In 2012, filmmaker Rodney Ascher waded into the fever swamps of cinema obsession in the documentary Room 237, an exhaustive deep dive into the myriad of suspected secret messages in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Those who were anxious to lap up that film’s fan-brewed fantasies will hate Mike Flanagan’s semi-sequel to Kubrick’s film, Doctor Sleep (heretofore Sleep). That’s a shame, because director Mike Flanagan has managed to adapt Stephen King’s novel that pays tribute to both artistic titans while creating something all his own.
Danny Torance (Ewan McGregor) survived Jack Torrance’s murderous rampage at The Overlook Hotel only to find himself imprisoned by his father’s favorite vices. Escaping the hotel did not mean escaping its denizens, who remain drawn to his “shine” even as he poisons its purity with the bottle and the needle. Sleep sports a murderer’s row of Kubrick’s most famous hotel haunts, but the real horror of the film is trauma; this is a film about recovery, and Danny’s path to peace is fraught as his past and present conspire to pull him down.
After finding his personal bottom in a cold and cruel open, Danny gets on a bus. He departs in a small New Hampshire town and catches the sympathetic eye of Billy Freeman (an always reliable Cliff Curtis). Billy recognizes a mutual pain in Danny, and sets him up with an apartment, a recovery support group, and ultimately a job at a hospice where Danny’s “shine” helps those at the edge of death reach peace before passing. Danny also connects with a something of a psychic penpal, and he begins a correspondence in which he communicates with a slate wall in his apartment.
That penpal is Abra, a teenager with a supremely powerful shine of her own that has drawn the attention of an eclectic group of bohemian pseudo-vampires called the True Knot. Led by the entrancing Rosie the Hat (the deliciously game Rebecca Ferguson), they feed off those with gifts like Danny and Abra. They require the “steam” these individuals release upon death to sustain their perpetual youth. The Knot’s on-hand supply is dwindling and good sources are becoming more scarce. Flanagan illustrates their hunger in alarming, animalistic ways that give the threat to Abra a particular menace.
Structurally, Sleep is a deceptively tricky adaptation. For nearly three quarters of the story,hundreds of miles separate the three main figures, but Flanagan’s patience in keeping them apart pays off handsomely when the major characters finally collide. All of this could have worked on its own, but the real coup of the film is how it incorporates so much of Stanley Kubrick’s evocative images, including the iconic Overlook Hotel. We’ve seen our fair share of decade old franchises return with familiar faces in the past several years - from Halloween to Terminator - but Flanagan’s meticulous recreation of the most famous haunted house in cinema and the way he uses it to put Danny’s familial trauma front and center may top them all.
One of King’s major (correct) complaints about Kubrick’s film was that it was cold and largely unmoored from authentic human enmotion. And yet, like blood from a stone, Flanagan uses The Shining’s assets - from music cues to sound effects to the heavily promoted Overlook recreation - to elevate the stakes of Danny’s essential confrontation with his past. Sleep is not fan service; each time a familiar figure is invoked, it’s in the service of the characters, especially Danny. Bolstered by Ewan McGregor’s sad, tender performance, the film’s nods to The Shining pack a powerful emotional punch. A pivotal scene where Danny faces his greatest temptation brings King and Kubrick together in a way that ameliorates the weaknesses of each artist’s work.
Flanagan’s horror bonafides were nigh unimpeachable before Sleep, and he further cements his reputation as a thoughtful, ambitious horror maestro. He’s perfected a beautiful creepiness that never lets the viewers relax, even when they’re overcome by some remarkable imagery. In Sleep, he’s also willing to go to disturbing lengths to establish the True Knot as a vile, sadistic terror. But cinema does not lack technically proficient filmmakers who can stage a scare (e.g. James Wan’s shallow Conjuring franchise). What makes Flanagan so special is his allegiance to emotion, to bringing humanity to horror. The Haunting of Hill House, his magnum opus at this point, was a haunted house story, true, but it was also a story about the persistence of trauma over generations. Gerald’s Game was also a film about abuse that Flanagan took above and beyond Stephen King’s weak novel. With Doctor Sleep, he again betters his source material by embracing two oppositional works and using them to bring out the best in each other. A special film, and a significant achievement for its director.