Perhaps following up Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is an impossible task. Kubrick’s 1980 classic is considered one of his best films, if not his magnum opus, and has spawned great discussion since its release. Such detail–focused examination is showcased most famously in the documentary Room 237. The Shining is not just an important aspect of film canon—it is an icon, a constantly referenced piece of work, and a culmination of an amazing director’s talents in one of the best horror movies of all time.
Doctor Sleep understands all of this. It is certainly a sequel to The Shining, focusing on the young son of the original film named Danny, who's now going by Dan (Ewan McGregor) and is far from the bright–eyed, slightly terrifying kid that we saw all those years ago at the Overlook Hotel. He is a depressed alcoholic, scarred from the events of the first film, and consistently drinks himself into a stupor in order to both remember and forget his father. He moves from New Jersey to a little town in New Hampshire to start fresh, and from there gets tangled into a much larger plot involving the True Knot, a group of powerful bounty–hunters led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) who are killing children to harvest their “shine.” They specifically seek to target Abra (Kyleigh Curran), a young girl with immense power, just like Danny used to have.
The problem with Doctor Sleep is that it doesn't understand how Kubrick adapted the plot of Stephen King's novel so well—by cutting some of it out. King notoriously hated Kubrick’s adaptation, claiming that it wasn’t “warm enough” and failed to understand his novel. Doctor Sleep, on the other hand, seeks to put the two great minds together—Kubrick and King—to form a scary, suspenseful horror that closely follows its source material. This entails treks across the large, vast continent of North America, three separate concurrent plotlines, gory torture, and silly CGI eyes.
In sticking to King’s text, the universe becomes too large and is far from frightening. In fact, Doctor Sleep is not so much a horror movie as it is a thriller with an action plot—much of the film is about a physical race against the bad guys. What made The Shining so scary was its confined nature—the suffocating feeling of being in the Overlook with no one to hear you or save you. The greatest frights of the original are not about how spooky a corpse looks when it’s half–decomposed. They’re about the uncanny—things appearing where they shouldn’t, your own mind turning against you, and those you trust no longer seeming so trustworthy. In this new movie, with a vast expanse of land to run away in and real, physical villains, the psychological horror just isn't there.
However, this problem of the great big world and the cheesy villains are solved wonderfully by the third act, where our heroes return to the same Overlook hotel of The Shining. Here, director Mike Flanagan reveals himself to be a devoted fan of The Shining—every set, every carpet tile, and every camera shot is a perfect, refreshed mirror of Kubrick’s original. The iconic scene where Jack (Jack Nicholson) swings an axe into the bathroom where Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is hiding is redone, but with Henry Thomas as Jack and Alex Essoe as Wendy instead. A famous scene in the Gold Room is revamped, but with Danny in the place of his crazed father. Shockingly, instead of just regurgitating what made The Shining famous, Doctor Sleep actually contributes original content to the story. Danny’s fear of becoming like his dad, Danny’s trauma from having witnessed the bath woman at age five, and Danny’s desire to become better while struggling with loving his father deep down. Doctor Sleep introduces new themes to its source material and does so with incredible care, interweaving the old with the new.
Flanagan throws little Easter eggs into Doctor Sleep—a house has the address “1980,” in reference to the year The Shining came out; an office is modeled like one from the original film; the transitions are done in the slow–fade style that was peppered throughout Kubrick’s masterpiece. Doctor Sleep, like The Shining, is a movie meant to be watched more than once.
Overall, Doctor Sleep is an exciting movie to watch if you liked The Shining. Flanagan’s care in recreating the set, and even McGregor’s performance as Danny harkening back to Jack Nicholson, shows a great love for the movie's prequel. If you liked The Shining enough to care about where its characters ended up, then Doctor Sleep is here for you.