In the waning months of twenty nineteen, I made two good choices: the first was to finally see The Shinning (1980) on the big screen. The second was to see its unexpected sequel, Doctor Sleep (2019), only a few days later. Both movies are, in style and subtance, very different — the former is a twisted and deeply psychological Kubreckian nightmare, whilst the latter is far more grounded supernatural thriller. I watched both films with two friends who, like many, found the sequel dissapointing. Sinking some time into Doctor Sleep’s director’s cut, however, sheds a little light on the limits of this feeling — and shows that the once popular sentiment has aged rather poorly.
There’s little to say regarding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shinning that hasn’t already been well said. The story follows Jack (Jack Nicholson), Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and their young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) moving into the Overlook Hotel, nested alone in the mountains, as its caretakers over the coming winter. Jack relishes at the opportunity to work on his novel, while Wendy feels that the stay might help them escape the stresses of city life and bond as a family. As they descend into a solitary winter, however, each of them falls prey to a mysterious looming evil inhabiting the hotel; culminating in Jack going completely mad and attempting to murder his wife and son. Danny learns from the hotel’s chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), that he has the mysterious power of the shine; which gives him clairvoyance and telepathy. He eventually uses this to narrowly save his mother and outwit his father — who eventually freezes to death mere steps from the hotel’s front door as his family flee. The final shot of the film is a photograph of a party that took place sixty years before the events of the film, with Jack standing happily at the front of a giant, roaring crowd.
Roger Ebert masterfully summarised the film as “cold” and “frightning”; a terrifying picture of “isolated madness”. The crux of its power, in his view, lies in the fact that its entirely open ended. Jack, Wendy and Danny are all going mad in an enviroment “primed” to magnify their insanity and push them deeper and deeper into it. “They all lose reality together”, as he puts it, and those of us watching have no idea what’s really going on and why. Videogamedunkey built on this line of thought when he described The Shining as one of cinema’s most “mysterious” and “haunting” experiences; a film that has given birth to never ending speculative theories (as is captured wonderfully in the documentary Room 237) because “it never shows its full hand”. At its non-existant heart, the film is an enigma wrapped in a nightmare; punctuated by a “droning, ominous soundtrack that fills the air with dread…never allowing the audience to breath”.
Stephen King once described Kubrick’s film as something made by a man who thinks too much and feels too little. Intended as criticism of an adaptation that he famoulsy didn’t much care for, King ironically captures the deliberate obsfucation, cooked into every ounce of Kubrick’s masterpieces, that makes the filmaker’s work so engrossing. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson; Kubrick doesn’t take a photograph of reality, he takes a photography of a photograph of reality. King is correct, however, that Kubrick’s style, for better or for worse, gutted both the heart that was present in the original book and the supernatural themes that surrounded it. The Shinning is, as has become cliche to say, a Stephen King adaptation for people who don’t like Stephen King.
What ends up being so surpising about Doctor Sleep, then, is that it manages to marry the conflicting visions of King and Kubrick in a way that respects and builds upon them both. There’s a delicious lack of pandering, especially when compared to a typical Hollywood sequel, and the story never lets up on rewarding you with novel developments. Mike Flanagan, who both directed and adapted the story, wisely decided to reintroduce the supernatural themes missing from the last film and ditch any attempt at replicating Kubrick’s obsession with mystery and madness. The picture that emerges from this decision is all at once far more human, and in some ways a stretch more terrifying, than we deserved. Danny is followed by the spirits of the Overlook Hotel and is tortured by his ability to see the future. Despite guidance and support from his mentor and friend Dick Hallorann (played well here by Carl Lumbly), who perished in The Shnining but who now lives on as a spirit, he falls into a pit of alcoholism and drug abuse. It’s a fate that flows as a natural consequence of the horror he suffered as a boy. It’s also very hard to watch.
Danny’s troubles, and the flashbacks that reveal their source, add a deeply sensitive and emotional weight to the story. Even as an adult, when he is played wonderfully by Ewan McGergor, and when its implied that he has largely ridden himself of the spirits that plagued him as a child, we are simply left with a broken man unable to deal with unresolved childhood trauma; trauma he cannot share with others for fear of what they might do. The horror lies in what this affliction leads him to do and the sort of man it has led him to become. There is a moment early on, for example, where he is visibly wraught with indecision and guilt based on a repugnant choice he’s made. When his old mentor appears to pull him up on how disturbed this action is, Danny attempts to bury the memory of his deed in the same way Hallorann taught him to bury the Olverlook guests that followed him. His friend wisely reminds him that “maybe you can put the things from the Overlook away in lockboxes, but not memories. Never those. They’re the real ghosts”.
Danny eventually catches a bus to New Hampshire and, with the help of kind stranger Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), sobers up and reclaims his life. Working night shifts as an orderly at a local hospice, he begins using his shine to help others; sitting with old men and women to comfort them as they confront death. With a simple touch, he’s able to show them fond memories from their past — making their last moments warm and full of joy. These scenes may not dramatically advance the plot, but they give weight and texture to Danny’s slow growth into a man well-adjusted to all the shit he’s been through. You start to get the feeling that, underneath all that trauma, there sits a man who can use his sixth sense to make the world that little inch better.
All this careful bricklaying in Doctor Sleep’s first third gives the story a largely heartfelt, grounded atmosphere. The characterisation is incredibly strong, leading to memorable performances across the board, and the world itself feels lived-in and real. You get the slight impression that the nightmare might be ending and that we, together with the characters, are finding some kind of normality. This always feels fragile, however, as we’re also following the story’s unrelenting evil; The True Knot, a cabal of quasi-immortal vampires who feed on children gifted with the shine, are looking for their next victim — and it just so happens that we’ve also been following Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl living not too far away from Danny’s new home, who fits their bill to a tee. Rose the Hat, played with near perfection by Rebecca Ferguson, defines The Knot’s terror through a terrifying mix of cleverness and charisma.
Because the film is confident enough to let us sink into the world before they let these three stories converge upon one another, the moment in which Danny and Abra finally meet is just as troubling as it is satisfying. You fear for them both because you know that their coming together means that neither of them will be safe for much longer. And when Danny, now older and wiser, discovers that the True Knot are now looking for her, it dawns on us all that there’s very little they can do to stop them. These are powerful people with political connections, an unrelenting hunger, and thousands of years of practice. Our hero is a orderly who, up until recently, slept under a bridge.
The latter half of the picture, then, is where it all pays off. Watching Danny come to realise that its up to him, again through a grilling from his old mentor, brings everything into a harsh, honest perspective. He finally comes clean about his abilties to his friend Billy, the one who saved him, and the plan they hatch with Abra to fight back is a brilliantly executed moment. It’s also one that costs them greatly, feeding neatly into the climax which rears the film back to the iconic locale where it all began over forty years ago. I have mixed feelings about this final act of the film. Whilst the events themselves and the choices made by the characters are strong and authentic, returning to the Overlook Hotel is a painfully safe move that somewhat compromises the film’s earlier attempts to distinguish itself as a distinct story. To those of us who found Doctor Sleep’s departures refreshing, re-treading familiar ground at the end felt like a retreat.
It is, however, a retreat easily forgiven. Considering that butchering sequels has become standard in Hollywood today, the fact that The Shinning was followed by a film like this is close to miraculous. Where it might have trafficked in the same formula as its predeccsor, likely giving itself a safer road to release and a more lucrative return at the box office, Doctor Sleep instead delivers a rich, meaningful epilogue. It’s a story that thoughtfully develops new ideas, seaped in the consequences of the horror that we guiltily enjoy, and gives audiences the right amount of interesting ideas to chew upon. Like all good things, enjoying it requires a little patience — but, if you let it take you, you might just see where it shines.