[Disclaimer: Despite the verdict in the title, I still think you should watch this film. It is a film made from a lot of passion and love, and is unique in the sea of wide-release superhero films nowadays. And unfortunately, it is also not doing so well at the box office. So don’t let my opinion stop you from watching it. My negative view of this film is simply down to personal taste, and I have a feeling you’ll love it more than I did.]
Doctor Sleep didn’t put me to sleep, as the title might suggest, but it definitely gave me a headache. Because on my way home from the movie, I kept arguing internally whether or not I liked it, mulling over the film in my head over and over again. And I guess the fact that I even had to ask myself that question kind of already answered it. You probably already knew that from the title. But it’s the rare case where I actually feel guilty for not liking it.
Let’s first get all the usual review exposition stuff out of the way first. Doctor Sleep is directed, written and edited by Mike Flanagan (which really shows how much passion and heart he put into this film, hence my guilt), and based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Stephen King, which he wrote as a sequel to his 1977 book, The Shining. But a lot of the marketing has sold the film as a sequel to the 1980 film adaptation of The Shining, famously directed by the great Stanley Kubrick, and equally famous for sparking a not-so-positive reaction from King, who typically appreciates most of the films that adapt his work. King’s dislike for the film mainly stemmed from how the movie largely deviated from the story in terms of its themes, and also for withholding lots of crucial information regarding the Overlook Hotel and its supernatural nature. I’ve watched Kubrick’s film one and a half times. The first “half time” I saw it was as a pretty young kid, when my mom rented it and I started watching it because the iconic blood flood sequence, tastelessly spoiled in the DVD menu, really got my attention. I don’t remember if I was too terrified by the movie or if it was getting late that night, but either way I ended up bailing out and going to bed sometime after the “Here’s Johnny!” moment. I do remember asking my mom how it ended the next day, and she told me the kid trapped Jack Nicholson in the maze and he froze to death, then Shelley Duvall and the kid got in the snow car and escaped. So I basically spoiled the ending for myself before I got to watch the movie in earnest years later. Despite knowing how it was going to end, I really liked, possibly even got close to loving, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. I thought, especially after reading Part 1 of original book, that the main character Jack Torrance seemed to be kind of crazy from the start and not as sympathetic as his counterpart in the novel, which made his spiral into madness not quite as subtle or slow as it should have been. Other than that, the film is pretty much perfect. The atmosphere, the cinematography, Shelley Duvall’s screams… For me, it wasn’t a scary film, but a highly unsettling and disturbing one, which is what I think smart horror films should aspire to be. Despite the acclaim and status as a horror classic it enjoys today, the Shining was quite divisive upon release for some reason. Publications like the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post called the film disappointing. Film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert weren’t too kind about it. The film was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Director. And you know what? If Doctor Sleep becomes a classic film, people looking back will also wonder why certain people didn’t like this film just as I am currently wondering why The Shining has a Razzie nomination, and I will be one of those certain people. So I hope this article can be fished up in some retrospective years later to let people know why this movie wasn’t getting a lot of love at the time of release. (As of the time of writing this review, the film holds a score of 77% on Rotten Tomatoes, an okay score but hardly critical acclaim. It’s also not doing that well at the box office, as mentioned in the disclaimer.)
On paper, this movie should have had all the ingredients to be one that I would love. It’s a sequel to a movie released long ago that was very divisive upon release. It’s a slow-paced movie with a runtime of over two and a half hours. It covers themes of life and death, past and present. It’s director is an up and coming filmmaker who has made mostly small-scale, independent films that received a lot of praise and acclaim. Even excluding the fact that the film ends with a classic song from its previous film, Doctor Sleep was shaping up to be the next Blade Runner 2049, which, tied with A Ghost Story, is my favourite film of all time. So, I sat down to watch Doctor Sleep, having not read the book, and only having read Part 1 of the original Shining novel, and with some high expectations.
And for a while, Doctor Sleep met them. The movie’s opening hour, which some have criticized as slow paced, may be my favorite part of the film. In fact, the reason why I can’t wholeheartedly say that I absolutely hate this film is because of how impressive the film’s opening hour was for me. But somewhere in the middle, the movie lost me. I suddenly just didn’t feel invested in the characters, or in the conflicts, or anything in the movie really. A surprise in the third act definitely jolted me back and had me changing my mind, but the promise it held ended up just disappointing me. At first, I had planned to go through the entire movie, but the film is just too long, and I don’t have a DVD or Blu-Ray on hand to make comparisons and confirmations. I also just saw it once, though I do plan to watch it again some time, so I am prone to make many mistakes. Therefore, I’m just going to illustrate all the problems I had with this movie point by point, like one of those click-bait list articles, but hopefully more substantial.
1. Who is Abra?
A lot of people have praised Doctor Sleep for defying typical horror fare by focusing less on the scares and more on character, as it shows us these characters during their quieter moments, as opposed to constantly being in mortal peril. And I think this is something all great horror stories have. Before watching Doctor Sleep, I read Part 1 of Stephen King’s “The Shining”, which takes up close to 100 pages and almost all of it is pure character development and backstory. Not a single scare is to be found in these pages. We get to see Jack Torrance’s painful struggle with alcoholism and how it slowly tears the Torrance family apart from the perspectives of all three of its members, with very great detail. Unlike Kubrick’s film, every character is given time to shine and we get to know every single character very well. Even Watson, a staff member of the Overlook Hotel who gives Jack the run-down on his caretaker duties gets a lengthy monologue about his history with the hotel and his distaste for the manager Mr. Ullman. And the same can definitely be said for Doctor Sleep’s main character Danny Torrance. The first hour of this movie plays out more like a drama, showing how Danny has been coping after the horrific events of the Overlook Hotel, which have no doubt scarred him for life. Much like his father, he’s turned to the bottle to drown out all the pain and the fear. The movie doesn’t have as much time as the book to show us the slow and cruel effects of alcoholism on a person and the people around them, but it definitely takes its time to show how far it can cause someone to fall. In our introduction to grown-up Danny Torrance, he wakes up in bed with a naked woman after a night of heavy drinking, drunken brawls, coke snorting, and finally quick sex. Finding his wallet empty, he presumes it was robbed of its contents by the woman he was in bed with and so returns the favor by robbing her wallet. He’s about to make off with the cash when he hears the cries of a baby for his mother. Now you’d think Danny would probably not have the heart to take the money of a single mother, but all he does is plop the baby down next to his sleeping mother before heading out the door. Definitely a far cry from the innocent little boy who was watching Bugs Bunny cartoons with his mother in the film’s opening scenes. The movie takes its time to show how terrible his life as an alcoholic is, which eventually leads him to finally settle down in a small town, get cleaned up, and get a job at hospital, where he uses his powers to soothe patients as they enter their final moments, earning him the nickname of Doctor Sleep. He’s able to avoid his own dad’s fate, who was never able to stay sober as long as he did, and finally do something productive with his life. So far, I’ve had nothing but positive things to say, but that’s to show how much more lacking the film is in treating its secondary protagonist, who you could arguably say is just as big of a character as Danny Torrance – Abra Stone.
Abra is also a Shiner like Danny, only far more powerful. Powerful enough to send messages to Danny through words on his bedroom wall from miles away. Judging by this description, you might think she runs the risk of being a Mary Sue, as in a female character who seems to be overly powerful simply for the sake of female empowerment. But she isn’t all powerful, and there are moments in the film where she is weakened. Most of the time she uses her powers to provide support in fights rather than participate in them. So no, she’s not a Mary Sue. But a lot of the time, her great power seems to be the only thing her character has going for her. There is this brief moment where I thought she would get the same treatment as Danny, where we follow her going to school, and we watch her read the minds of her fellow schoolmates in the library. At one point, a girl who spots Abra watching her thinks, “Oh, that freak is looking at me again.” So is Abra ostracized at school? Does her ability to read people’s minds make it hard to interact normally with her peers? After she begins her long-distance telepathic pen-pal relationship with Danny, she tells her parents about the new friend she’s made, and it seems like big news. She also hides her powers from her parents because, understandably, it freaks them out. And then there’s this moment towards the end of the film where she watches a bad guy die violently and horribly, and she just sits by and watches saying, “I hope that hurts.” Isn’t that kind of unsettling too? There are a few, just a few moments that explore her character a bit deeper, and I wish there was more. More exploration of the loneliness that her great power brings, having no one to share it with and facing great social barriers because of it. And the inner darkness that such feelings of loneliness could possibly unleash. Compared to the rich development and arc that Danny receives, Abra’s few character moments feel like drops in an ocean, and what makes it even worse for me is how much potential it had. A very charismatic performance from Kyliegh Curran did save the character from feeling boring to the point of me not caring at all for her, but just barely, because it felt like she didn’t have much to work with in this story. When her life is in danger in certain parts of the story, I felt more bad for Danny, with his immense guilt for failing to help her nearly driving him back to the bottle, than Abra, which definitely isn’t right. Even though she has a lot of screen time, most of that screen time is simply devoted to pushing the “Let’s defeat the bad guys” plot forward. A lot of people really liked the character of Abra, so this problem is probably just a personal one, but hopefully my explanation makes enough sense for those who enjoyed this film to understand.
2. The antagonists just aren’t interesting – or scary
Doctor Sleep definitely is special in how much time it has us spend with the antagonists, a group of vampire-like creatures who feed on the power of people who have the Shining ability, known as the Knot. The movie even opens with the introduction of their leader, Rosie the Hat. The unusual amount of screen time they receive is no doubt there to try and make us have a better understanding, and even develop some sympathy for the villains, but as is the case with Abra, you never feel like you get to know the Knot and its members, and their sense of community and possibly even family. They all just come across as power-hungry maniacs who are willing to kill children to live longer. And their actions never feel justified or understandable in any way. And we never really see what drives them to commit such awful deeds. We actually get to see the Knots recruit a new member to their ranks, a young lady who goes by the name Snake-Bite Andy. She’s a sort of vigilante who lures pedophiles into having a date with her on the Internet, before using her abilities to put them to sleep, leave a snake-bite mark on their cheek for them to explain to their wives once they get home, and pocketing their cash. Rosie the Hat catches her after one of her little missions, and invites her to join their group so that they can use her power to catch more Shiners to feed on. And with just the promise of a long life, she accepts. And just moments later in the film, we see this young girl, who originally had a sense of justice, openly participating in the brutal slaughter of a little Shiner boy. Other times we just see the Knots sitting around in their camp doing basically nothing. We never see them interact with each other, laugh together, nothing to suggest that they care for each other and are in fact a family. The only thing that ties them together is their constant need, perhaps even addiction, to the power that Shiners exude, that allows them to live longer. You could say that their want for more life is an understandable, perhaps even relateable cause. The fear of death is a theme covered in this film, especially in Danny’s deathbed conversations, but it’s just hard to feel anything for the Knots when the only thing they seem to do with their extra life is sit around reading books and grilling steaks. Perhaps if we had seen their bond, their connection with each other, and feel their desire to be together for as long as possible, then maybe I’d understand. But it just isn’t there. Only once are the Knots’ motives hinted at, and that’s when one of their oldest members, Grandpa Flick, is dying due to not feeding on the Shining power for too long, and Rosie the Hat makes this great speech, which feels very reminiscent of Roy Batty’s classic “Tears in the Rain” monologue, about all the things that Grandpa Flick has seen and done in his time, and how he should not fear death as he has lived a long and amazing life. He’s witnessed kings rise and fall, made common folk tremble at the mere mention of his name, left great footprints in the sands of time… It’s a rare moment where we get some semblance of understanding of why the Knots do what they do, and even then it is just a short and brief moment. Every time we see the Knots, in a problem similar to Abra, most of the time it’s just villainous scheming to push the plot forward, like most other generic villains.
But not only is it hard to understand them, it’s also nearly impossible to feel threatened by them at all. There’s a very bold scene which I mentioned briefly earlier, where the Knot kidnap a boy and brutally murder him, as great pain causes the Shining power to be released from his body and into their hungry bodies. It’s not as graphic as it could have been, but the mere implication of their knives being driven into his body, and the image of the boy’s face covered in blood, and his screams… Man, those screams. It’s definitely supposed to set the Knot up as a dangerous force. But soon after, this one scene makes them seem completely powerless, and reminds you of the fact that the only thing they’ve done so far is capture and kill a kid, which makes them intimidating but not physically much of a threat. During the murder of the little Shiner kid, Abra was able to sense his pain and telepathically witnessed the Knot committing the act. Sensing Abra’s presence during their feeding, Rosie uses her powers to locate Abra and enter her mind in a visually stunning sequence. There, Rosie spends barely a minute inside Abra’s mind before she not only gets her hand mauled by mental traps, but her own mind is invaded by Abra, forcing Rosie to run away with her tail between her legs, not to mention a hand mauled beyond recognition. And she’s supposed to be the powerful leader of the Knots! As if to put the final nail in the coffin, when Danny and a friend set an ambush to fight the Knots, they easily kill all of them using just a bunch of hunting rifles. Despite being outnumbered. Despite Danny’s friend having no supernatural powers whatsoever. The only victory the Knots have is when Snakebite Andy, in her final moments, commands Danny’s friend to kill himself using her power. Couldn’t any of the Knots have used any of their power during the fight? Instead, the Knots just take out guns and shoot back. It feels awfully anticlimactic considering how powerful the Knots were set up to be. But Rosie is pissed now that her friends are dead. She takes all their remaining supply of the Shining power, kept in these little thermoses, and absorbs it all into her body. You might be thinking that she’s all juiced up and a million times more powerful than she was during her last mental duel with Abra. And there’s a big set-up for an awesome fight. Danny concocts this plan to lure Rosie back to the Overlook Hotel, a place hostile to people with Shining abilities, so that she can be more easily killed. Danny goes around the hotel turning on all the lights, awakening all the spirits in the hotel, before he and Abra wait in the Colorado lounge for Rosie to arrive. But the fight itself feels just as anticlimactic as the mass shootout that killed most of the Knots. Abra has a pretty slow and uninteresting fight with Rosie in Rosie’s mind, which is a let-down considering how visually impressive all their mental duels were before that. Rosie is able to break out of Abra’s illusions. Then just like that, Danny tells Abra to just give up and run, before he goes and fights Rosie with an axe. Which also feels kind of strange, since these are supposedly two people with incredibly strong minds. Why would they end up in such a conventional fight? Rosie ends up getting the upper hand using physical force and not her Shining powers. Danny ultimately defeats Rosie by releasing all of the Overlook Hotel’s demons, whom he had trapped in his mind the whole time, upon Rosie and allows them to devour her. It’s a cool ending, but the fight feels like it’s over in a flash. This is the fight that much of the third act was building towards? A promise of more visually amazing mental battles? It feels like Rosie, even all juiced up on Shining power, wasn’t really all that powerful. All in all, the Knot were set up to be new and interesting villains in the Shining universe, but compared to the Overlook Hotel they just weren’t all that menacing. The Overlook Hotel was a constant threat, always shifting and changing, and not once did the characters ever get an upper hand in the fight, whereas Rosie the Hat is easily defeated by Abra just halfway through the movie and most of the Knot are killed in a simple shootout. And when your main antagonist in a horror movie aren’t all that menacing, all the intensity and thrills tend to disappear.
3. The Shootout
I’ve already mentioned my problem with the mid-film shootout where most of the Knot are killed from the perspective of the antagonists, but an even bigger gripe I have with this scene is regarding the so-called good guys of this film. While Danny Torrance is shown to get into drunken brawls during his time as an alcoholic, there’s nothing to suggest that he is a person who is particularly violent or used to committing violent acts. His friend, Billy, who helps him in the ambush and gets killed himself, tells this long story at one point about how he went hunting and made his first kill. After he found the body of the buck, all bloody and covered in the stench of death, he decided never to hunt again. Yet, when the Knot fall into their ambush, he begins firing and killing like it’s no big deal. Yes, the Knot aren’t human anymore, but they still are living creatures, and the way in which they die is so excruciating and agonizing that a guy who balked at the sight of a dead buck probably wouldn’t be able to bear it. I know they had to find a way to get rid of the rest of the Knot and focus the final battle on Rosie the Hat, but the lack of hesitation in Danny and Billy to kill all of the Knot just doesn’t seem to be in their character. Their both incredibly nice and peaceful people. With Billy, you can tell from his story with the deer, of course. And Danny Torrance has the nickname of Doctor Sleep, right? Isn’t his thing helping people get through death, not cause it? And that’s already ignoring the fact that these two guys who live normal lives in New Hampshire have pretty dead-on precision with hunting rifles. And the fact that the Knot, who have no doubt survived many battles in their years of existence, are so easily wiped out. But the strangest thing of all is that young Abra is actually witnessing this massacre using her Shining powers, and guess what she says as the bodies of the Knot hit the ground, blood oozing from their wounds? “You deserve this. All of it.” And she says it in the coldest voice possible. Now I’m not saying that they don’t deserve this, but her reaction to such violence is weirdly out of character compared to how she reacted to the brutal murder of the Shiner kid earlier. Shouldn’t she somehow be fazed by witnessing so much blood being spilled? Now, this could possibly be hinting at Abra having a darker side to her, but since it’s never really talked about, besides from a throwaway line towards the end in which Rosie the Hat gives the whole “You and I are not so different” speech to Abra, it just seems out of place. Is this whole section of criticism just an overblown nit-pick? Yeah, it is, but it definitely is one of the things that really brought me out of the movie.
4. The Ending
When I heard Danny Torrance saying that he knew a place that was dangerous for Shiners, I was thinking, “Oh yeah, they’re going back to the Overlook Hotel. This is going to be awesome. This is going to be what redeems the movie.” But it didn’t. Much like the movie, it starts of amazing. Looking past the CGI, the night-time recreations of the incredible landscape tracking shots of the 1980 film’s opening are beautiful as we follow Danny and Abra in their little car going down the same roads Jack Torrance once drove on years before. And the Overlook Hotel itself looks incredibly haunting once the arrive, one of the few times the movie actually sent chills down my back, although I suspect it has more to do with the knowledge of what happened here all those years before. Nevertheless, the mountains of snow surrounding it, the absence of light, the thick layer of ice covering the entire hotel as if preserving to look just the way it did 30 years ago… The recreation is just perfect, although die-hard fans of the Kubrick film will definitely notice many discrepancies. It only gets better as Danny goes into the hotel and enters another flawless recreation of the golden ballroom, framed in a tracking dolly shot completely identical to the 1980 film, and sits down at the bar to be greeted by his dad, Jack Torrance, who has assumed the role of bartender. If you can look past the fact that Henry Thomas doesn’t look too much like Jack Nicholson from the 1980 film besides from the haircut and creepy grin, it’s arguably the best scene in the entire film. Father and son share a great conversation in which Danny keeps trying to talk to his dad, to confide in him the great pain and suffering he has had to suffer in the past years, while Jack continually tries to goad Danny into taking a drink of whiskey, talking of the how the hungry world constantly eats and eats away at a man and the only way to erase all that is the taking comfort in drink. Themes of the past leading one to repeat the past, the horrors of real life after growing up, and of course the roots of alcoholism are touched upon. But just as we’re exploring the inner conflicts of Danny Torrance, and things are starting to get interesting, Rosie the Hat has arrived and it’s time to leave the more interesting part of the story and return to the more generic “defeat the bad guy” plot. I’ve already gone over why I thought the final fight with Rosie the Hat was underwhelming already, so I’ll skip to what happens afterwards. After the spirits of the Overlook Hotel are unleashed from Danny’s mind and devour Rosie, they then turn on Danny and begin to consume him, entering his body. Then all of a sudden he’s turned into crazy Jack Torrance at the end of the first film, chasing down Abra with an axe through the hallways of the hotel. Thematically, it is pretty cool that Danny is now unexpectedly repeating the actions of his father, holding an axe and chasing a child around in a hotel. After all, the one thing that Danny fears the most is becoming his dad. But the execution just felt off to me. Possessed Danny should look terrifying, but for some reason, the fact that one of his eyes is completely white really took me out of it. Also, his voice is processed through some filter to make it seem like there are hundreds of voices speaking in unison, kind of like Legion in the New Testament, which kind of makes sense since he is being possessed by the entire hotel, but the sound of his voice also somehow made me feel less terrified. It’s just personal taste, I guess, but I didn’t find possessed Danny all that scary nor did I believe that Abra was going to die, so what should have been a tense scene ended up not making me feel much at all. And then let’s get to Danny Torrance’s fate. Danny is able to break out of his possession to buy Abra enough time to escape, and it’s revealed that he had rigged the hotel’s boiler system to blow long before their confrontation with Abra. He staggers down to the boiler room to make sure the explosion goes through, and kneels down on the ground, accepting his fate. In the moments before his death, he sees his mother kneeling before him, and all of a sudden, he is a little boy again.
Danny’s ultimate sacrifice should be the emotional peak of this film. Destroying the Overlook Hotel is a great payback for his father’s death, since, in a way, it was the hotel that took Jack Torrance’s life. It’s also the final threshold Danny had to cross to finally steer himself away from becoming his father by doing what Jack could not, resisting the hotel’s attempts to completely take over his body and finally putting his demons to rest. But I guess I wasn’t as invested as I should have been since the final fight with Rosie the Hat, and the whole sequence with possessed Danny chasing Abra through the hotel were just so underwhelming to me that I had already checked out by the time this great conclusion came around. It’s so strange, but I just didn’t feel anything by this point.
I really don’t hate this film. In fact, I really do appreciate it. Visually speaking, this movie is perfect. All the performances are great. There’s a lot of talent behind it. But the story just could not click with me. Its characters and the world they lived in held great potential, but I just couldn’t get invested in them enough for the film to work as a drama film, or a horror film. Honestly, most of this review was written kind of messily because I just felt like I had to get all this negativity out of me first. It might not make much sense, but it’s as best an articulation of why I felt like I didn’t enjoy this movie as I can give. I am definitely re-watching this film, not just to give it a second chance and find out if my wires were crossed on my first viewing, but also to give it some more support, considering it’s shaping up to be yet another box office disappointment like Blade Runner 2049. Who knows? Maybe I will see it for the great film it really is just as I did with the Shining. And if so, you can be sure I’ll try to serve up a better written and more thought-out review. But until then, shine on.