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[KING'S CORNER] Doctor Sleep (2019)

Updated: Mar 19

Doctor Sleep - King's Corner Review

Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the Film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.

Director: Mike Flanagan

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carol Struycken, Cliff Curtis, Emily Alyn Lind

Written by: Mike Flanagan

Produced by: Jon Berg, Trevor Macy

Cinematography by: Michael Fimognari

Original Score by: The Newton Brothers


Years following the events of The Shining (1980), a now-adult Dan Torrance must protect a young girl with similar powers from a cult known as The True Knot, who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.

Doctor Sleep Film Poster


When it comes to adaptations of his work Stephen King tends to have a laid back view on them. At multiple Q&A sessions he has been asked if he thinks a bad adaptation of one of his stories will ruin them to which he replies no, because the story he wrote will always be there on the page but that's not to say that adaptations have not had a huge influence on his career. It is arguable he wouldn't be the popular author we know today if Brian De Palma's adaptation of 'Carrie' wasn't a hit because the success of the film is what led to the book becoming a bestseller. Although King has openly spoken about adaptations of his stories that he likes (like The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me) and dislikes (like Graveyard Shift and the Children of the Corn sequels) the one adaptation that has his most controversial view on is 'The Shining'

King has been very open about how much he wasn't a fan of it and in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1983 he stated that there were two overarching issues with the film. Firstly, although he admires Kubrick as a filmmaker, he views him as a very cold person and because of this he "...just couldn't grasp the sheer inhumane evil of the Overlook Hotel." His other issue lay in the casting and characterisation of the film particularly with Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance. He thought it was a bad choice for him to display his madness from the off rather than taking the slow burn approach of him descending into madness as written in the novel. His ill feelings towards the 1980 film is what led to him adapting the novel as a mini series in 1997 with Mick Garris directing the project

It would be disingenuous (and downright lazy) to suggest that King wrote 'Doctor Sleep' to take back ownership of his creation given how Kubrick's adaptation of 'The Shining' is the dominant permutation of the story in the public consciousness. Over the years at various Q&A and book signings King has been asked what ever happened to Danny Torrance after his experiences at The Overlook. Jokingly he would say he married Charlie McGee from 'Firestarter' and they would have wonderful children together. In 2009 when he was promoting his novel 'Under the Dome' during an onstage event with David Cronenberg he announced he was working on 'Doctor Sleep' as those questions of what happened to Danny stuck with him and he felt that it was the right time to answer them. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2013 he spoke of how rereading 'The Shining' in preparation of writing 'Doctor Sleep' was "an exercise in the self consciousness" as he reflected in how he has changed as a person in tandem to how Danny has changed in the book which was what appealed to him a lot in writing the novel. 

The novel was released in 2013 to a fairly positive critical reception but Warner Brothers Studios began developing an adaptation of it from 2014 and in 2016. Akiva Goldsman announced he was writing and producing an adaptation but it fell through due to a lack of funding. The mammoth success of the movie 'IT' in 2017 led to the project being placed on the fast track again with Mike Flanagan being hired to rewrite Goldsman's script and helm the project. Although it was an incredibly challenging task, it was also one which Flanagan relished. In an interview with Collider in 2018 he spoke of what drew him most to the project by saying, "it touches on themes that are the most attractive to me, which are childhood trauma leading into adulthood, addiction, the breakdown of a family, and the after effects, decades later. It really speaks to a lot of my favourite stuff, so I was really, really fascinated by the possibility of being able to play in that world." It would turn out to be a daunting world where he would try to satisfy both King and Kubrick fans alike. 

Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat in Doctor Sleep

Although the film begins with the chilling introduction of the True Knot led by the terrifying yet seductive Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) the opening act begins a short time after the events of 'The Shining' with Danny (played in these scenes by Roger Dale Floyd) living with his mother Wendy (Alex Essoe) in Florida. Although they now live on the other side of the country the ghosts of the Overlook still haunt Danny, particularly the shrivelled up Mrs. Massey. To combat them the ghost of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) teached Danny how he can create psychic lockboxes to trap these ghosts. It is a way of compartmentalising his trauma without truly facing it which catches up with him later in life. 

What allows the emotional resonance of these early scenes to shine through is the choice of recasting the actors from 'The Shining' rather than going down the common (and lazy) route of slapping some deaging CGI onto an actor which is in most cases distracting. Although they are physically different you know who they are right away thanks to the performances. The actors that take on these roles brilliantly employ the tics of the original performances and make nods to them whilst adding their own stamp to the role which makes it work so well. 

We then flash forward just over 30 years into the future and Dan (now played by Ewan McGregor) has hit rock bottom. Like his father he is a full blown alcoholic and we find him hungover at the apartment of a one night stand after a night of boozing and fighting. As he leaves he steals some of her money and not even the sight of her child deters him. Shortly after this he makes his way to a town in New Hampshire where he encounters a man called Billy (Cliff Curtis) who sees that Dan needs help so he acts as a guide on his road to recovery which is what the film at its core is all about. 'The Shining' was about addiction and how the ghosts of the Overlook coaxed out Jack's inner demons whereas 'Doctor Sleep' is about Dan seeking help to recover from his alcoholism tied to his childhood trauma. He has seen the worst aspects of addiction through his father so he chooses the path of recovery to cure him of the metaphysical and real world problems that haunt him. 

As Dan, Ewan McGregor does a wonderful job. He almost carries through Dan's childhood vulnerability to his adult years with his softly spoken yet damaged manner. He is someone who has fallen in on himself and hidden from the world because of his experiences in the Overlook but meeting people like Billy and Abra (Kyliegh Curran) and using his "shine" to help people move on from this world allows him to open up more and this tender dimension to Dan is reflected through McGregor's performance as they go through their arc of recovery. 

Ewan McGregor as Dan Torrance in Doctor Sleep

On the flipside of this are the group of psychic vampires known as the True Knot led by Rose the Hat who travel the country in search of children gifted with the "shine" in order to feed off steam produced by fear as they die, in order to allow them to have almost eternal life. They engage in this kind of lifestyle for selfish reasons by preying on the most vulnerable in society making them truly monstrous in every aspect as it is done by choice over necessity when beginning this kind of life. As Rose the Hat, Rebecca Ferguson is an enthralling presence on screen. There is an allure to her predatory nature that makes her irresistible as 

she moves in a mantis-like manner waiting to strike at any minute. It is the kind of 

physicality to Ferguson's performance that makes her one of the most memorable on screen antagonists in any King adaptation. 

The rest of the True Knot includes the likes of Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind) and Grandpa Flick (Carel Struycken) whose calm demeanors slip away when their need for steam grows strong. They are addicts in need of a fix and always give into their temptations for fear of death. For the most part the manner in which they attain their fix is suggested or carried out off screen but it is shown in a graphic and disturbing manner with the now infamous "Baseball Kid" scene. Bradley Trevor (Jacob Tremblay) is identified as a gifted child by Crow Daddy and on the way home from a baseball game he is kidnapped by the True Knot and taken to the site of an abandoned electricity plant. There he is brutally and slowly stabbed to death by Rose in order to extract steam from his dying body. 

In this scene Flanagan pulls no punches as he doesn't pull away from the bloody and brutal murder which is made all the more chilling thanks to the short yet brilliant performance from Tremblay as he pleads for his life. It was a performance that was so striking that many of the cast and crew were left haunted by it whilst Tremblay was able to switch in and out of character seamlessly between takes. The manner in which the True Knot huddles around him breathing in his steam is just as disturbing as it is the last thing Bradley Trevor sees. Originally it was more horrific but Flanagan toned it down after screening the film for King. Flanagan mentioned this story on the Kingcast podcast by saying that after the scene King who was sitting beside him leaned over to Flanagan to say, "That's a little brutal isn't it?" which prompted him to make the changes. 

Kyliegh Curran as Abra Stone in Doctor Sleep

Although the opening of the film is all about Dan and his addiction, the second act becomes more about Abra and her growing psychic friendship with him and her gift is drawing the attention of the True Knot. As the young teen, Kyliegh Curran portrays the character with a great deal of maturity as she more than holds her own opposite the likes of Ewan McGregor and Rebecca Ferguson. Having said that there is also a naivety to her character which comes to the fore as she is coming to terms with the growing strength of her abilities. 

The film ends at the Overlook hotel where Dan and Abra meet Rose for their final confrontation. It is during these scenes where the collision of the book and the adaptation of 'The Shining' hit hardest as the visual aesthetic of Kubrick meets the character driven storytelling of King for a grand finale. In this collision there is almost a reconciliation between the two which turned out to be vindicated by the Kubrick estates love of the film and King's praise of it to the point where he has even softened in his views of Kubrick's adaptation of 'The Shining'. It is one of the most impressive feats of marrying two distinctly different styles in a film and full credit has to go to Flanagan for managing to find a seemingly impossible middle ground between the two through this film. 

A lot of praise also needs to be passed on to the production team, particularly for this part of the film as the look of the Overlook is identical to that of Kubricks only aged up in line with the story. Prior to this Flanagan incorporated Kubrick's style with similar shot compositions throughout various points in the film. The most obvious example of this is Dan's meeting with Dr. John Dalton (Bruce Greenwood) when he offers him a job at the local hospice. The way Flanagan shoots this is nearly identical to Jack's interview for the caretaker job of the Overlook in 'The Shining' but there is a purpose to this beyond fan service. Thematically it shows the similarities and differences between Dan and Jack as characters. A special mention must also go to the work The Newton Brothers as their score which adds a heartbeat playing faintly in the background evokes the feeling that some kind of otherworldly presence is around and always watching. Not only does their score borrows from Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind's work on 'The Shining' but it compliments their own compositions for 'Doctor Sleep'

Rebecca Ferguson and Kyleigh Curran in Doctor Sleep

Despite the third act being all about the confrontation with Rose the Hat, it offers Dan the chance to properly confront his childhood trauma and the issues that stemmed from it by confronting the biggest ghost that has haunted his life, his father. It comes about when he sits at the bar of the ballroom where we think he is talking to Lloyd the bartender from 'The Shining' only for the camera to pull back and reveal it to be his father Jack (played by Henry Thomas). The great thing about Thomas' performance as Jack in this scene is he doesn't try to replicate Jack Nicholson, rather he captures the essence of that performance and makes it his own in this brief appearance. He pours his son a drink who tries to tell him what life was like for him and his mother after his rampage at The Overlook but he dismisses him claiming he is mistaking him for someone else before telling Dan how alcohol was the only way he could cope with life with the pair of them. The pain is all too evident on Dan's face in what is a very sad and powerful moment in the film but bear in mind that when Jack died he was a monster. As punishment he is doomed to spend eternity that way in stewardship of The Overlook. 

In the confrontation between Dan and Rose the Hat, Dan unleashes the ghosts of the Overlook that he has stored in his mind letting them consume Rose but once they have had their fill they turn on him by possessing him to make him kill Abra. It is the final test in his addictions but one he overcomes. They try to make him stop the boiler he overloaded when he returned to the Overlook but he takes control one last time letting it blow up destroying himself and The Overlook. Back when Mike Flanagan directed 'Gerald's Game' many felt that it was a foolish thing as it had always been deemed to have been unfilmable but he proved the naysayers wrong with the critical and audiences praise of the film. Even with the goodwill generated from this didn't deter people from doubting his ability to adapt 'Doctor Sleep'. Many felt that it was a step too far and more or less impossible. Again he proved doubters wrong as he managed to take a book with a lukewarm reception, satisfying fans of both an iconic film and an iconic novel making something that works extremely well when it really shouldn't at all. The more you think about it, the more you realise how much of a miracle it is and how Mike Flanagan, through this film and his other works, has well and truly earned the title of a Master of Horror. 

Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

-Joseph McElroy

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