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Doctor Sleep

Year: 2019
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writer: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Kyleigh Curran, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Karel Struycken, Carl Lumbly, Henry Thomas, Bruce Greenwood, Jacob Tremblay

A director called Rodrigo Cortés once made a very nifty little thriller called Buried, which starred Ryan Reynolds as a man who wakes up in what's apparently a coffin, the action staying with him in the box the entire time.

It was a pretty thrilling exercise in tension achieved through only dialogue and (one) character, and what could have been a gimmick turned out surprisingly slick and entertaining. His next film, Robert De Niro/Cillian Murphy psychic powers thriller Red Lights, was a complete dud. It felt like as soon as Cortés left the box for the rest of the world and tried to direct any action he just floundered.

I thought of Cortés after Dr Sleep, because just like writer/director Mike Flanagan did a brilliant job with Gerald's Game – considering how little Stephen King's book was about the visuals – he's given a much wider canvas here and doesn't seem nearly as confident wrangling it.

It's a pretty thankless job though and structurally, Flanagan does a great job of adhering both to King's and Kubrick's very different but equally beloved versions of the 1980 events at the Overlook hotel. The problems are all in the execution, everything just feeling the smallest bit like it could have been tighter, leaner. In just one example, Cliff Curtis as the kindly neighbour who becomes Danny's (Ewan McGregor) friend is pretty superfluous.

But it's clear throughout that Flanagan's tastes and loyalties lie with both King and Kubrick in equal measure. When familiar music and an overhead tracking shot appear (albeit late at night) following Danny and young friend Abra (Kyleigh Curran) on their desperate flight to the ruins of the Overlook, few film fans over 20 will be able to stop a broad grin of delight.

But there's a lot of shoe leather to get there, not all of it as successful as it was in King's book. A grown Danny Torrance is in the pit of alcoholism, just like his father, stealing money from nameless women he bangs and sleeping under a bridge.

Years before, as we see in the film's early scenes, Danny is still haunted by the ghosts of the Overlook while living with his mom Wendy in Florida, but when his friend Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) – who still communicates with him from beyond the grave – teaches him how to lock them away forever, Danny is free to grow up in peace.

Narratively there's no real reason given in the movie for why Danny realises he's hit rock bottom – he just decides to get on a bus, clean up his act and see where he lands. He does so in a quiet town in New Hampshire, befriending Billy (Curtis), a local guy who gets him a job, a place to stay and introduces him to the local AA circle.

Years later again, Danny is now a hospice carer, using his shine to comfort residents on the cusp of death and earning himself the nickname of the title.

But there's a new threat in the world, psychic vampires who've been criscrossing the country for centuries living off the essence that emanates from people who have the shining, calling themselves the True Knot (whatever that means – it was a pretty dumb name in the book too). Led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), they're desperately running out of food, but when they detect a presence that outstrips anyone they've ever known, they realise that finding its owner will see them in sustenance for ages.

It belongs to Abra, and her shine is so strong Danny can feel it too, communicating with her like a pen friend by chalk messages they leave on the wall of his cruddy loft apartment.

When the True Knot abduct and kill small town boy Bradley (Jacob Tremblay, who I didn't even recognise) in the scene a lot of the media were positing went too far, his fear and agony are strong enough for both Danny and Abra to both feel it.

She becomes convinced they have to find and stop Rose the Hat and her goons, travelling all the way to Dan's hometown to convince him to join her, telling him if he can bring her an artifact from the scene of the killing – a baseball glove – she can track them.

The race is on to stop Rose and the gang before they find and consume Abra, and probably Danny too, so they make a plan to lead Rose to the only place he thinks he can overpower her thanks to the monsters he's locked up there – the decrepit Overlook.

In the same way I watch the Overlook scene from Ready Player One on Youtube so often, there's a palpable sense of gravity in the Overlook scenes. Seeing McGregor and Curran tiptoe down hallways and into rooms we know so well is as exciting as if we were on the set of Kubrick's venerated classic ourselves.

And Flanagan happily doesn't scrimp, featuring most of the monsters and apparitions we know including the spirit of Danny's father himself (Henry Thomas – yes, Elliot from ET), posing as the iconic bartender Lloyd and trying to convince Danny to take a drink. He's also not at all shy about using some of Kubrick's iconic camera choreography, staging and soundscape.

The only problem with it is that it doesn't really seem to fit, only there because of its history and not because the plot leads it there, something King didn't have to deal with in his book sequel where the Overlook blew up and burnt down decades before.

Other problems are that McGregor is a good actor a lot of the time, but sometimes – like here – he's in mild ham mode. Curran is eager but far too raw a performer to fit in this story, some of dialogue is literally illegible, and where Flanagan made Gerald's Game uniquely his own, here he doesn't seem to think he has any choice but to stand on the shoulders of giants who've come before and doesn't seem to realise that the rest of it needed smartening up to stand up to either King or Kubrick.

The child torture and murder scene does indeed make Ferguson an effective villain as Rose, but like the rest of what's supposed to be a horror movie, none of it's particularly scary.

It's one of those movies I think I'll like a little bit less every time I think about it, and after making such short work of Gerald's Game I'd be curious to see if interference by a studio with mandates, King's camp or Kubrick's estate has made it a bit of a mess. Apparently Flanagan had to 'convince' King audiences would want to see the Overlook from Kubrick's version. Unfortunately, even if that was the case, Flanagan just doesn't have a tight enough grip on the devil in the details.

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