Film Corner with Njal Heddle: Doctor Sleep

FilmThe Shite-Ing.

The Shining was a dead simple film, in hindsight. Family moves to an isolated haunted hotel, Dad goes wacko, tries to kill family. But behind that premise, there bristled an intelligence unseen in cinema since. A tense mashup of psychological thriller and haunted house movie. Kubrick’s film is beloved by all to this day, and rightly so. All, that is, except for Stephen King, author of the book upon which the film was based. He hated it so much, he remade it for TV to… poor effect. And now, with new King cohort Mike Flanagan at the director’s helm, comes Doctor Sleep, a sequel based upon a fairly divisive sequel novel.

Decades after his traumatic ordeal in the Overlook hotel, Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor), who possesses mental powers known as “shining”, is picking himself up from rock bottom, only to eventually be roped into fighting a group of psychic vampire hippies who feed on the shining abilities of others, along with a young girl (Kyleigh Curran) whom he must protect.

Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep, if that synopsis of the plot didn’t already indicate, should not work. And it doesn’t. Flanagan’s film opts to build a bridge between the ridiculousness of King’s work with the moodiness of Kubrick’s film-making. A sequel to The Shining in anyone’s hands is a thankless task. How could one replicate such cinematic brilliance? Play it too similar and it’ll be accused of aping the first film. Play it too differently, it’ll become alienating. Instead, Flanagan opts to go so far away from both option, the resulting film is downright mystifying at times.

The film displays such utterly absurd tonal shifts, characters and nostalgia-baiting that it turns into a parody by the opening credits, and then sinks further from there. The notion of following a grown-up Danny Torrence and how he copes with such a horrifying situation from his childhood is, by itself, quite enthralling. Halloween had a go at it with Laurie Strode to good effect. With the right directing, this could have been an effective character study to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its predecessor. But the film opens with a character named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), whose character is so bland, uninteresting, and poorly designed (the hat. THE HAT.) that she becomes a figure of ridicule for the audience rather than an intimidating villain. This isn’t helped by editing (also done by Flanagan) which could be construed as amateurish were it not for the fact that Flanagan has edited his previous films to a far higher standard. A scene as some of her vampire hippie friends are cut down interspersed with her crying in pain is bloody laughable. And that’s the main problem of Doctor Sleep. It is, unintentionally, one of the funniest films of the year.

A great deal of this is down to Flanagan’s script, which boasts some of the worst creative decisions for a story of its ilk in recent memory. The dialogue, when not presenting as bland plot-fodder, offers some true knee-slappers. “They eat screams”, says the ghost of Dick Halloran, “And drink pain.” Although Ferguson’s delivery of “Okay, bitch-child” may fight it for the top spot of the film’s most memorable quote.

Where the titular shining of the previous film was rife with uncertainty, mystery, and a touch of fear as to how the characters were affected, Doctor Sleep opts to turn it into what could only be described as what would happen if Sherlock Holmes was an X-Man. Mind labyrinths abound, big boxes containing ghosts are flung across the frame, and astral projection soars into view. Whatever thought or care had been put into this aspect of the story before has been rendered a laughing stock, as Flanagan appears to make up the rules as he goes along, in the narrative of the film at least.

Now, this may be a factor of his aforementioned balancing act, and his rubbing of shoulders with the esteemed Mr. King himself. If you’re chummy with the author, you’d want to do his work justice. But the simple fact is, as has been proven many a time before, not everything King writes can translate well enough to film. At least not in a mature, sombre way, which the film appears to be aiming for. Had it trimmed a vast chunk of the current plot’s ridiculousness away, the film could have excelled as a more streamlined follow-up.

But the real misdeed comes in the final half hour, where the film, up until now doing its damnedest to establish its own crazy identity, just seems to give up and fall heavily (very heavily) back on nostalgia for its predecessor. At times, this is effectively creepy, and appears to promise a form of catharsis for Danny and a chance for McGregor to really shine. But instead, it just feels… sad. As if the film itself knew it couldn’t outrun the shadow of The Shining and apes it to the point of blatant thievery rather than homage.

McGregor himself fails to astound, but turns in a solid take on the older Dan Torrence. His trauma still affecting him as he tries hard to mentally box up his demons who keep visiting him from the Overlook, McGregor gives it a good enough stab to be endearing, before going apeshit towards the end. Curran, meanwhile, does a credible job as Abra, the young girl who ropes Dan into the battle with Rose and her lot, while sporting shining herself. Ferguson, meanwhile, is a comedic treat. Sporting an impressively inconsistent accent along with that stupid hat of her name, she offers some of the worst moments in the film. Nearly every scene with Rose drags and numbs, with her character being so uninteresting, it’s astounding to think she’s from the same film. Ferguson may hardly be to blame for this. It’s hard to imagine any actor lending credibility to most of the dross this film spews.

But while it has its many faults, there are impressive moments amid the creative bombsite that is Doctor Sleep. Flanagan’s eye for good imagery shines (ho ho) through at regular intervals. A scene of Rose astral projecting herself flying across the night sky is dazzling, while the attention to detail in recreating certain scenes from Kubrick’s original is certainly impressive (even if the actors who recast those from the original are hardly fantastic). Some genuinely unsettling scares peek out at times. The iconic rotting woman from room 237 reappears to haunting effect, while the Newton Brother’s score, while largely minimalist at times, does lend an unease to certain scenes (how much do we think they were paid for replaying that heart-beat sound over and over?).

Doctor Sleep is the comedy film of the year. An admirable misfire on the part of Flanagan, his attempts to juggle so much instead crashing down with the rest of the pins. While it may carry some thought-provoking themes, its handling of such, as well as the remainder of the story and the characters, largely fails. Maybe if Flanagan toned back the Kingisms and upped his Flanaganisms a bit more, then Doctor Sleep may have stood a chance against the odds. Instead, it’s unlikely this crazy diamond will shine on.


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