When we first see little Danny Torrance in “Doctor Sleep,” a crafty and curiously moving sequel to “The Shining,” he is riding his tricycle once more through the serpentine corridors of the Overlook Hotel. The details are uncanny and instantly transporting: the boy’s overalls and red shirt, the hexagonal pattern on the carpet, the gliding virtuosity of the tracking shots. For a moment it’s as though nothing has changed, even though something clearly has.
So fully does the writer-director Mike Flanagan commit to the illusion he’s conjured that you may not fully register the difference until Danny stops and turns his head — toward Room 237, naturally — revealing the profile of the actor playing him (Roger Dale Floyd). It’s a deftly timed little reveal: The flashback we’re seeing is not footage spliced in from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film but a fastidious re-creation, an attempt to channel the detail-oriented obsessiveness that defined both that movie and the extraordinary devotion of its fans.
Those fans famously did not include Stephen King, who has been outspoken in his dislike of this most famous adaptation of one of his most celebrated novels. Decades after its initially divided reception, Kubrick’s “The Shining” is widely revered as a landmark of modern horror, as well as a useful reminder that a great picture isn’t always a model adaptation (and vice versa). And while King’s and Kubrick’s sensibilities may seem perilously at odds, their entwined legacies have undoubtedly nurtured one another over the years, each one sending scores of fans old and new in the other’s direction. Those legacies account almost entirely for why this new movie exists.
Adapted from King’s mythology-expanding 2013 novel of the same title, “Doctor Sleep” follows an older, present-day Dan Torrance into a world of bright-minded children and nomadic child killers, all of whom share some version of his psychic gift. Flanagan’s movie thus faces the unenviable challenge of both faithfully adapting King’s story and maintaining consistency with the pop-cultural colossus that is Kubrick’s film. In a way that poignantly echoes the plight of young Danny himself, the new movie sometimes brings to mind a child caught between two quarreling parents, and attempting to stage a reconciliation.
For the most part, Flanagan has pulled that reconciliation off, imperfectly but intelligently. This is no easy feat, for reasons that have as much to do with basic plot mechanics as with warring aesthetic sensibilities. The Overlook, that high-altitude fortress of bad vibes and bloody visions, was destroyed at the end of King’s novel but still standing at the end of Kubrick’s movie. The opposite was true of Dick Hallorann, the kindly Overlook chef who first taught Danny about his extraordinary perceptual powers. Flanagan’s narrative workarounds are smart and fairly intuitive: Death, King’s fiction has so often reminded us, is seldom the end of the story.
And so at the beginning of “Doctor Sleep,” young Danny receives a benevolent visit from the deceased Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), who teaches him how to deal with the various demonic denizens that have followed him from the boarded-up Overlook, drawn to his “shining” capabilities. Even as he and his mother, Wendy (Alex Essoe), try to recover from the trauma of Daddy’s terrifying rampage and untimely death, Danny is haunted by the shriveled old specter from Room 237 — a problem he learns to solve by envisioning an enormous casket, a kind of imaginary Pandora’s box, into which she and other malevolent apparitions can be lured and then shut away for good.
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This solution, while effective, amounts to a kind of sustained psychological repression that takes an enormous toll. When we catch up with Dan years later (now played by a sensitive, fetchingly bedraggled Ewan McGregor), he’s lost his mother, inherited his father’s alcoholism and hit rock bottom. Eventually he moves to a small New Hampshire town where he draws on the kindness of strangers (nicely played by Cliff Curtis and Bruce Greenwood), attends AA meetings and gets a job as a hospice orderly. There, with the help of a cat with some extrasensory abilities of its own, he puts the shining to humane use, easing the souls of the sick and earning himself the moniker of the title.
Not everyone who shares Dan’s sensitivity to the spirit realm is quite so benign. Enter the movie’s new villain and secret weapon, Rose the Hat, named for the black porkpie she wears and played with terrifying poise and malevolent hunger by a remarkable Rebecca Ferguson. Ruthless and seductive, Rose leads a death cult of semi-immortal beings called the True Knot (they include Zahn McClarnon, Carel Struycken and Emily Alyn Lind) who prey on shining children by inhaling their psychic essence, or “steam.” In a particularly sadistic twist, that steam can only be harvested when the children feel extreme pain, as demonstrated in a mid-movie feeding frenzy that is all the more upsetting for how precisely and discreetly it’s staged.
Danny’s mastery of his own gift has kept him off the True Knot’s radar, though another child we meet, Abra Stone (a plucky Kyliegh Curran), isn’t quite so lucky. Evincing telekinetic talents that set off “Carrie”-style alarm bells, Abra uses her mind to forge a connection with Dan, whom she ultimately eclipses in terms of sheer psychic potential. That makes her both the True Knot’s most coveted target and their gravest threat, and one of the chief satisfactions of “Doctor Sleep” is the spectacle of Dan and Abra conspiring to turn the tables in a story that slips playfully in and out of the labyrinth of the subconscious.
Flanagan is a fast-rising name in contemporary horror, and for good reason. Best known for masterminding the Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House,” he also wrote and directed several eerily effective, low-budget creepfests like “Oculus,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and “Gerald’s Game,” itself one of the better King adaptations in recent memory. Where so much horror cinema wields the sledgehammer, Flanagan consistently applies a scalpel. His work here is notable for its visual control, its refreshing dearth of jump scares and the delicate filigree of its world building. (He serves as his own editor, too, cross-cutting with remarkable focus across two-and-a-half hours of sprawling narrative.)
But beneath the movie’s slick surfaces there is also an insistent, pulsing humanity, an understanding of the deep emotional underpinnings of King’s fiction. “Doctor Sleep” may cut a wider narrative swath than “The Shining,” but it returns to many of the same themes: the innocence and mischief of children, the protective and predatory capacities of adults, the vulnerability of the family unit. (In Ferguson’s fierce performance alone, we see that the True Knot have themselves become, out of necessity, a twisted kind of family.)
In time, too, the movie can’t help but circle back to “The Shining” itself, foreshadowing the endgame with ominous overhead shots of cars traversing landscapes. (The cinematography is by Michael Fimognari.) But it’s here that the movie begins to lose a bit of (ahem) steam. You can’t blame Flanagan for fetishizing the visual iconography of Kubrick’s movie, for plunging back into his funhouse of horrors like the proverbial kid in a candy store. But the effect can’t help but fundamentally alter the tone and intent of “Doctor Sleep,” briefly transforming a richly disturbing fantasy into an extravagant act of fan service. It taps into the minutiae of Kubrick’s masterwork without fully teasing out its mystery.