Light spoilers ahead.
I was surprised to hear that a film as universally revered as “The Shining” (1980) would get its second chapter nearly 40 years after the movie’s initial release. But as Stephen King’s follow-up novel “Doctor Sleep” began its journey in 2013, with the film industry already well into its golden age of random sequels, reboots and name recognition based cash grabs, I think the screen adaptation of this story was pretty much inevitable. In spite of my general distrust for out-of-the-blue sequels, upon my first reading I quickly found out that “Doctor Sleep” was not that nostalgia-driven reboot I’d expected based on other resurrected classics. It had its share of fanservice, but it dealt with its general sequel-itude gracefully and really kept me on the hook plot–wise. I’d say overall, the novel even stands pretty well on its own — and the movie does it some real justice.
“Doctor Sleep” resumes the story of Danny Torrance, decades after the events of “The Shining.” Now an adult struggling to lock away the ghosts of his past while grappling with similar levels of alcoholism to his father Jack, we follow Danny as he finds the strength to battle his demons and use his extrasensory powers to help others. Particularly a young girl named Abra, whose blinding “shine” has put a target on her back. As an adaptation, I think the film version shines in its own right — give or take a few details, it’s almost exactly how I imagined the story playing out as I read the book. The beginning exposition is a little whiplash-inducing, progressing rather quickly through time skips and location changes, and the introduction of our antagonist group the Knot is a little awkward — I think seeing them on screen made me realize they’re a little silly compared to the old ghosts of the Overlook — but then again, I might be scrutinizing them a little harshly through my sequel glasses.
My greatest fear for this movie was that it would lean too far into the ‘Shining’ nostalgia, to the point where it overshadowed the plot. And while the recasted, refilmed ‘Shining’ scenes in “Doctor Sleep” are a little funny to look at, for the majority of the story, elements of the previous film are relegated to the background. “Doctor Sleep” is simply a completely different story from “The Shining”; different in plot, different in tone, different in every way. If you enjoyed “The Shining” for Kubrick’s filmmaking style, or for Jack’s slow, gnarly descent into madness, you may not take to this one. Its filmmaking style is heavily updated, the plot bounces around quite a bit, and it feels much faster paced — so it’s no modern ‘Shining,’ but excellent in its own right. I have to wonder if someone without background knowledge would notice it was a sequel at all. I mean, sure, there are a lot of recycled elements in “Doctor Sleep” — there are callbacks to the first film, “MURDERs” where there were once “REDRUMs” (you know, in case we didn’t get it the first time around). But how, exactly, does the Overlook tie into the Knot (get it?) As an antagonist group, I found the vaping vampires of the Knot to be pretty theatrical, yet they still somehow maintained very menacing undertones. The absence of the hotel for most of the film was counteracted and compensated by the sickening threat of child death. It was a different flavor of human corruption, and the combination of the two threats in the climax in order to create the throwback to end all throwbacks meshed a lot more cleanly than I expected.
As the main characters near the Overlook Hotel towards the end of the film, the cinematography and soundtrack become progressively similar to that of “The Shining.” I thought perhaps it was to separate the monstrous setting of the Overlook from “real life,” where “Doctor Sleep” seems to take place. And maybe that’s the power of “Doctor Sleep,” that it takes place in a world that is not isolated and strange, but similar to our own. It seems to ask, is it possible that we face the same evils in the outside world that lurk within the Overlook’s walls? But its real-world setting also renders the scares a little more weird, hokey and unrealistic (although it still managed to give me a few good jumps). The movie can be overdramatic, but it is at least fairly consistent. It’s undeniable that everything gets a lot spookier once it’s happening before the backdrop of the Overlook, the single aspect of the movie that makes it truly impossible to separate it from its previous chapter. When its time finally comes, the hotel emerges from the gloom as a sleeping monster, and it lights up as if it’s been waiting for Danny through all the years it took for a ‘Shining’ sequel to emerge.
Speaking of Danny, I found him to be an extremely likable main character, and his story of redemption and mentorship is a pleasant contrast to his father’s corruption and fall from grace in the previous film. The story of “Doctor Sleep,” at its core, is of a peaceful death giver and a cult of violent killers terrified of dying, and this juxtaposition is what highlights the Knot as villains in my eyes. As we watch Danny, a hospice worker who helps his patients pass into the next world, we see death presented as a curious and almost whimsical thing, full of memories and forgotten pleasures. He even describes the world itself as “one big hospice with fresh air,” displaying a certain casual attitude towards his own mortality. To a man with his fair share of personal ghosts, to linger in this life is to suffer. Whereas to the Knot, death is an enemy, a terrifying unknown, and it makes no difference if self-preservation comes at the expense of the lives of children. To cause someone’s death is to claim more time for yourself, and a shine like Danny’s or Abra’s makes it taste all the sweeter.
Probably one of my favorite aspects of the movie is that Danny’s troubled past (mainly the parts concerning the events of “The Shining”) is given this fantastic visual metaphor slash Chekhov’s gun of a series of locked boxes in his mind. Every time he uses them to chain up old ghosts, we’re reminded of how much Dick Halloran’s guidance still influences him today, and these reminders allow him to pay it forward each day with Abra, who is young and in danger and yet to unlock the full strength of her psychic abilities, with parents who don’t understand her and are content to ignore her shine until it is useful to them. Another great thing about these boxes is that they serve as a way of keeping all the excess ‘Shining’ nostalgia locked up and contained until it’s most effective — and it is very effective, eventually.
Or maybe I’m not immune to a healthy dose of fanservice after all.