Stephen King's Doctor Sleep doesn't reach the levels of terror that its predecessor, The Shining, did, but it's unlikely that any work could. Instead of simply zeroing in on its connection to the past, the film expands The Shining universe, with writer/director Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House) creating something that never feels derivative. Coupled with strong visuals and a pitch-perfect cast, Doctor Sleep is a worthy successor to Stanley Kubrick's 1980 classic.
Based on King's 2013 novel, the film picks up shortly after the events of The Shining, with a young Danny Torrance followed by the ghosts he encountered within the Overlook Hotel. Speaking with the spirit of Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), who occasionally appears as something of a guide throughout his life, Danny learns how to seal away the demons within his mind. His history and powers take a toll on him, however. In the present day, the adult Dan (Ewan McGregor) has become an orderly in hospice while attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Living a quiet life, he slowly strikes up a friendship with a girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) as she develops her own formidable Shining powers.
Someone else who recognizes her potential is Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her band of Shining-empowered hunters called the True Knot. They locate those who possesses Shining and kill them, consuming their souls like a drug to increase their power and extend their lives. Seeing a feast in Abra, Rose begins to hunt her. With no one else to ask for help, Abra turns to her "pen pal" Dan.
The cast is phenomenal, with McGregor imbuing Dan with an inner turmoil that betrays his intentional kindness. He's a man trying desperately not to become like his father.
Ferguson is on the other side of the spectrum, playing up her role as leader of a deadly band of Shining-vampires with just the right blend of charm and malice to make her a memorable villain. The rest of her group is likewise well-established (if underutilized), especially Emily Alyn Lind as Snakebite Andi, who possesses the ability to control the actions of others.
But the MVP is Curran, in only her second acting role. Her Abra is charming, confident, terrified and even terrifying when she wants to be. She subverts the typical meek enchanted-child archetype, and Curran finds layers to the character.
Doctor Sleep also looks fantastic throughout its admittedly long (but never dull) run time. While it does draw on certain imagery and technical quirks from the original film -- get ready to see about 150 dissolve fades -- it also creates a solid number of fresh scenes and shots. The film is largely uninterested in being a Shining sequel. For the first two acts it's more engaged in exploring the story of someone who survived a childhood trauma.
Flanagan has fun showcasing touches of the mystical, with some (particularly a sequence in which Rose's powers are on display) ranking among the most impressive cinematic shots of the year. He's also a master of atmosphere, rarely relying on jump-scares to unsettle the audience. This is a film in which lights turning on can be enough to cause viewers to scream, and that comes down to Flanagan's skill as a director.
It's only in the final act that the plot shifts to the Overlook Hotel, now abandoned and decrepit. The tension is increased tenfold as the film finally indulges in some Shining fandom while remaining connected to its own story. It's phenomenal, with the actors firing on all cylinders and Flanagan absolutely nailing the feeling of the infamous setting. The director recreates shots from Kubrick 1980 film, but adds new levels of tension and meaning.
That's ultimately the most surprising and effective thing about Doctor Sleep. It operates in the same world as the 1980 horror classic, but it never feels like a retread. If anything, it takes details of that story universe to create something divorced in tone from The Shining.
Even when the movie returns to the Overlook, it doesn't lose sight of Dan and his development. It all builds to a surprisingly moving climax that places a button on the story of the Torrance family while leaving the door open to further exploration of their world.
The Shining was a masterpiece of filmmaking, a haunted house story about how madness and temptation can destroy lives. Doctor Sleep is more interested in the lingering pain, and whether it's possible to come back from such trauma. In doing so, it steps out from the long shadow of the 1980 film, and becomes something great in its own right.
Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, Doctor Sleep stars Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Carl Lumbly, Alex Essoe and Zahn McClarnon. It opens Nov. 8 nationwide.