Friday, June 21, 2024

‘Doctor Sleep’ Shines With a Quiet Horror

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Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is an odd sequel. The Shining, a book by Stephen King, which was made into the cinematic classic by Stanley Kubrick, is some 30 years old. Then King wrote a sequel and then that was made into a sequel. As sequels go it’s by far one of the most organic in recent memory.

Death is at the center of most horror stories but only as a spectacle. It’s not death itself so much as the gore, fear of bodily harm, practical effects, and just the joy of watching and reading about things that go bump in the night. But few horror stories look at death with such a full-on clear-eyed gaze as Doctor Sleep, a film in which even the supernatural fear death.

Moody and languid the film takes it time as it unfolds gradually pulling us back into a world we know either from Kubrick’s film, King’s novel, or both. Either way, Flanagan wisely resists the urge to copy Kubrick and instead forge his own cinematic path. Flanagan isn’t as meticulous as Kubrick but by no means do I mean to imply his Doctor Sleep is inferior.

Instead of being a story of isolation, the sequel is about how vast and uncharted the world tends to be. Instead of a family of three stuck in one location, we have a cast of half a dozen or so people scattered throughout the country. Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor) has grown up, become an addict, started his path on the twelve steps, and started a new life for himself. The horrors of his childhood haunting the edges of his reality.

Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) is a young black girl who has the same gift as Danny. Only, since Doctor Sleep is a sequel, she is more powerful and more in control than Danny is. The two begin an odd friendship communicating to each other using their “shining”, or telepathic powers. Flanagan uses a wall in Danny’s apartment as a way to visualize how the two communicate. The tenant who lived there before Danny painted the wall so as to be able to use it as a chalkboard.

Soon Abra and Danny become aware of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). She’s not a vampire per se, but it’s easier to just call her one and be done with it. Her and her brood feed off people like Danny and Abra, people with psychic abilities. Instead of blood, they feed off the steam which escapes when someone with the shining dies. 

This is all I will say about the plot if only because more than anything, much like Kubrick’s The Shining, it’s the mood and atmosphere which makes the movie so effective. Doctor Sleep takes its time as if it’s a yarn being told to us by some wizened old woman rocking on her front porch. Flanagan who adapted the book for the screen is less concerned with plot and much more concerned with how his characters react or don’t react to the prospect of dying.

One of the members of Rose’s family, Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), is a young woman with special gifts who was turned by Rose and her brood. As they turn her Rose tells her, “eat well and live long”. Later as a member of their family lays dying of starvation, Snakebite Andi stares horrified. “I thought we couldn’t die…” Rose turns and smiles, “Oh Darling, who promised you you’d live forever?”

It seems even the supernatural are beginning to feel the effects of climate change. After all, if you are a race of beings who feed off people with special gifts, what do you do when those people seem to be vanishing. Rose and her fellow vampires are growing desperate and scared.

Rarely do horror movies allow the things that go bump in the dark to have much personality much less allow them to have fears and anxieties. But Flanagan manages to walk the fine line so we can feel for Snakebite Andi, Rose the Hat, Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon) and the rest of her family without sympathizing and condoning their murderous tendencies.

Flanagan imbues Doctor Sleep with palpable anxiety and dread. The score by The Newton Brothers fills us with a sense of certainty and unease as the music eerily and quietly plays in the background of what are ostensibly just people talking. It’s one of the many joys the film has to offer as it scares us not with special effects or slashers but with the inevitability of death haunting every frame like a specter.

Michael Fimognari also shot this year’s earlier Fast Color a wholly different genre film but no less effective and emotive. Fimognari and Flanagan take great slow strides allowing the images to wash over us as the events unfold. The result is Fimognari’s camera weaves a much darker dream-like tale epic than the taut psychological horror of The Shining.

It doesn’t hurt that Rebecca Ferguson goes full bore as the desperate machiavellian Rose the Hat. She is a character actresses love to play due to her outward and blatant sinisterness balanced with her sincere motivations in spite of her less than honest intentions. Rose the Hat, after all, is merely fighting for her life.

But the true standout is Curran’s Abra. Abra embraces her powers whereas Danny runs from his. Granted Danny can be forgiven for wanting to run knowing as we do the events of the Overlook Hotel. But Abra is bright, cheerful, and brave. Once she learns of Rose the Hat and how her kind kills and feeds off people like her she instantly wants to stop her. It’s Abra who tracks Danny down and convinces her to help.

Despite what the marketing may tell you without Curran Doctor Sleep simply doesn’t work. Curran commands her scenes with seemingly no effort. The best scenes being the ones between Ferguson’s Rose and Curran’s Abra as they duel in a battle of wills. Her Abra is the engine that pushes Doctor Sleep and whose performance keeps it afloat. 

Flanagan pays homage, both obvious and subtle, to Kubrick’s masterpiece but never tries to emulate him. Doctor Sleep is very much it’s own thing and very much in the style of Flanagan’s earlier work only with a bigger budget and more expansive canvas. Doctor Sleep is not filled with squeamish deaths or heart racing jump scares. Its terror is far more chilling as it faces a hard and unsettling fact of life head-on; sometimes the terror lies in what we know is coming and our powerlessness to stop it.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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