“Doctor Sleep”: Terms of Psychic Warfare

Doctor Sleep!

“After that night, I could never watch The Tonight Show again.”

I read The Shining during my big Stephen King phase back in high school. devouring nearly all his books from Carrie up through Gerald’s Game. I’ve run across Stanley Kubrick’s version countless times in TV reruns over the years and I think I’ve seen the entire film, but never in one uninterrupted, sequential sitting….though I did catch the 2013 documentary Room 237, which tabulated conspiracy theories about Kubrick’s deep, dark, double-secret meanings with which the film was allegedly fraught if you paid more attention to the backgrounds than to the actors.

Decades later, King returned to the remains of the Torrance family with the sequel novel Doctor Sleep, which I haven’t read. The sequel film it inspired from writer/director Mike Flanagan (Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House) was escorted surreptitiously into theaters in the middle of an unusually packed November release schedule, then quietly ushered out the back doors, as if it were trying to escape the spotlight before Jack Nicholson came after it with an ax. As we prepare to trudge defensively into this long weekend in which internet folks will be slap-fighting over sequels that cling slavishly to their 40-year-old progenitors, why not pause and pay respects to a sequel that struck a dexterous balance between old confections and new directions.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Ewan McGregor (Revenge of the Sith; T2: Trainspotting) is Danny Torrance, all grown up after that horrible incident at the Overlook Hotel when ghosts drove his dad into a murderous rage, or merely unlocked preexisting rage within, depending on your interpretation of Jack Nicholson’s histrionics. Danny still has his psionic powers, which he mostly uses to keep old spirits at bay, but he doesn’t have much else — no family, no job, no home, no hopes, no point. He wanders to New Hampshire and settles down at least temporarily, tries to get sober and gets a job at a nursing home where he and a most curious cat partner up to use their special talents for the benefit of terminal residents. Their team-up in itself could form the basis for a bittersweet paranormal drama about aging that would make Cocoon look like Dirty Grandpa, but alas, that opportunity is lost.

Days later into his attempted fresh start, Danny begins to see new visions. They’re not ghosts, but real people — others around the country like him, possessed of powers far beyond those of ordinary mortals. One is a naive teenage girl named Abra (newcomer Kyliegh Curran) who can communicate with him through the wall in his room, among other budding abilities. Another is a far scarier specimen calling herself Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson from Men in Black International and two Mission: Impossibles). Rose is part of a creepy clan whose members each possess their own powers and who travel the country together looking for other metahumans like them…either to recruit them or to butcher them and feast upon their super-powered essences. Imagine if Jean Grey, Professor X, and Deanna Troi bought an RV together and turned into mind-reading cannibal serial killers, and there you have it.

Danny and Abra continue connecting and detecting disturbances in the Force as the cult keeps flaying and feeding. The two sides clash to varying degrees of wins and losses, but Danny soon realizes there’s only one way to stop Rose the Hat’s kill-spree once and for all, and only one place where they can hope to overpower her. A very. very familiar place. You might remember it from such films as The Shining and Room 237.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Rose’s evil teammates include Carel Struycken, a.k.a. Lurch from Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family two-fer. Cliff Curtis (Live Free or Die Hard) is Danny’s AA sponsor; Bruce Greenwood (JJ Abrams’ Star Trek) leads their meetings. Jacob Tremblay (The Predator) has a small but psychologically damaging role as a baseball player.

Despite the recognizable imagery in the third act, Flanagan bucked the trend of reanimating past performances through iffy CG and instead brings a few old faces back to life the old-fashioned way: by recasting with new actors. Many filmmakers find this an intolerable abhorrence, which is why we got those two deeply disturbing simulacra in Rogue One and how the flashbacks in The Irishman may see DeNiro and Pacino get their first Oscar nominations for animation. I have to wonder how it would’ve affected the Avengers series if Bruce Banner had been played by a happy Edward Norton clone-puppet far more obedient and hollow than the real man himself.

Anyway: Carl Lumbly (J’Onn’s dad from The CW’s Supergirl) is perfectly fine as the friendly ghost of Scatman Crothers, a clever compromise between Dick Halloran’s fates that differed between King’s books and Kubrick’s rewrite. I was less enamored of the crucial cameo by an unrecognizable Henry Thomas (Psycho IV: The Beginning) who’s given a credit that sounds as though he takes Joe Turkel’s place. He does not exactly.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

  • Childhood trauma will mess you up hard
  • Change is possible but not easy; redemption may take even more work
  • New generations need guidance to avoid or fix our mistakes, but they can be far from helpless
  • Don’t talk to strangers
  • Seriously, if you’re a kid or otherwise vulnerable, exactly like Rick Springfield once said, Don’t Talk to Strangers
  • Yes, “STRANGER DANGER” is heard more as a punchline than a lifesaver these days, but it was coined for a reason
  • Some ghosts are friendlier than others; learn when to let them whisper in your ear and when to shut them down
  • To learn more about how to kick alcoholism, whether or not it was Jack Nicholson’s fault, look for an AA chapter in your area or contact another helpline that will listen to you and talk you through your next steps

Whereas Stephen King wrote The Shining during his heady, addiction-riddled early days, Doctor Sleep is very much the work of an older and wiser writer. One follows the Torrance family on their descent into self-destruction; the other watches Danny at rock bottom looking for the footholds to climb back up. Forty years can make a big difference in our worldview and invite much-needed retrospection.

Nitpicking? At 2½ hours, Doctor Sleep doesn’t feel that long while you’re in the middle of it, but the long haul toward the final showdown — a drive that in reality would take thirty hours across two thousand miles — is severely compacted to the point of trivializing it. That leg of the story could’ve comprised a film in itself, with or without the multiple stops that would be necessary for gas, bathrooms, food, or making smashed pennies at cheesy roadside museums.

Most squeamish viewers already know the Stephen King oeuvre isn’t for them, but Doctor Sleep definitely isn’t playing around. Anyone who’s especially sensitive to violence toward children may need to give this a hard pass. Some early threats are concerning enough, but one particular sequence with Rose and the Hatters delighting in a helpless victim goes on for far longer than expected and gets crueler than I’d presumed was permissible in a 21st-century mainstream release. It’s a grim reminder of the evil that real-world monsters do, but you might consider shutting down your eyes and ears until the carnage winds down.

Also disturbing but in a different sense is the film’s riskiest bit of recasting. Danny shares an awkward, tender moment with someone he never expected to see again, in a manner that brings him a certain sense of closure to some of his life’s broken aspects…but I missed a lot of that nuance on first sight because his conversational companion is really, really, really distracting. I suspect the idea behind it works better on paper, where the imagination can smooth over the roughness, than in live-action where your brain locks up in denial and rejects the scene for the first thirty seconds or so.

So what’s to like? In my comics-heavy youth, one of my favorite aspects of King’s earlier works — Carrie, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, et al. — was how many of them weren’t basic horror stories per se, but more like R-rated superhero stories, where the use of powers escalates into bloodshed because, left untrained by a mentor like Professor X, that’s a reasonably possible result of a novice mutant’s first exercises. With or without costumes, those are stories I could get behind. Doctor Sleep in turn reminds me of heroes and villains with mental powers who populated the worlds of Marvel and DC, fighting the X-Men, the Teen Titans, and other heroes with sometimes silly bad-guy names like Mentallo and Mesmero and Psimon and Mindworm and Brainwave. Flanagan doesn’t go so far as to have McGregor throw on a hoodie and proclaim to Rose, “Back off, foul vixen, or face the wrath of…DOCTOR SLEEP!” But it’s not too far removed.

Though the central conflict is a thrilling, surprise-packed, sometimes grisly war between psychic factions, that aspect is an external creation secondary to the more interesting extrapolations from The Shining: Homages to the original slowly flood the proceedings until they’re like a raging river in the climax, but it’s not a note-for-note recreation as we saw in Ready Player One. Old ghouls and sets and compositions take on new resonance as Our Heroes explore them not (just) for nostalgia mining, but for facing unchecked demons and laying them to rest, whether in their own minds or in the darkened hallways surrounding them. Unlike other films, your cherished cinematic memories aren’t used here as palliative backdrops for further comfort-zone adventures; they’re the setting for one last stand that may see them burned to the ground. And for a good cause, no less.

McGregor takes a while to shake off his torpor before he finally engages the problems at hand, which allows the women to upstage him with ease whenever he’s in their way. Ferguson the malicious mastermind and Curran the innocent ingenue are dueling opponents to watch out for — one the complacent harridan who treats her merciless killing as a Satan-given right; the other an up-‘n’-comer who’s only just beginning to test her talents. They may not have been in The Shining, but their kind and their successors will be the ones figuring out where paranormals fit into this world long after the Torrance family line has died out and the meticulously framed horrors they encountered are forgotten and buried under so much Rocky Mountain snow.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Doctor Sleep end credits, though audiences who stuck around for the very end could watch the screen fade to black accompanied by the faint sound of mournful, wintry winds.

What do you, The Viewers at Home, think?

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