I am not a fan of horror films, usually. Of all movie genres, I find them to be the most formulaic and thus the most predictable. Typically they resort to jump scares, and they are usually about as subtle as an elephant on roller skates at a crowded cocktail party. In other words, not scary, for me anyway. Yet Doctor Sleep, despite my misgivings, interested me as the sequel to 1980’s classic The Shining, which was great, of course. Unfortunately, this new iteration seemed like it was trying too strenuously to stand on the shoulders of its predecessor to an almost embarrassing degree. Spoilers!
Set, I guess, over three decades since the Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining (and it has been that long since it was released), Doctor Sleep seemed to focus on the life of Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) as he tries to escape the trauma of his childhood. I say “seems” because the main character of this film is a bit fuzzy. There is a ton of screen time and plot service devoted to the young and gifted prodigy, Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), and the leading antagonist Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). It is difficult to keep track of everything when a movie has three people it draws our captive eyeballs to during its run-time.
The one thing that I did enjoy about Doctor Sleep, and I will get this part out of the way so I can tell you about a good portion of the inconsistencies in the film, was Dan Torrance. Ewan McGregor gave a quality performance as the grown up Dan. I had to come around to this position, though, as at first I found his self-destructive behavior distasteful. It was not clear at first, but his drinking, drug-use, and casual sex was later explained as a way of connecting with his father Jack Torrance, famously played by Jack Nicholson in the 1980 movie. Though it was not explained at all why he decided to make the change (or move to New Hampshire), kudos to Dan to cleaning himself up, finding a steady job, and helping others. In case you had never heard this before (and the movie did not delve into this), but a main feature of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is faith. Still, Dan faced his demons with a heroic virtue, and in the end is willing to sacrifice himself (though I could not tell you why this was a necessity) to save Abra. He also used his gifts in his job, helping to ease the elderly into death in the facility where he was an orderly. It was practically a ministry. The details were not explained satisfactorily, but Dan’s selflessness was a Christian virtue.
What was not virtuous about the rest of Doctor Sleep was, well, everything else. I am going to list these flubs in chronological order as to when they happened in the film so as to hopefully make it clearer. Hopefully. As already mentioned, there are no clues given as to why he decided to make a change in his life, other than he woke up next to a woman with a baby he did not realize was there? I mean, this happened but the connection to his revelation was buried. Nor did I understand why he ended up in the town in New Hampshire to which he traveled. It was as if he got on a random bus and just got off wherever his whimsy took him. He then runs into one of the most generous men in cinematic history, Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), who pays Dan’s first two week’s rent and takes him to AA meetings. Billy later helps Dan (because Billy “sees people,” whatever that means) to drive all the way to Iowa to dig up a dead body, and then agrees to commit murders once they get back. These killings, by the way, come after the movie has set up some pretty interesting psychic powers. But nope! Dan, Billy, and Abra set up a trap for the bad guys that involves a dumb gun battle. And yet they were so freaked out by Abra’s powers like she could twist them into pretzels with her mind, or turn them into babbling adult-babies. Instead, they shoot at each other.
Because Doctor Sleep sets up this world where there are people with extreme psychic powers, I expected it to stick with that theme instead of resorting to action film high jinks. Doing so would have been in keeping with the spirit of The Shining, which it seemed to be trying to do by borrowing clips, sets, and music from the predecessor. But it was more like, “Hey, remember this better movie? Wasn’t it nice? But guess what? It is now 2019 and we do not do movies like that anymore.” Was it really necessary to have people who, what, eat souls? And that makes them live longer? But also enhances their psychic powers somehow? I had so many questions, and at many points it just seemed like the film was making things up as it went along. A shining example (pun intended) of how disjointed was Doctor Sleep from The Shining was during the climactic sequence, which featured Dan and Abra rather casually driving up to the Overlook Hotel in the middle of winter. In The Shining, Hallorann (Scatman Crothers in 1980) completes this trip at the same time of year only by driving a snowcat (a vehicle that runs on tank treads, by the way) through perilous mountain paths. But apparently an early 2000s Toyota Corolla can accomplish the same thing in Doctor Sleep. In short, very little makes sense here.
Given the source material Doctor Sleep attempted to tap into, there was a real missed opportunity to make a psychological action-thriller, one that would have truly let this stand alone from The Shining in a way that also paid homage to it. Instead, we get a slow moving, horror-lite train wreck that features far too many nude elderly people and the torture and murder of children. But perhaps the best clue as to how skip-able is Doctor Sleep came with the gentleman a couple seats over who snored through most of it. At least, in this way, it lived up to its title.