Sometimes returning to the darkest nightmare locked away in a vault in a far corner of the psyche is the only way to heal. This is what happens in Mike Flanagan’s jaw-dropping adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “Doctor Sleep.”
Flanagan’s stunning meditation on the lasting impact of trauma eloquently combines elements from the 2013 novel with filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 take on King’s “The Shining.” The writer-director juggles all of the elements of this complex, deeply unsettling supernatural tale of selflessness, friendship and redemption with dexterous skill.
It’s been almost four decades since Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) and his family spent a catastrophic winter as the live-in caretakers of Colorado’s Overlook Hotel. Over the years, he has struggled to deal with his psychic abilities, becoming an alcoholic to quiet the ghosts that follow him wherever he goes. Drawn to a small town in New Hampshire and befriended by community handyman Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), Danny gets himself clean and makes a new life for himself. He even takes a job at the local hospice — the residents giving him the nickname “Doctor Sleep” for his ability to quiet their fears during the last days of their lives.
Danny’s tranquility is shattered when he makes the acquaintance of psychic teenager Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran). At first their ethereal conversations are benign, the two chatting about how she’s doing in school and how much her parents know about her abilities. But when Abra accidentally catches the attention of a roving band of soul eaters who call themselves the True Knot, led by the hypnotically lethal Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), Danny knows his new friend is in mortal danger.
Even though he’s terrified, and although he’s gone to great lengths to bury his abilities, Danny needs to be at full psychic strength if he has any chance to battle Rose and her minions — and the only way to do that might be to return to the Overlook and stare true evil in the eye one last time.
The film isn’t as consistently terrifying as Kubrick’s 1980 classic. But Flanagan, much like he did with his powerful Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” sets an eerily discombobulating tone, deftly intermixed with layers of complex human emotion, that only grows in resonance as events progress.
McGregor is outstanding, mining complicated emotional layers of regret, grief and addiction while, at the same time, conveying a strength of will and purpose that allows Danny to become the hero Abra somehow knows he was born to be. As for newcomer Curran, she is a fireball of energy and resilience; her character’s steadfast resolve is matched by her heartfelt selflessness. But it is a sensational Ferguson who steals the movie, her Rose the Hat a spellbinding villain whose craven, almost primordial evil leaps off the screen.
For those thinking this sequel is nothing more than another film in a long line of Hollywood nostalgia plays like the recent “Terminator: Dark Fate,” think again. Flanagan improves upon King’s source material yet remains respectful to the themes the author explored in his novel. Additionally, he utilizes echoes from Kubrick’s landmark horror classic (music cues, visual aesthetics, editing techniques) to further the story at the center of the horror, with Danny and Abra’s growing friendship the key element around which everything revolves.
“Doctor Sleep” is a monumental achievement of tension, suspense, forgiveness and sacrifice I’m not soon to forget.
★★★★ “Doctor Sleep,” with Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Kyliegh Curran, Bruce Greenwood, Carl Lumbly, Emily Alyn Lind, Zahn McClarnon, Alex Essoe, Zackary Momoh, Jacob Tremblay. Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, based on the novel by Stephen King. 151 minutes. Rated R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use. Opens Nov. 8 at multiple theaters.