Stephen King has finally had his day. The best-selling, yet long-suffering author has expressed his displeasure with Stanley Kubrick’s version of his popular horror novel The Shining for years on end, and even when he tried to remedy that with the badly received mini-series Stephen King’s The Shining, it still wasn’t enough to dissipate his irritation at his vision not quite winding up on the big screen.
Finally, he compromised by working with director Mike Flanagan to adapt his sequel book Doctor Sleep, and the end result pleased him so much that, in his own words, it “actually warms my feelings up towards the Kubrick film”. If he’s able to sleep better at night because of this, then great, but that doesn’t change my opinion on what Doctor Sleep really is—a big, big disappointment.
Now, I know Flanagan is a very divisive director. His 2013 psychological horror film Oculus was mostly liked by critics, but not audiences, and his last King adaptation (Gerald’s Game, exclusively released on Netflix in 2017) was also met with some mixed reactions. So it’s no surprise that Doctor Sleep has been a little polarizing, albeit much less so than his previous films. Even so, I’m probably still in the minority for disliking it as much as I do.
I can see the film’s fans shaking their heads now, saying to themselves “Oh great, Ben doesn’t like slow, weighty horror that takes time to develop its characters and tell a great story. He just wants scary ghosts to jump at the screen every five seconds, accompanied with irritatingly loud jolts of music. That’s probably the only thing in the world he finds ‘scary’”. If you think that sounds slightly exaggerated, it’s not: Chris Stuckmann, a YouTube critic who I admire and respect very much, argued exactly that when addressing complaints that the film was “boring”.
The irony is, The Shining itself was also a bit of a slow-burner, but it never dragged for one millisecond. Even within its more uneventful scenes, so much was being built up with the Torrance family, the Overlook Hotel, and the creepily looming sense of doom around every corner that I was always on the very edge of my seat.
Doctor Sleep, on the other hand, lacks that same focus, tension, and well-crafted atmosphere, and the story of a grown-up Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) trying to protect a young girl (Kyliegh Curran, in her first major role) with the Shining superpowers from an evil hippie vampire cult (no, I’m not joking), though solidly acted by McGregor and Curran, just isn’t that compelling at all. A large part of that rests on the fact that the cult’s leader, Rose the Hat, isn’t creepy or frightening in the slightest* (go ahead, fight me on that one), but another possible cause could be the script’s treatment of the powers themselves.
See, in The Shining, you knew that they gave people the ability to telepathically communicate with each other, but enough about them was kept eerily mysterious to remain plausible, which is exactly what made them so memorably creepy. In Doctor Sleep, it turns out that the powers are just a cloud of vaporous gas that comes out of your mouth whenever you’re injured and/or killed, which other people inhale into their mouths in order to gain the Shining abilities too. Because that’s so less cartoonish than a supernatural power you know nothing about, and can do absolutely nothing to control.
And that subtle elements of mystery is exactly why The Shining worked so well. It took a brilliant “less-is-more” approach to its relatively minimalist story, and wound up doing so much with so little. Unfortunately, Doctor Sleep does the exact opposite, doing way too little with way too much (even over its painfully bloated 152-minute runtime**).
Another great YouTube critic, YourMovieSucksDOTorg (aka YMS), noted that Doctor Sleep would work far better as a longer mini-series, and I completely agree with that***. The characters’ relationships with each other and their powers could be more properly fleshed out (as opposed to being almost completely glossed over for no reason), and the overall structure wouldn’t feel as uneven and cobbled-together as it is.
Many have singled out the film’s three-hour “Director’s Cut” as being far more accomplished in that regard, and for all I know, they’re completely right. I’m just a bit hesitant to put it on myself, as most of the shorter version had me bored beyond words, and I don’t know if I could take it with another half-hour added on, even if the end product was “better” in any way.
If all of Doctor Sleep bored me like that, then I wouldn’t have much reason to give it anything lower than a 4/10. I would still single it out for being tedious, underdeveloped, and utterly unengaging, but admit that it at least it tried its own thing, that it wasn’t just copying what came before it for nostalgia’s sake. Unfortunately, the entire last half-hour made sure I couldn’t even do that.
Essentially, what happens is that Danny and the girl, who now have a furious Rose chasing them everywhere, go to the Overlook Hotel for no apparent reason, and every single famous moment from The Shining is obnoxiously re-enacted to pander (not “appeal”, as Stuckmann claimed) to the large amount of people—me included—who loved that particular film. At first, this was excruciating for me to sit through, then it was so ridiculous that I couldn’t help laughing out loud, then it was excruciating again, and then it was over. The entire movie, I mean. Good riddance.
* I’m sure the only reason people find Rose the Hat “scary” is because she brutally stabs a young child to death in one scene, which has become pretty controversial around the Internet. Admittedly, I did find that particular moment a little unsettling because it was so realistically acted, but it was such a cheap, manipulative attempt at “edgy” shock value that it wound up annoying me a lot more than anything. And besides, the opening scene already implied that she likes doing bad things to little kids, so showing that in more graphic detail literally adds nothing.
** Yes, The Shining was almost just as long, but every single minute in that film was richly earned. The same isn’t true for Doctor Sleep, unfortunately.
*** After all, the direction, cinematography, special effects, and music all resemble a high-gloss Netflix show anyway (which makes sense, given that Flanagan’s biggest hit was—you guessed it—a high-gloss Netflix show named The Haunting of Hill House), so why not?