'Doctor Sleep': Film Review

Rebecca Ferguson is the best thing in this overlong sequel.
11/8/2019

Ewan McGregor stars as little Danny Torrance all grown up in Mike Flanagan's big-screen follow-up to 'The Shining.'

It doesn’t have Jack Nicholson, Stanley Kubrick or even much of the Overlook Hotel, but Rebecca Ferguson and other good actors provide some shine of their own in Doctor Sleep, a drawn-out and seldom pulse-quickening follow-up to The Shining that still has enough going on to forestall any audience slumber. The vast army of Stephen King fans alone ensures a good commercial launch for this well-appointed Warner Bros. release, which in terms of scares and jolts is pretty mild by contemporary horrorfilm standards.

Has it really been 39 years since Kubrick’s elaborate, fastidious, popular but critically divisive adaptation of King’s third novel, of which the author himself was its most vociferous critic? In the interim there has been a poorly received 1997 four-hour miniseries adaptation on ABC, as well as a warmly embraced 2016 operatic version. King himself again took up the story of Danny Torrance (son of Jack and Wendy), the little boy blessed/cursed with unusual psychic powers, in his 2013 novel Doctor Sleep, an immediate No. 1 best-seller, indicating a continuing public interest in this flawed fellow whose life has never been easy.

A hard-luck case since his youth, Danny (a low-key Ewan McGregor), now going by Dan, has evidently had a pretty rough time of it over the years. A drifter pushing 50 and a recovering alcoholic, he’s still plagued by memories of those weird little girls up at the Overlook and presently takes a job working as an orderly at a small-town New Hampshire hospice. Dan is good at this job — he knows how to speak to people at death’s door — but isn’t nearly as skilled as the house cat, which has the uncanny ability of tipping off who will die next simply by entering the appropriate room and jumping on the doomed one’s bed.

A provocative woman with the curious name of Rose the Hat is herself an expert at moving people from the earthly realm to another. Played with mesmerizing elan by Ferguson (in a turn that, partly because of her black headgear, calls to mind Lena Olin’s striking profile as Sabina in The Unbearable Lightness of Being)Rose is forever on the lookout for psychic kids to kidnap, as the blood of her victims furthers the quest for immortality among her ratty, trailer-trash brood, whose eyes light up at feeding time.

So good and evil are once again poised to duke it out, with a few agreeable wrinkles worked in among the stale ones. The most gruelingly effective scenes involve Rose’s never-ending search for new prey, which arouses some genuine emotion on behalf of the gifted kids about to be sacrificed for the sake of some grungy vampires (no, there’s no lower-class revenge subtext stirred into this mix). As staged by director Mike Flanagan, whose feature career consists mostly of horror titles — including Before I Wake and Gerald’s Game — these hunts generate distress given the children’s dreadful fates as nothing more than ghoul food.

The growing number of missing kids becomes an obsession for Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a girl on the cusp between tween and teen who herself is blessed/cursed with the shining and is too notably gifted not to eventually land in Rose’s sights. But she’s a beginner at all this stuff and thus potentially vulnerable to Rose’s far more practiced hand at stirring things up that normal people can’t handle. The showdown between the rising young star and the devilish old pro is clearly where this tale is headed, which is both entirely predictable and undeniably satisfying.

Still, the fact that Flanagan applies a light hand to trimming down King’s 530-page tome results in a film that remains for too long on the low burner; it would be hard to argue that this really needed to run two-and-a-half hours. There’s plenty of downtime, some of it agreeable, as Dan gradually emerges via AA meetings from a life of alcoholic somnolence to a position where he has something to contribute — a development that also allows McGregor’s performance to slowly take root and ultimately emerge as something sympathetic and genuine.

There are other scenes, however, that seem pretty pointless — including one in a cinema where a notably inferior print of Casablanca is being shown — and Flanagan simply takes too much time getting around to the meaty matters at hand. But just when things threaten to slow to a stall, you can count on Ferguson to roar to the occasion to shake you; when she’s around, she’s the whole show, threatening, cajoling, erotically boiling when prey is at hand. The actress, along with the character, looks to be having a jolly old time — playing outrageous villains seems to have that effect on thespians — and she gives every moment she’s onscreen here a real kick.

Production companies: Intrepid Pictures, Vertigo Entertainment
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Bruce Greenwood, Jocelin Donahue, Cliff Curtis, Robert Longstreet, Carel Struycken, Alex Essoe
Director-screenwriter: Mike Flanagan, based on the novel by Stephen King
Producers: Trevor Macy, Jon Berg
Executive producers: Roy Lee, Scott Lumpkin, Akiva Goldsman, Kevin McCormick
Director of photography: Michael Fimognari
Production designer: Maher Ahmad
Costume designer: Terry Anderson
Editor: Mike Flanagan
Music: The Newton Brothers
Visual effects supervisor: Marc Kolbe
Casting: Anne McCarthy, Kellie Roy

Rated R, 151 minutes