‘Doctor Sleep’: Ewan McGregor Picks Up the Axe from ‘The Shining’ in Suspenseful Sequel

The ongoing parade of sequels continues into the fall season with Stephen King’s “Doctor Sleep,” which is a kind of duel sequel in a sense. Visually it carries on from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic “The Shining,” but in narrative terms it’s also based on Stephen King’s published sequel to his original novel on which the Kubrick film was based. This one feels much more like vintage King. It’s no secret the author was not happy with the first movie, and it’s no surprise this one even includes his very name in the title. Unlike its predecessor “Doctor Sleep” leaves few secrets. It’s razor clear about its terrors and their supernatural nature.

Over 30 years since the events of “The Shining” and Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is now grown. He remains scarred from the events at the Overlook hotel, when his father went mad and nearly killed him and his mother. Now a recovering alcoholic in a small town, Danny has not lost his “shine,” meaning his gift to reach beyond psychic realms. Having long ago locked away in his mind the restless spirits of the Overlook, Danny has kept low about his abilities. He attends AA meetings but the tranquility is shattered when a young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who has the shine, reaches out to him to form a psychic link. Abra needs Danny’s help in tracking down a roaming band known as the True Knot led by the ominous Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). The True Knot hunt those with the shine to then absorb it into themselves and live for centuries while slowly aging. Danny will not only have to face the demons from his past, but this new and vicious adversary.

2019 has been quite the year for Stephen King. America’s man of gothic letters has seen several old and recent works hit the big and small screens. This year alone we’ve received updates of “Pet Sematary” and “It” in theaters and “In the Tall Grass” and “Castle Rock” on Netflix and Hulu. It’s easy to find material in King’s work because he’s such a great storyteller. “Doctor Sleep” stands apart from the rest yet has a comfortably familiar feel to it. Writer/director Mike Flanagan is a perfect fit for the horror maestro when you look at his repertoire which includes atmospheric, cheerfully genre-loving films like “Oculus” and “Quija: Origin of Evil,” as well as the sharply eerie Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House.” For cinema buffs though, a major question is if Flanagan is worthy of following in the footsteps of Stanley Kubrick. With its immortal, maddened performance by Jack Nicholson as the axe-wielding writer dad gone nuts, “The Shining” is one of the established horror classics with its unmatched sense of ambiance, legendary tracking shots and imagery. Kubrick famously dumped much of the original novel’s more upfront supernatural explanations, going more for psychological puzzles and a cryptic finale. King was not amused. 

“Doctor Sleep” thus stays truer to how the author tells a story but is also a fun visual tribute to the first movie. The opening Warner Bros. logo features the synthesized notes from the original film’s intro. Flanagan begins the action with a scene re-creating the famous tracking shot of Danny as a young boy riding through the halls of the Overlook. We learn what happened after the events of “The Shining” as he continued to receive instruction on his powers from the Overlook’s chef, Dick Hollorann (Carl Lumbly taking over from Scatman Crothers). Once Danny is grown the story becomes a more familiar King narrative. He drinks, does drugs and leaves for a small town typical of King lore. There he makes working class friends like Billy (Cliff Curtis), who gets him into AA. Billy is one of those people who is so nice he’ll find you a place to live and pay the first two months’ rent. Abra, who happens to be the daughter of a middle class writer, is then the young heroine smarter beyond her years who discovers she has a unique ability. 

Longtime fans of King will feel at home as the True Knot appear, kidnapping a boy and brutally slicing him up to absorb his “shine.” Rose the Hat, her name is taken from a black hat she never takes off, seductively leads her band of supernatural, almost vampiric goons. Their eyes glow when they absorb the “vapor” of a victim. When she tries to enter Abra’s mind and is violently repulsed, our villainess knows she’s met her match and must of course hunt her down. If “The Shining” was vague about the forces causing its characters to lose their minds, “Doctor Sleep” is set in a world where psychics and spirits are at war with clearly defined aims. 

“Doctor Sleep” is long at 2 hours and 30 minutes but rarely drags. Flanagan gives enough space for the more thoughtful aspects of King’s story. Danny takes on a job at a nursing home, easing the elderly into their final moments. He uses the shine to calm their fear of death. As with many a King yarn, the supernatural aspects mask simpler themes. Here the buried subject is our fear of death and aging. Danny is still dealing with the lingering scars of his childhood, but he is at peace with the idea of passing away. The film’s title comes from the name patients give Danny, he’s “Doctor Sleep” because he makes slipping away into the unknown as easy as calling it a night. The True Knot don’t want to face the prospect of dying. They absorb the shine primarily to stay young forever. 

The third act of the movie is a suspenseful homage to Kubrick as Flanagan brings the action back to the familiar setting of the Overlook. We return to its vast halls, now adorned with cobwebs, and Danny will sit at the same bar his father once ordered a ghostly drink from, this time served by a surprise bartender. Yes, the iconic axe and even certain apparitions will return. Rose the Hat will stare down the same elevator corridor gushing waves of blood. Although the famous shot of an old woman sitting in a bathtub is used so often by the end it loses its unnerving power. Flanagan however never resorts to simply inserting shots from “The Shining” into the movie. Flashbacks feature new actors, and there is a sense of time having passed. “Doctor Sleep” returns to this world with the feeling of visiting an old landmark or childhood spot we haven’t seen in decades. Credit is due for not simply trying to copy a classic, which would be unwise anyway. Flanagan has his own sense of atmosphere and he makes vast forests and small rooms feel eerie and baroque with his own eye.

“Doctor Sleep” is a strong Stephen King adaptation in the sense that it’s faithful to the author’s obsessions and tone. Both fans of “The Shining” and the author’s straightforward novels will find much to like in it. Ewan McGregor gives a tense performance that never becomes manic, but quietly perceptive. Don’t walk in expecting anything equal to the original, but a worthy addition it is.

Doctor Sleep” opens Nov. 8 in theaters nationwide.