Doctor Sleep (2019)

On paper, making a movie out of Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining probably sounded like an excellent idea.  Both the original novel and the sequel were best-sellers.  The movie (released in 1980) remains one of the most iconic adaptations of his books, alongside Carrie, The Dead Zone, Salem’s Lot, Cujo, Christine.  King has long been on record as hating Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of his novel, to the point where he approved a mini-series adaptation that was broadcast in 1997.  While much more faithful to the novel, most people still tend to point to Kubrick’s version as the definitive version.

King wrote Doctor Sleep as a direct sequel to The Shining, and it became a New York Times Best Seller after its release in 2013.  I don’t know why King decided that a sequel to a novel he released thirty-six years prior was a good idea.  He certainly has had an endless supply of ideas for stories to write about, and has made plenty of money over his almost fifty-year career.

The outset of Doctor Sleep is a recreation of the famous Steadicam shot of young Danny riding his big wheel through the hallways of the Overlook hotel, pausing after passing room 237.  While the new actor playing Danny looks similar to the original actor (Danny Lloyd), and the camera work was roughly the same, the scene irritated me.  Recreating an iconic movie scene only draws attention to itself that it is a recreation, and not the original.  The shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1998) by Gus Van Sant proved that this approach does not work.  I wonder why Warner Brothers, since they own the rights to the original film, didn’t just include the footage from the original movie?

Later, we see Danny and his mother Wendy watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon in their home after the events in the Overlook happened.  The staging of the scene clearly echoes Kubrick’s direction, again drawing attention to itself as mimicry.  A reasonable argument can be made that these callbacks or reenactments are homages.  However, since Doctor Sleep relies on so many of them throughout the proceedings, they overwhelmingly become distractions.  This is not to say that a director can’t use another director’s “language” when making a movie.  Brian DePalma famously borrowed from Hitchcock, and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favorite) has revealed how heavily influenced Kubrick has been to him. But while DePalma and Lanthimos have created original works, Mike Flanagan, the director of Doctor Sleep, is completely enthralled by The Shining.  And while it is true that many films, sequels in particular, borrow from characters and plot points from previous films, Doctor Sleep felt more like a forgery than an original work.

Every time Doctor Sleep evokes the original, it fails.  While the characters playing young Danny, Wendy and Jack Torrence look similar to the originals, they came across as shallow copies of the originals.  None of their acting is as good as Danny Lloyd, Shelley Duvall or Jack Nicholson.  For example, Alex Essoe may look like Wendy from The Shining, but she is nowhere near as good an actress.  She can’t even match Duvall’s scream.  This is the problem when you attempt to recreate a classic: you always fail because the original still exists as a point of comparison.

Some of the recreations in Doctor Sleep are completely pointless.  The scene where Jack Torrence discusses the caretaker job with the manager of Overlook hotel in the original movie is faithfully recreated in the sequel, right down to the miniature American flags on the desk.  But to what end?  So that we would recall the same scene from the original movie?  Jack accepts a job that ultimately would lead to his downfall, while Danny accepts a job where he can help those in a hospice pass on without fear.  The comparison being made is only a superficial contrast.

Doctor Sleep also uses (and reuses) almost all of the musical cues from The Shining.  We hear the slow heart beat whenever someone is shining and the tinkling xylophone when things are getting weird.  When we head back to the Overlook for the final showdown, Wendy Carlos’s electronic score is mimicked by The Newton Brothers.  The musical cues are so omnipresent in Doctor Sleep that they end up having no impact.

Speaking of which, elements from The Shining are redone so often, they cease to be scary.  The crazy lady in the bathtub that seduces Jack and then appears as a rotten hag appears at least three times here.  Any sense of sexual defilement and degradation she evoked in the original movie is lost here.  I felt like yelling at the screen: Hey lady!  Put a bathrobe on, wouldja?

The plot of Doctor Sleep itself is fairly weak.  I’m surprised that King felt like it was worth publishing, since it essentially cheapens his own work.  We find older Danny some forty years after the events in the first movie. Like most middle-aged white men on the skids, he attempts to ease his pain by heading to the local dive bar, drinking irresponsibly, playing pool with a loose woman and then getting in a fistfight. Hallorann appears to him periodically, trying to set him on the straight and narrow.  All he needed was a light blue glow and he could have been a Jedi ghost.  Apologies to Carl Lumbly, but all he did was force me to remember how iconic a performer Scatman Crothers was.  Playing a part made memorable by a famous actor will always set you up for failure.  Lumbly does his best, but he’s no Crothers.

Danny decides to go clean himself up after the woman he slept with overdoses.  He inexplicably leaves her baby sitting with her dead mother and a bag of crackers.  We later learn the baby ultimately died when nobody checked in on the two of them.  Arriving in New Hampshire, Danny attends AA meetings and faces his alcoholism and his father’s legacy.  He becomes an orderly at a hospice and finds that he can help those who are dying pass on without fear.  There are some good scenes here, and they hint at an alternate path King could have taken with Danny.  Unfortunately, King remembered that the ultimate purpose of Doctor Sleep is to rehash the plot of The Shining, and introduces us to a young girl named Abra who also has the shining.

Yes, you read correctly.  King named a character “Abra”.  I guess her middle name is “Cadabra”.  But that is only the start of the silliness involved in the plot.  Abra soon connects to a group of people who abduct and kill children with shining abilities.  (The group is called The True Knot in the novel but not in the movie.)  The leader of the group calls herself “Rose the Hat”, because she wears a hat.  (I know, deep.)  Abra witnesses the group viciously killing a young boy, calling attention to herself because of her overwhelming shining power.  Rose attempts to take Abra in her sleep, but when Abra overwhelms her, Rose decides that they need to find and kill her, or at least subdue her so that they can feed on her powers for a long time.

Since Danny lives in the same town as Abra, they meet up to discuss their powers.  Initially Danny rebuffs her request to team up.  Fortunately, Jiminy Cricket Hallorann reappears and convinces Danny that he has to pay it forward.  Abra helps Danny and Billy (his AA sponsor) find where the young boy was buried and retrieve a baseball glove he was buried with that was touched by a member of the group.  Abra is able to locate the group’s location, and Danny comes up with a plan to use her as bait, so that they can bring the group out of hiding and kill them.  That plan works surprisingly well, with Danny and his sponsor able to pick off members of the group at will with hunting rifles.  Whenever a member of the group has a serious injury, they thrash about on the ground and disintegrate like a vampire.  With this in mind, I did not understand why the group stuck around to be picked off by Danny and Billy.  If I could die that easily, I would run for the hills.

The movie never explains what Rose or the members of the group are.  They seem like vampires, but instead of drinking blood, they drink “steam”, or the essence of a person’s shining ability.  How long they live is never fully explained beyond “a long time”.  When one old member named Grandpa Flick is dying due to “steam starvation”, Rose mentions that he was around in Roman times.  That certainly is a long time.  Their existence seems to only involve feeding, which seems like a pointless existence to me.

With the group effectively reduced to just Rose, Danny decides that the best way to get rid of her is to have her come to the Overlook Hotel.  He explains that while the hotel is dangerous to people who shine, it is even more dangerous to people like Rose.  Evidently the various ghosts and ghouls that appeared in the original movie feed on people with powers, although this was not mentioned in the original book or movie.  

Upon arriving at the Overlook, Danny fires up the boiler, which I don’t know how he would know or even remember how to do, given that he was only five when he was at the hotel before. Rose and Abra reenact the scene of Danny and Jack in the hedge maze.  Rose detects the trap and leaves before Danny can subdue her.  Then Danny and Rose reenact the scene where Jack pursues Wendy up the staircase.  The ghosts and ghouls arrive when Rose is feeding on Danny’s steam and eat her, I guess.  They then possess Danny.  At first, Danny attempts to kill Abra, but she helps him to fight off the hotel’s influence.  Danny sacrifices himself so that Abra can escape.  Evidently, he did this so that the ghosts would be eliminated when the hotel burns to the ground.  But, Abra later sees the crazy lady in her bathtub, so in the end, Danny’s sacrifice seems pointless.

As you can tell, I found most, if not all of Doctor Sleep derivative and pointless.  In a way, it reminded me of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy: a creation that only served to enrich the participants and degrade our memory of something that clearly was better and should not have been revisited.

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