Think Movies: Doctor Sleep

Think Movies: Doctor Sleep

by Alan Grant
article from Friday 22, November, 2019

FOLLOWING ON FROM LAST WEEK, which used Zombieland: Double Tap as a discussion of the topic, we return to the subject of sequels this week with Doctor Sleep. I cannot imagine the level of confidence and self-confidence it requires to consider a follow-up to any moderately successful film, let alone thinking that it’s an advisable idea to have a crack at a sequel to 1980’s classic Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick dream team horror and suspense masterpiece The Shining.

Contemporary cinema, and the way we consume it, makes it difficult to understand just how important The Shining was at the time. It was a veritable bolt of lightning that combined the efforts of two masters of their respective mediums to make something incredible. Just think, for a moment, of how impactful everything about The Shining has become. The imagery of the Overlook Hotel, the scene in the gold room, the titular form of telepathic communication, the axe, the use of ghosts, the blood gushing out of the lift, the creepy girls, the phase ‘here’s Johnny’, and the myriad other iconic aspects of arguably the best horror movie ever made have become part of the culture to an extent that only other films of similar quality and status, The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Casablanca, and the early Tarantino movies for example, have done. The Shining is one of those movies that, if you’re just coming to it now, you already know almost every beat of it and it still doesn’t spoil it for you. I’m not sure why movies of that kind don’t really seem to be made any more, perhaps it’s a combination of my own sensibilities, a change in how we consume films, a change in how they’re produced and sold to us, and other factors of which I’m not aware, but I just don’t see one particular movie taking up that much of a permanent and indisputable place in the popular consciousness again any time soon. In fact, I reckon the last one to do so to the same degree was The Matrix in 1999.

So, in my view, you’d have to be crazy brave (perhaps brave crazy) or to have made a near perfect movie to make adding a second instalment to The Shining anything close to a good idea.

… and they’ve bloody well done it. If you only read Think Movies to find out if you should go and see the movie of the week then let me save you the trouble (and possible spoilers, sorry) of reading any further because I’m going to spend the rest of this column gushing about this one. Doctor Sleep is absolutely, completely, totally, and, in my view, indisputably, fantastic and needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

Centred around a now grown-up Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who is now settled in small-town America having beat the alcoholism he inherited from his father, the film follows his journey alongside young Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who also ‘shines’ as they go up against a caravan of bad guys called the True Knot, led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who feed on the ‘shine’ of children. In order to beat them, Danny must reacquaint himself with many of the events of The Shinning and learn how to deal with his, and his teammate’s, immense psychic powers.

There’s really just too much good stuff in Doctor Sleep that, in order to keep this column at a reasonable length, some of it is going to have to be left out. But rest assured, it’s pretty much all great with a few things that are excellent (see below) and one excusable flaw that might not even be a flaw if you think about it (see below again).

Doctor Sleep is built on a phenomenal foundation with a script by Mike Flanagan, a darling of the indie horror scene given the room to breathe in this movie, that manages to be tight and effective without doing that modern horror movie thing of just being a collection of gasps held together with the odd swear word and puzzled noise. The writing, plot choices, and dialogue are brilliant and his characters are well-rounded and never once feel like matters of necessity. Even the smaller parts, like Abra’s father, played by Zackary Momoh, and the murderous Crow Daddy, a brilliant turn from Zahn McClarnon, are well-realised and given enough compelling things to say and do that none of them feel unnecessary or shoehorned into place.

However, it is the three main roles that are the real reason Doctor Sleep fits together so incredibly well. McGregor, surely a candidate for Britain’s greatest living actor, is on top form here. He’s brooding, empathetic, stoic, and pitiable throughout the movie and manages to control an arc that a lesser actor would have struggled to even realise. Also, we get our first chance to enjoy thirteen-year-old newcomer Kyliegh Curran as Abra and we absolutely should. This gifted young actor has a grasp of expression, physicality, and timing that few much older than she is have and for such a demanding role to be essentially her first major one is a daunting challenge that she steps up to and smashes into the floor. She isn’t just one to watch in Doctor Sleep but she’s one to watch in the future.

As good as McGregor and Curran are, and I’ll repeat that they are really, really, really good, it is our villain, the sinister Rose the Hat, leader of the cult of psychic vampires, who steals the show. Rose is played by Rebecca Ferguson, best known thus far for her roles in The Greatest Showman and Men in Black: International, whose villainous chops are cemented firmly by a once-in-a-career type performance. Ferguson, a celebrated dancer before she became an actress, not only has the physical ability to play the almost spider-like cult leader but also has an intensity and sing-song style delivery that by passes the critical part of the mind and lodges itself deep in the part responsible for identifying creepiness. She is sinister, unnerving, scary, and downright compelling. Look out in particular for a scene in which she and her brood kidnap a young boy – it’s hard to watch but Ferguson is as good as any villain I’ve ever watched in it.

I could go on about how the choice of palette is inspired or the constant heartbeat in the score lends itself masterfully to the increasing tensions or even about the attention to detail that helps the transition from reality to the dream-like world of the ‘shine’ happens so smoothly thanks to a kick-ass effects team that you’re never quite sure what’s real or not, adding to the creepy feel of the flick, but, like I said, pretty much everything about Doctor Sleep is absolutely sublime from start to finish. I’ve seen some critics complain that it’s too long, especially in the first act, but, to me, the length was just right to open up the world and provide a base from which the stakes can be raised and the tensions ratcheted up.

However, if Doctor Sleep was just a stellar example of modern filmmaking, and it is definitely that, then I would have stopped quite a few words ago but there’s more to it than that. Just as all great movies aren’t really ‘about’ what they’re about, The Lion King isn’t really ‘about’ the politics of talking animals, it’s about fatherhood, and loss, and freedom, and getting away from problems, Doctor Sleep isn’t really about ghosts or psychic powers; it’s about trauma, stress, and addiction, and getting how to deal with them. The great success of Doctor Sleep is being able to talk to its audience about addiction and overcoming it in a subtle, serious, and approachable way – it’s worth the cost of production and admission even for just for that.

Last week, I offered up Zombieland: Double Tap as being an ok film marred by having a bad case of ‘the sequels’. It is therefore most fortunate that Doctor Sleep arrives afterwards and provides a textbook example of a sequel, and one with seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against its proposition, that is absolutely free from the illness. Doctor Sleep feels like an essential film in its own right, an essential addition and rounding up of the lives of the Torrance family first seen in The Shining, and an essential example of how not every film that follows on from another is going to be sick with modern cinema’s equivalent of the common cold. Go see Doctor Sleep, it’s fantastic! 

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