike Flanagan (editing), Anne McCarthy and Kellie Roy (casting), Maher Ahmad and Patricio M Farrell (production design) and Terry Anderson (costumes). It is available on ShowMax.