Why Doctor Sleep is an Unfair Sequel

Like Father, like Son: Jack Nicholson (left) and Ewan McGregor peer through the Overlook’s bathroom door in The Shining and Doctor Sleep.
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Author: Mark Bautista

WARNING: Spoilers for Doctor Sleep and “The Shining” follow below. 

Doctor Sleep, the latest horror from writer-director Mike Flanagan, has an impossible task: it has to be a sequel to “The Shining.” You know, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, arguably the greatest horror movie ever made and one of the greatest films ever. It’s that one with blood cascading out of elevators, creepy twins, a snowy maze, and a manic Jack Nicholson shouting, “Here’s Johnny!” There are so many memorable images, all of which have planted themselves in our collective pop culture consciousness at some point or another (Spielberg’s Ready Player One is a recent tribute showcasing just how influential Kubrick’s movie). The (obvious) point is: The Shining is nothing short of iconic, and the question on movie nerds’ minds (like mine), is: Can Doctor Sleep live up to its predecessor? But in asking that question, us movie nerds have already lost.

Though, it’s not unfair that we should have this expectation. In a surprise to no one, movie studios like Warner Bros., the company that produced both movies, are in the business of making money—of course they’d promote a follow-up to The Shining by capitalizing on iconography from the former film. In all the trailers I’ve seen, visual references to Kubrick’s film adorn the frame; we see everything from the Grady twins to the hexagonal carpet of the Overlook Hotel to an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) peering through the same axe-chopped hole in the door that Nicholson did almost 40 years ago. It’s just good business sense to promote your new movie with references to the old one; you have to get asses into theater seats somehow.

But the film we get in Doctor Sleep is not exactly the one we were advertised. If what we were sold was a sequel to The Shining, and more specifically, Kubrick’s The Shining, we instead got a film that just so happened to feature the same characters and the same settings, but felt like a different beast entirely, in tone, style, and content. In 1980, Kubrick made a film that was frightening in its simplicity: the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel is driven violently insane when he succumbs to his alcoholism. It’s implied, much like Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” that the ghosts Jack and Danny Torrance sees are not supernatural, but are unfortunate results of deep-rooted psychological trauma. Kubrick made a horror film of the mind, and it was scary not because of the bloody images we saw, but because of the implication that intense isolation can violently alter people for the worse.

Doctor Sleep removes much, if not all, of that subtlety and nuance, for the ghosts and spirits are real, representing an evil energy that must be conquered by an adult Danny Torrance. The evil in the story is an external, corrupting force; this is a different thesis than the one Kubrick presented, that evil lurks inside us all until it is awakened by selfish negligence. In “Doctor Sleep,” evil is also manifested through a cult of soul-sucking vampires, so the antagonists are very much in physical opposition to the protagonists; there is no doubt as to where evil stands. In the former film, telekinesis is inferred to be merely intuition; in the latter, telekinesis connects two allies from across the country. The creative choices mentioned here, in my opinion, change the meaning of The Shining. Everything in the previous film now must be taken much more seriously, due to the presentation of this latest film.

You might argue: Mark, Kubrick is dead; Doctor Sleep is a new interpretation of the material, set in a new world, led by a new artistic vision. I’d agree with you, but the DNA of Kubrick’s film is so ingrained in Flanagan’s movie, that it’s impossible to separate the two. Doctor Sleep borrows liberally from the original; soundtrack cues and set design remain the same, and shots from Kubrick’s film are meticulously recreated using Flanagan’s actors. This indicates that the two movies are very much set in the same continuity, so the mythology, in many ways, is drastically altered from changing the canon from psychological horror to dark fantasy.

This is not to say that Doctor Sleep does not contain heavy themes of its own. The demons of alcoholism figure very much in Flanagan’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, as Danny grows up suppressing the horrors he experienced in the Overlook with a constant flow of whiskey. Actually, it is here where Flanagan most successfully finds a thematic edge to rival The Shining, by offering a somber rumination on the destructive qualities of alcoholism, and the redemption that accompanies overcoming the addiction. This arc is explored a fair bit throughout the film, and these quieter moments are incidentally the most resonant parts of the film for me. If the point of a sequel is to evolve the story, then Flanagan’s interpretation of Doctor Sleep offers a mirror to the other side of alcoholism, where the protagonist emerges from his personal battle the hero, rather than the tragic villain.

Doctor Sleep is a fantastically made film; and I say this as a biased Mike Flanagan fan (who, by the way, adapted and directed the epic series, The Haunting of Hill House, for Netflix). I enjoyed the performance of Rebecca Ferguson, who played a chillingly charismatic vampire cult leader, as well as the ones of Ewan McGregor and Kyliegh Curran, who play our two telekinetic heroes. It is properly scary and gruesome, especially in a scene where a young boy’s soul is violently ripped from his body.

But to call Doctor Sleep a sequel to The Shining is an unfair comparison. This is not necessarily because I believe The Shining or Kubrick to be superior to Doctor Sleep or to Flanagan (at any rate, I am sure that Flanagan is way less emotionally abusive to his actors than Kubrick was to Shelley Duvall, which makes him a better person in my book), but rather because I believe they are two different films entirely. Even if the latter constantly references the former, and even if they share similar themes, their respective ideas of what inspires evil are so different that the comparison creates a paradox between the two movies.

Mark Bautista | Peanut Butter Enthusiast | KXSU Arts Reporter

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