*****SHRUB-MAZE OF SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
The Shining (1980).
Full disclosure: the late, great director Stanley Kubrick made one of my favorite movies of all time (“2001: A Space Odyssey”), though I’m not as in love with his 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining.” For clarity, I don’t hate it, either; in fact, I much admire the film’s mood, production design and gorgeous cinematography. I just don’t find it terribly scary (ominous or uneasy might be more fitting adjectives).
Struggling novelist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) gets a caretaker gig at the luxury Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains, which is isolated through the winter season due to heavy snow and a lack of access. Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) will live in the mammoth isolated inn during its off-season (sans guests). With a huge supply of food, and lots of space to roam around in, the situation seems ideal for Jack to work on his novel. The Overlook was the site of some gruesome murders years earlier, and it was built on Native American burial grounds, so of course, it’s haunted as hell.
Five year-old Danny has an uncanny knack for telepathy and spectral second sight, which his newfound friend and hotel cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) calls “the shining.” This shining is a gift Hallorann himself secretly shares with the boy, cementing their bond. As the ghosts of the Overlook seep into daddy Jack’s rapidly warping mind, he goes on a rampage with an axe. Jack murders Halloran, who returns to the Overlook when he senses Danny’s panic all the way from Florida. Jack then goes after his own family in what may be one of the longest chases in horror movie history. Eventually Danny lures his dad outdoors into the hotel’s extensive shrubbery maze, where he ultimately freezes to death. Danny and his mother Wendy barely escape the haunted Overlook Hotel with their lives.
My biggest nit with the original film is that Jack Nicholson plays the insanity card way too early; there’s no buildup, no slow descent into full-on madness. He is a grinning, family-loathing creep from the moment we meet him, and he spends nearly two and a half hours just getting worse. Nicholson’s over-the-top performance certainly works well enough in the final act, but it’s hardly a stretch nor is it a surprise from where he was at the beginning of the film. Not helping matters is Shelley Duvall’s Wendy, who is portrayed as a nervous doormat who sets women back pre-suffrage; and we hardly get to know the real Danny Torrance beneath the poor kid’s veneer of trauma. The only character who projects any genuine warmth or lovability is Crothers’ Dick Hallorann, who gets an axe to the chest for his trouble. “The Shining” is an esoterically crafted suspense movie that I admire very much, but at arms’ length.
Doctor Sleep (2019).
“Doctor Sleep” begins with Danny (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mother Wendy (Alex Essoe) as they escape from the Overlook Hotel with flashbacks that painstakingly recreate iconic scenes from “The Shining.” The care with which director/screenwriter Mike Flanagan uses in meticulously recreating the Overlook is downright astonishing, and even Alex Essoe’s ‘Wendy’ bears much resemblance to Shelley Duvall. “Doctor Sleep” opens with composer Wendy Carlos’ theme to the original film, as well as the blue-lettered opening credits and Kubrickian aerial shots. Minor gripe; I could’ve done without the near-omnipresent heartbeat on the new film’s soundtrack. Sometimes, less truly is more.
After the tragedy at the Overlook, we see mother and son making a new life for themselves in sunny Florida, far away from the horrors they fled in Colorado. Danny is still plagued by his ‘shining’, and even sees the ghost of the late Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) who advises the young boy as a spectral mentor. Hallorann still affectionately refers to the boy as “Doc”… a nickname the adult Danny will reacquire in a circuitous way.
While Danny and his mother settle into their new life, we see a new threat emerge in the form of an attractive, powerful woman who goes by “Rose the Hat” (Rebecca Ferguson). Rose leads a band of quasi-immortal vagabonds known as ‘The True Knot,’ who roam the country in RVs feeding off of the life essence (“steam”) generated from children gifted with the shining. The True Knot torture their young victims to death, since terror elicits the most pure and powerful steam for these vampiric succubi (their life-force ingestions look like a homicidal form of vaping). Their first onscreen victim is a young girl named Violet (Violet McGraw), who is both drawn to and afraid of the mysterious Rose, like Little Red Riding Hood to the Wolf.
We then cut to 2011, where we see a rock-bottom Danny, now Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), desperately addicted to drugs and alcohol, surviving bar brawls, and sleeping with thieving strangers. Years spent trying to numb both his trauma and his own shining have made Dan very self-destructive (think “The Sixth Sense” with a much unhappier ending). In desperation, Dan flees to a quiet town in New Hampshire, where he meets a kindly stranger named Bill Freeman (“Fear the Walking Dead”’s Cliff Curtis). With no strings attached, Bill generously offers him a place to live and a job as an orderly at a local hospice. Dan also enrolls at a local Alcoholics Anonymous to get himself cleaned up.
Around this same time, we see Rose in a movie theater with one of her Knot pack, a Charles Manson-ish number named “Crow Daddy” (Zahn McClarnon). They’re both quietly observing a teenage girl they’ve been drawn to… a young hustler named “Snakebite” Andi (Emily Alyn Lind). Andi is what is known in psychic circles as a “pusher”; a person whose will can override that of others by mere suggestion… an ability she uses to meet married men online and hustle them out of their money on illicit dates. She ends these dates by scarring the men’s cheeks like a snakebite (hence the nickname). Rose and Crow consider kidnapping and killing Andi for her life-force, but decide she might be more valuable as a recruit. They seduce the willful young woman with a devil’s old promise of eternal youth…and it works.
The True Knot target their next victim at a Little League baseball game in rural Iowa, where a gifted young batter (“Room” star Jacob Tremblay) seems to know exactly what the pitcher is thinking (he does, courtesy of his shining). The Knot are drawn to the boy, and they follow him home where new recruit Andi tempts the young boy just long enough for the others to grab him. In a very painful-to-watch scene, the young boy is viciously murdered for his “steam”, as the Knot feed and keep the remainder in a metallic cylinder for later (the cylinders are how they store steam for leaner times). The murder of the boy creates such a disturbing psychic rift that it jolts gifted teenage psychic Abra “Abra Cadabra” Stone (Kyleigh Curran) to wake up screaming. Soon Abra realizes that she is being targeted by Rose, who seeks her powerful life-force. Rose is shopping in a drugstore when she senses Abra’s mind. As she attempts to probe Abra’s mental defenses, Rose is literally knocked on her ass (losing her signature hat) by the power of Abra’s own mind. After feasting on gifted children with her fellow Knots, Rose realizes Abra is something much greater than she’s yet encountered. This is Jedi/X-Men stuff…
Immediately realizing the danger of The True Knot, 14-year old Abra reaches out with her almost Cerebro-like power and contacts another powerful “shiner”, middle-aged Dan Torrance. At first, she creates playful text messages for him on a chalkboard wall of the attic room he rents. But after the gruesome death of the young ballplayer, she cracks his chalkboard with a desperate text straight from his own childhood: ‘MURDER’ (the “REDRUM” chant a possessed young Danny frantically conveyed to his own mother in “The Shining”).
Against his own judgment, the two texting shiners meet discretely on a park bench in Dan’s neighborhood. Dan is worried that the sight of a middle-aged man talking with a teenage girl might arouse suspicion, but Abra assures him that he’s her uncle (a connection reified in the novel, I understand). A sympathetic Dan tells her that he is unable to help nevertheless, and that she needs to go home and forget about him (it needs to be said that Kyleigh Curran gives a remarkable and instantly likable performance in this film).
At the hospice where Dan works, he has been given the nickname “Doctor Sleep”, due to his shining-aided talent to ease the suffering of terminal patients into gentle death. After he once again exercises his talents to ease yet another dying old patient’s suffering, he is visited by the ghost of his long-dead childhood friend Hallorann. Hallorann tells him this is the last time he’ll be ‘dreaming’ in the world of the living (which is how ghosts perceive our reality… as a spectral dream), but he needs to persuade Dan to help Abra. Dan takes the advice of his dead mentor and does the right thing.
Dan wakes up his friend Bill for help, and the two of them drive out to dig up the shallow grave of the young ballplayer (using Abra as a psychic guide). The body of the dead boy convinces an initially skeptical Bill that the threat of the True Knot is real. Using the power of Abra’s shining as bait, they set a trap for the True Knot using Abra’s astral projection as a decoy. The vampiric vagabonds are ambushed by Dan and Bill, who use Bill’s old hunting rifles to put down the marauding clan. Tragically, Bill shoots himself (though the suggestion of dying pusher Andi), but not after most of the remaining True Knot are also killed in the offensive (the Knot disintegrate like vampires when they die). Rose, who couldn’t accompany her clan, feels their deaths acutely. Crow Daddy sees past the trap however, and kidnaps the astral-projecting Abra from her parent’s house, murdering her father in the process. Later, a drugged but conscious Abra uses her own powers to escape from Crow, whom she kills by slamming his kidnap van into a tree (an immortal with no fear of death never thinks to wear seatbelts…) and she eventually reunites with Dan.
At this point the movie is stripped of all supporting players and is boiled down to the psychic triad of Dan, Abra and Rose. Dan’s dangerous new strategy is to lure Rose to the Overlook Hotel (once again using Abra as bait), and releasing all of the ghosts whom he has psychically ‘trapped’ over the years, using a technique taught to him in childhood by Hallorann’s ghost. It is hoped that the freed hungry ghosts of the dilapidated Overlook will overpower and devour Rose. Dan and Abra drive across state lines into Colorado (um…that’s kidnapping, Dan), up the mountains to the long-abandoned Overlook. This final act at the Overlook is the reunion fans of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” have been anticipating, even if it was never expressly asked for, much like Norman Bates returning to the Bates Motel in “Psycho II” (1983) or the American astronauts boarding the abandoned spaceship Discovery in “2010” (1984); two other perfectly solid sequels to classic films (by Alfred Hitchcock and Kubrick) with which “Doctor Sleep” shares a kinship.
Dan leaves Abra safely in the car while he goes into the ancient behemoth hotel. Priming the ancient generator, he gets electricity going and surveys his old haunts, including the now-cobwebbed corridors he used to race down on his toy tricycle, as well as the bathroom door his dad chopped through with an axe nearly four decades earlier. Ah, memories...
Making his way into the “Gold Room”, the giant ballroom and bar where daddy Jack used to drown his sorrows to ghostly barkeeps. Dan encounters the ghost of Lloyd the bartender, who is now wearing the face of Jack (actor Henry Thomas doubling as Jack Nicholson). ‘Dad’ tempts his ‘son’ with a drink… a temptation that eight years-sober Dan is able to resist. The ghostly reunion is broken by a psychic warning from Abra… Rose is coming.
The confrontation at the Overlook is well-staged, with mountains of visual homages to the original, including an axe-wielding Danny looking to kick some psychic ass, and even a chase through the Overlook’s snowy hedge maze.
During his death struggle with Rose, Dan is injured, leaving him with his late dad’s iconic axe and limp. As he unleashed the hotel’s army of hungry ghosts to feed on the psychic banquet of Rose’s life-force, Dan himself is possessed by the ghosts of the Overlook, and begins to chase after Abra (axe in hand). The willful young Abra manages to snap him out of it, and he urges her to escape, choosing to remain behind and set fire to the Overlook, purifying the haunted site once and for all.
The coda sees Abra with her now-widowed mother (Jocelin Donahue), back at home, recovering from their traumas and loss (much like young Danny and Wendy at the start of the film). Dan apparently was lost in the fire, but he returns (ala Hallorann) to mentor Abra in how to deal with any surviving Overlook ghosts who might seek her out…
In The Shining’s Shadow.
It’s clear from the start of the movie that screenwriter/director Mike Flanagan, adapting from Stephen King’s novel, is very much in love with Stanley Kubrick’s vision of “The Shining.” The set recreations from the original are near-flawless, and the roles of young Danny, Wendy and Dick Hallorann are recast with a sharp eye and ear; the new actors fill in for the originals seamlessly (with extra kudos to Carl Lumbly’s Hallorann).
The recast Jack Torrance (former “E.T” child actor Henry Thomas), seen in the Overlook bar scene, is a bit less over-the-top than his predecessor (in fairness, Thomas is playing Lloyd the bartender’s ghost assuming Jack’s visage, but close enough). While I love Jack Nicholson’s work in his earlier films (“Chinatown” “Five Easy Pieces” “The Last Detail”), I think “The Shining” was the beginning of the actor becoming a caricature of himself. That caricature was solidified in 1989’s “Batman” (where he played another homicidal maniac named Jack… aka “the Joker”).
Director Mike Flanagan’s painstakingly meticulous recreations of so many of “Shining”’s iconic moments (the Grady twins, the bathtub ghoul, the hedge maze chase, the dead party guests, the ever-present heartbeat, etc) are also an arguable impediment to this otherwise solid film.
In my opinion, the essential story of “Doctor Sleep” is strong enough on its own merits without the barrage of “Shining” fan service at its climax. That said, there are enough original elements to set it apart from its iconic predecessor.
“Doctor Sleep” Awakens.
“Doctor Sleep” may be one of those sequels that will (judging by its current box office) be under-appreciated in its own time, only to be rediscovered by future audiences. Much of the film’s strength is with its own interesting cadre of characters, as well as the care in its overall craftsmanship. As a horror flick, it isn’t very frightening (though the murder of the Little Leaguer is deeply disturbing). But then again, I never found the original “Shining” to be particularly scary, either; for me, both sequel and predecessor fall more into a sub-genre of supernatural tales rather than balls-out horror.
“Doctor Sleep” is painted with a warmer palette than the colder, unsympathetic original. Its protagonists are nicer people, and that goes a long way towards giving non–devotees a hook into this new story. I also very much enjoyed the performances of Ewan McGregor’s flawed hero “Dan Torrance”, Rebecca Ferguson’s wonderfully witchy “Rose,” and especially of Kyleigh Curran’s “Abra Stone”; she’s a scene stealer.
I think the more accessible approach of the sequel offers a nice contrast from the original classic film, rather than just lazily copying it. That approach might very well incur the wrath of hardcore “Shining” fans, and I can understand why; I had similar misgivings when I first went to see “Psycho II”, “2010” and “Exorcist III”, but all three movies eventually won me over once I accepted them on their own terms. While movie fans certainly didn’t want or need a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 film, this little sleeper sequel might be just what the Doctor ordered someday.