‘Doctor Sleep’ is just a shadow of ‘The Shining’

Jake Coyle & Lindsey Bahr

NEW YORK (AP) — Here, again, is Johnny. Our glimpses of Jack Torrance are fleeting in Michael Flanagan’s The Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, but Stanley Kubrick’s colossal 1980 horror film is seldom out of mind, or out of frame.

Even that axe is back. Adapted from Stephen King’s 2013 book, Doctor Sleep shifts the story to the tricycle-riding tyke of The Shining, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), now grown and dealing, understandably, with a few residual psychological issues from his childhood stay at the Overlook Hotel.

Yes, Hollywood’s insatiable search for new iterations for old intellectual property has wound its way, like the Torrances’ car meandering up the mountain road, to the House of Kubrick. It’s so overwhelmingly a misguided mission that you want to shout, “Don’t go in there!” And yet Doctor Sleep careens right ahead, recreating Kubrick shots, casting lookalikes to replay his scenes, refilling the elevator with blood and vainly trying to recapture some of the eerie majesty of The Shining.

Maybe I’m wrong but I suspect even those who don’t deeply appreciate Kubrick’s movies will feel a little icky about such a classic being reengineered, its hallowed halls reanimated like a defunct amusement park. It’s one thing to get endless Star Wars movies, but we might be venturing into even more shameless territory by leeching sequels to masterworks like The Shining. Should we also brace for 2001: Return of the Monolith and Barry Lyndon: Back in Business?

Doctor Sleep posits the question everyone has been nursing since The Shining first greeted audiences: What if the story kept going, only we added psychic vampires in top hats?

Ewan McGregor in a scene from ‘Doctor Sleep’. PHOTOS: AP
Kyliegh Curran (L) and Zachary Momoh
Rebecca Ferguson
A scene from the movie

The defence of Doctor Sleep is that it wasn’t conjured out of thin air but adapted from King’s novel. To be clear: King, who never cared much for Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1977 novel, can do whatever he pleases. These are his books. In Doctor Sleep, he delights in charting a very different post-Shining path. In his author’s note, King granted “nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare, especially if administered to one who is young and impressionable”.

The situation, though, is quite different for Flanagan et al who are working in Kubrick’s medium, and doing everything they can to mimic him, right down to the dissolves. Flanagan, who previously adapted King’s Gerald’s Game, also wrote the script, which adds a return to the Overlook Hotel not in the book.

Yet when Doctor Sleep stakes out its own ground, it’s a far more palatable supernatural thriller. Danny’s adult life is a mess; he has been working hard to submerge his “shine”. He finds his place working as night attendant at a hospital where patients, grateful for his ability to gently force slumber, give him the Doctor Sleep moniker.

Scenes early on establish the movie’s wider mythology — The Shining-verse — includes others who, like Danny, shine. It’s a small number of clairvoyant kids who shine brightest — fewer all the time because of cell phones and Netflix, we learn. Among them is 13-year-old Abra (the exceptional newcomer Kyliegh Curran), whose great powers she, and her family, are only just beginning to realise.

But the downside to possessing the Shining is — like the side effects of so many things — psychic vampires. A gypsy-like band of them, led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), feast on their souls, sucking up their last breaths — their “steam” — like a drug. The Shining is like food to them, and as one of them said, “the world is a hungry place”. They can recruit new members, too, by turning those who shine into one of them with the promise of near immortality. “Live long. Eat well,” said Rose.

Geographically separated from the start, Doctor Sleep draws these characters together, eventually leading them all the way to Room 237. It’s patiently plotted (the movie runs a hefty two-and-a-half-hours) and Ferguson — despite the inherent ridiculousness to her part — is creepily compelling.

But none of this is remotely worthy of The Shining. The most entertaining thing here is trying to imagine how Kubrick would have reacted to the entire notion of “fan service”. It’s a frightfully regular approach to movie-making today that should, at the very least, have the sense not to mess with Kubrick. All sequels and no originals make us all dull boys.

IN DOCTOR SLEEP, A FILMMAKER RECONCILES THE SHINING RIFT

Filmmaker Mike Flanagan knew his vision to fuse Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with Stephen King’s 2013 sequel Doctor Sleep would be a hard sell with the author. King’s disdain for the 1980 adaptation is well-known and has not abated with time.

“No, no,” Flanagan said, shaking his head with a defeated laugh. “He has not eased up.”

Even so, Kubrick’s imagery is all over Doctor Sleep, which is centred on an adult Danny Torrance, played by Ewan McGregor. Yet somehow the film has already gotten the stamp of approval from both King and the Kubrick estate.

And it’s all thanks Flanagan, who wrote, directed and edited Doctor Sleep, and had been wrestling with the paradox of both being a ‘King fanatic’ and worshipping the film since he was a kid. “I always had this ache,” Flanagan said.

When he picked up Doctor Sleep, the words were King’s but the images that popped in his head were Kubrick’s. But then he started thinking about how he could reconcile the two and he and his producer set out on a years-long journey to make that happen.

Warner Bros had the rights to the book, which was already in development with a different writer. But by the time Flanagan got in the door, with an adaptation of King’s Gerald’s Game under his belt, the studio was open to his take, which would involve a pretty significant change from the novel: Going back to the Overlook Hotel.

When he first asked King for permission to meld the book and Kubrick’s film, the author said no. But then he explained one scene he’d been dreaming up — set in the hotel — that he thought would address King’s primary criticism that the film didn’t do justice to the arc of the Torrance family. Suddenly, King’s answer changed to “go ahead”.

Not only was the author supportive, but the Kubrick Estate was too. They offered access to original footage (Flanagan ended up using three shots: One of an island in a canyon and two of a car driving up the winding mountain road) as well as the original blueprints for the sets.

The Doctor Sleep team would use these to reconstruct places like The Gold Room and The Colorado Lounge on a soundstage in Atlanta that had everyone downright giddy. “I just started grinning. It’s like walking into your own memory,” Flanagan said. “The hope was that if we could transfer a percentage of that to the viewer than this is a movie worth making.”

Some cast and crew even got sticky fingers. Flanagan walked off with an ax and a few other things. And Rebecca Ferguson, who plays the villain ‘Rose the Hat’, swiped five pages of paper from the desk that say, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.

“I have them all framed at home,” she said with a devilish grin. But knowing the original film also made it a little challenging when they veered into straight homage. McGregor forced himself to ‘forget’ what he knows Jack Nicholson did in a scene where he, as Danny, comes upon the door that Jack Torrance burst through with an ax and looks through the opening.

“There’s no way you can not know as an actor what the shot is, it’s reminding the audience of that moment in The Shining,” McGregor said. “But I don’t want to know that as Danny. I’m thinking about being Danny at this moment in time.”