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Doctor Sleep (2019) Mike Flanagan - Movie Review

Doctor Sleep (2019) Mike Flanagan - Movie Review

Doctor Sleep (2019) Director: Mike Flanagan Writers: Mike Flanagan (screenplay) Stephen King (based on the novel by) Stars: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Robert Longstreet, Carel Struycken, Zackary Momoh, Jocelin Donahue, Bruce Greenwood, Jacob Tremblay, Carl Lumbly, Roger Dale Floyd, Dakota Hickman, Runtime: 151 min Rated: 14A (Canada) 13+ (Quebec) MPAA rating R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use.

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains some spoilers)

An adequate adaptation

Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), a hospice orderly and recovering alcoholic, has a psychic connection with a young teen girl, Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), that escalates when a nomadic group of gypsy-like psychic vampires called the True Knot led by matriarch Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), become aware of the girl’s supernatural abilities. Director Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is an adaptation of Stephen King’s fantasy horror sequel to his 1977 book The Shining. It is also an attempt to cinematically dovetail Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining (1980)—which King famously and publicly dislikes—with King’s novel Doctor Sleep (2013).

Torrance and Abra Stone share the same sort of abilities called “the shining.” As a child Dan learned how to deal with his abilities from a chef at the Overlook Hotel, Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), who passed on what his grandmother taught him when he was young. In Doctor Sleep Dan becomes Abra’s teacher.  Halloran, who likewise shared a little of the shine, warns young Dan about ‘hungry devils’ who eat the shine off of people like them. From the beginning of the film viewers are alerted to the danger Rose the Hat and the True Knot pose to kids like Abra. They identify, abduct, torture, and murder them while feeding off of the pain, misery and fear they inflict. Members of the True Knot eventually waste away and die if they don’t feed; if they do feed, they "stay young, and live long."

Since Abra is exceptionally powerful in her abilities she becomes the Moby-Dick-like-White-Whale to Rose the Hat’s Captain Ahab-like obsession in her search for what they call “steam”— a supernatural mist that leaves the body during times of torment and death. To Rose, Abra is “big steam” since the True Knot is starving and almost out of their extra supply which they keep in canisters. In the past feeding was easier for the villains because there was an abundance of children and adults with the shine. But in the modern world the supply is diminished thereby making Abra a target. Unlike many horror film monsters the True Knot hide in plain sight posing as free-spirited RV enthusiasts one would often find parked in Wal-Mart parking lots around North America. And like vampires from time-to-time they will turn a human with the shining into one of them. Although this happens early in the film to a character they call Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), Abra is not one they want to turn because her power is dangerous to them they instead want only to consume her “steam.”

Not everyone enjoys Stephen King or horror in general but it’s good to remember that as a genre of literature and film horror finds its traction in the minds of some readers and viewers in a couple of key ways: 1) it subverts ordinary familiar things into something possibly fearful playing on innate paranoia. Basically that thing, whatever it is, wasn’t frightening before but is now because it’s been twisted around and turned on its head causing anxious thoughts or feelings of dread. 2) It takes something horrific like murder or death and refuses to blink or look away inviting the reader or viewer to think about the horrible thing presented. While Christians will want to avoid delving deeply or obsessively into the contemplation of evil sometimes they may want to honestly consider the raw unpleasant realities of evil in our world. King, in his way, puts the flashlight on such evils and is a careful observer of human nature. Based on his prolific writings he would likely fully agree with Jesus’ description of human nature: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20–23)  for King Horror can just as easily come from inside a person as it can come from outside a person. Director Mike Flanagan is no stranger to this approach and is no stranger to King.

Over the last 40 years rumors and evidence of child abduction, abuse, exploitation, and murder have perennially come to the public’s attention. Lone individuals and organized networks of like-minded people have perpetrated these horrific and evil acts. Strip away the supernatural gypsy-vampire mythos that King concocts around his villainous Rose the Hat and her True Knot companions and viewers will see a real evil existing in a very real world. Such people may not be riding around in RVs together but they often hide in plain sight. Before levelling accusations of overreaction, viewers of this film and even casual readers of this review who simply want to know a bit about a film they’d never watch should remember that law enforcement regularly arrests and convicts people of abducting, harming and/or murdering children. While the perpetrators may not be inhaling a faux supernatural visible vapor of pain and suffering from their victims, they are committing grievous sins which, even if they are not part of a twisted ritual, have a spiritual dimension to them. King’s 2013 novel addresses this thoughtfully but Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep doesn’t take the time to wrestle with this aspect of the horror. However, Flanagan does include the True Knot’s very uncomfortable abduction and murder of ‘Baseball Boy’ (Jacob Tremblay) which is also found in King’s book. But whereas a reader can mute the severity of what they are reading, viewers in theatres do not have the same freedom. Overall, the True Knot are presented as semi-supernatural beings just trying to survive at any cost. The inclusion of that scene is important to establish that these are not misunderstood ‘people’ but are unrepentantly evil at their core. Flanagan however could certainly get that across with a less graphic depiction.

Doctor Sleep is also a story about haunted lives and places where the ‘ghosts’ of the past must be addressed. These are themes familiar to Flanagan. In 2017 he adapted Gerald's Game (1992) for Netflix along with Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House (2018) a book that influenced King when he wrote The Shining (1977).  The Haunting of Hill House (2018) which Flanagan serialized in ten parts includes a character, Luke Crain (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), dealing with his personal demons and the ‘ghosts’ of his past while struggling with alcoholism and substance abuse, which is yet another reason Flanagan was a good choice to helm Doctor Sleep especially considering the casting of Ewan McGregor as Dan Torrance who earlier played drug addict Renton in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1996). Where Flanagan had more than ten hours to flesh out and build his addiction storyline in The Haunting of Hill House, in Doctor Sleep he has only a couple hours. As a result the addiction recovery storyline King wrote for Dan Torrance, son of the bad-tempered and violent alcoholic Jack Torrance (Henry Thomas, originally played by Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s The Shining), is not as nuanced and well portrayed in Flanagan’s film albeit still a positive, if generalized, portrayal of addiction recovery. It would have been interesting to see how a ten-hour serialized version of Doctor Sleep would play out in Flanagan’s hands. The casual viewer of Steven King adaptations will likely appreciate Flanagan’s work on Doctor Sleep however avid readers of King’s books may take umbrage at some of the streamlining Flanagan applies to his adaptation. Removing some characters and plot-lines to serve the runtime of a theatrical film dampens aspects of Dan Torrance’s addiction recover storyline and the underlying fear that while a person can run from themselves they can’t escape their own shadow.

Another change has a big impact on the film. King’s book reveals that Abra is actually Dan Torrance’s niece by a half sister with whom his father Jake had a drunken adulterous encounter. Dan then becomes afraid for Abra not just because of Rose the Hat and the True Knot but because she could sooner or later share in his family’s broken destructive behaviour something he sadly self-medicated to avoid with alcohol and then vigilantly fought against in his recovery. The combination of Abra’s anger and power is frightening to Torrance. Removing their family connection in the film cuts out almost all of this story and unfortunately removes some of the most compelling parts of King’s book. It also removes one of the threads that ties King’s The Shining with his Doctor Sleep by reducing— even setting aside —the generational impact of evil. Such criticism of this adaptation is valid because even with its supernatural elements Flanagan doesn’t rely on the tired and all too frequent use of jump scares so prevalent in today’s horror films opting for a more psychological approach.

Kubrick’s The Shining, while also clearly different from its source material, better accomplished this combination of supernatural and psychological horror. It may not be entirely fair to compare the two films but Flanagan’s use of musical cues like the nearly 800-year-old Dies irae —"the Day of Wrath"— which Kubrick used in his film along with the replication of Kubrick’s art design for the Overlook Hotel and its ghastly guests and staff invite such comparisons as does Flanagan’s attempt to dovetail the old and the new for audiences. Flanagan does his best with this challenging task but his efforts are not seamless.     

A major change to the character of Rose the Hat also hampers the effectiveness of the film. In the book Abra repeatedly sees her for who she really is. On the surface Rose is beautiful, but in King’s book she is occasionally revealed as having an unnaturally wide mouth with one single tooth, resembling a walrus tusk. Perhaps Flanagan thought this was a bridge too far for viewers or maybe the design team couldn’t accomplish the desired look to make it frightening and not silly on screen. Either way the film version of Rose the Hat without the gaping single-toothed hungry maw, while played pitch perfect by Rebecca Ferguson, lacks the grotesque monstrous quality necessary to fully realized her as a memorable villain. Perhaps this can be chalked up to ‘books can do things films can’t’ and vice versa.

Finally, Christian viewers should give attention to Torrance’s work as a hospice orderly. While not a medical doctor he is referred to as Doctor Sleep because he acts as a kind of helper guiding people into a natural death providing comfort by means of the shining. This contrasts with the True Knot who bring unnatural untimely death and distress to their victims. They bring suffering; Torrance brings rest and peace. On a positive note the film strongly advocates for an afterlife although Christians will want to be careful to remember where their true comfort is found. One of the palliative care patients says to Torrance, “I’m not scared of hell. I lived a decent life, and I don’t think there is such a place, anyway. I’m scared there’s nothing.” To which Torrance responds, “but there is,” he quickly adds that he doesn’t know what exactly there is after this life but says this about the moment of death: “It’s just going to sleep, and when you wake up—you will wake up—everything will be better.” The Bible repeatedly refers to those who have died with their faith in the promises of God as people who are asleep in Christ. St. Paul writes: “Since we [Christians] believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him [on The Last Day] those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Christians watching Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep or reading King’s novel will have more than an agnostic half-truth to lean on when thinking about their death or the death of loved ones. They will also know that eternal life is not dependant on the merit of living a ‘decent life’ as the dying man says to Dan but rather on the work of Christ Jesus on their behalf and the forgiveness found in Him given as a gift (Ephesians 2:8–10).  

Horror films are not for a wide audience regardless of the popularity of Stephen King. Nevertheless, setting aside the fantastical supernatural elements of Doctor Sleep, this film raises spiritual questions and concerns that Christians regularly need to address like the nature of evil and the falseness of man; the need to care for and protect those in danger; the proper care for the dying in their last hours; and the true nature of the afterlife. Can these questions be contemplated without watching the film? Sure. Could Doctor Sleep be a better film? Yes. Is it a bad Stephen King adaptation? No. There are certainly worse adaptations of Stephen King books and short stories out there.

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian Lutheran, Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGieseCheck out our Movie Review Index!

This review also available at The Canadian Lutheran online.