Doctor Sleep ★★★★½

The Letterboxd Era Catch-Up 4: 53 Days a Slave

Perhaps far more interesting than an already very good finished product was the revelation that Mike Flanagan didn't appear to be at all overawed by taking on one of the most thankless tasks perhaps in film history.

As acclaimed as he has been for a run of impressive horror films that, while not always brilliant, have all attempted *something* rather than determinedly ticking off horror cliches, the prospect of adapting Doctor Sleep still must have sat heavily on him. There were few complaints or dissenting voices about him taking on the task - there is no better horror specialist working right now.

Of course, Stanley Kubrick wasn't a horror specialist. That's perhaps why he was perfect for The Shining. He wasn't going into it in an attempt to make Stephen King happy and to build on or recycle themes of his previous films. He was able to cut through King's bullshit and make the best film that The Shining could be. Flanagan came from a different place and, having thought about it, for all the justifiable plaudits that sit behind him perhaps he wasn't necessarily the right person for the job. Maybe it needed somebody who didn't have such an attachment to the genre?

I was concerned when I read that Flanagan had been consulting with King about this adaptation. Not just because of King's legendary dislike of Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining, but because he has regularly proved that he doesn't understand where horror in cinema works compared to how it works in literature. Flanagan's work on Gerald's Game, which King liked, could even have meant that King had a say in Flanagan taking up the reins here.

Doctor Sleep doesn't feel like a film where Flanagan is making provisions for source material or King's personal likes or dislikes. I haven't read the source book and I probably won't, but this doesn't at any point feel confused or rushed, often the hallmarks of a director trying to cover a book's ground. At two and a half hours long, it shouldn't feel rushed anyway, but I've seen plenty of films of that approximate length that still get the pacing all wrong.

Then Flanagan had to address how to regard The Shining. Whether to reuse Kubrick's old footage or reshoot bits and pieces. If he chose the latter, how would the casting look? Would it be a distraction? Did he want the players here to resemble those in Kubrick's film as closely as possible? Indeed, does it even matter one way or the other?

These questions are a big part of the reason why this was such a thankless task for anyone. Flanagan does reshoot them, he gets everyone to try and resemble the originals in both appearance and demeanour as much as they can, and settles for it. They're instances that strike a tone of understanding that they won't sit well with many, but many others will find them agreeable. I was in the latter camp.

Alex Essoe, who I continue to champion as a much under-valued talent, finds the balance between nailing her Shelley Duvall impression (and look!) and providing a small but important role early on. She wears the manner of someone trying to suppress trauma while helping her young son to deal with his. Carl Lumbly tries less of an impersonation in following Scatman Crothers, but by having wider scope to deal with in his appearance, has slightly more to work with.

These may still be a distraction to some but I find it most important that they never felt like fan service. Flanagan backs this potential stumbling block up with an important recurrent theme in Doctor Sleep anyway. In The Shining, Dick Halloran gives the analogy of burnt toast, and that plays a regular part here. Certain snippets of shots and scenes seem like a leftover from what Danny Torrance experienced back in 1980. There's an especially interesting scene where he talks to John Dalton (Bruce Greenwood) in his office, and it more than vaguely resembles his dad's job interview in terms of lighting, room layout and Greenwood's demeanour as Dalton.

Possibly the main stumbling block that Flanagan has to deal with, however, is the inevitable return to the Overlook Hotel. I can't imagine how difficult it must be, with a film like this, to try and make the earlier stages of your film feel more substantial than just being a lead-in to what everyone is expecting. This is possibly why Doctor Sleep is so long. Flanagan wants to try so hard to make it more than just a revisit of what scared us so much the first time round.

I'll be honest, it felt to me as though the reason for going back was flimsy at best. This was perhaps the only real weak point of Flanagan's work here. He either doesn't or can't make it completely convincing. However, *when* we get there he does make it count and it feels like a satisfying and plausible return. It also adds to the legend of the hotel and sheds some light on the entities there and what they're actually looking for.

Really, Flanagan passes almost all the tests here with flying colours. What he leaves behind is a film that is actually shorter on 'scares' than The Shining but has a better flow to the development of the characters. The cast are uniformly fantastic - the shock of Jacob Tremblay's interesting cameo shows Flanagan's confidence and refusal to compromise to screen time expectations especially.

Emily Alyn Lind's turn as Rebecca Ferguson's wraith group 'pusher' is a real eye-catcher, while Ferguson herself finally bags a role outside of her Mission: Impossible performances that makes complete and total use of her screen presence and talent. Even if she does give up on the unnecessary Irish accent after a while. And then there's Ewan McGregor, also with a thankless task, but effortlessly and professionally breezing through proceedings as he always does.

Flanagan doesn't aim for perfection or even attempt to try and come close to equalling what Kubrick does. But in taking a leaf out of Kubrick's book and doing things his way, except when he has to defer to The Shining, the faith in him is hugely rewarded and Doctor Sleep comfortably puts all concerns to bed. Oh, and manages to be one of the best horror films of the decade to boot.