While thinking about Doctor Sleep, I kept coming back to the Hulk.
Maybe it’s because of the MCU Retrospectives that infiltrate my every waking moment, or some reviewers referring to the film as a superhero horror story, but bare with me. The Hulk is the one superhero for whom, unlike any of his Avengers teammates, suiting up isn’t always a moment of triumph. The mark of a good Hulk story is when you look at Bruce Banner, and his struggles against “The Other Guy”, and you begin to fear the change as much as he does. The Avengers got that right; Bruce changing was Loki’s plan after all, and it struck me (as it did so many fans and academics and critics) that the Hulk is a perfect metaphor for both substance abuse and anger management.
Doctor Sleep, and The Shining before it, is about that change. Jack Torrance, through his own self-loathing and problems with alcohol, was a prime target for The Overlook Hotel to bring the monster in him out to the point where he almost killed his wife and infant son, and did kill poor Dick. Doctor Sleep is aware of this change but, unlike The Shining, we now follow an adult Danny Torrance through his own problems with the same things his father suffered from. When we meet Danny (played by the ever-brilliant Ewan McGregor) the monster is out for all to see, so much so that not even he can ignore it anymore.
Okay, so this is going to sound strange: to fully appreciate Doctor Sleep you have to ignore The Shining. I know, I’m talking nonsense, the film is full of recreated scenes from Kubrick’s masterpiece, for the love of fuck, and has been pitched and billed as the sequel to the OG horror classic. Okay, so don’t ignore The Shining, then, ignore its reputation. Many reviews I’ve read, the unflattering ones, express disappointment that Doctor Sleep isn’t as scary or freaky as, you know, one of the most widely agreed-upon scariest films ever made.
This isn’t It Chapter 2 where the grown up characters do the same thing but with Bill Hader. You can’t just go to the Overlook and spend the entire film there recycling all of the same scares. There’s no anniversary, or Halloween-style podcasters, to give Danny a load of money to spend one more night there to prove whether ghosts exist. The film’s director, Mike Flanagan, already had the opportunity to do basically that very plot with The Haunting of Hill House adaptation and he chose to go a different way with that story, so he isn’t going to play for the cheap seats this time either. While it’s the next chapter of the Torrance family story, Doctor Sleep doesn’t want to be The Shining.
The best way to view the relationship between the films is through Danny’s own journey. The events of The Shining were the inciting incident of traumtic experiences that have affected him well into his forties, laying the groundwork for his addiction and isolation. Doctor Sleep is about recovery. It’s about facing your past so that you can put it behind you. And, unlike the Shining, it’s also more of a dark fairy tale than a straight-up horror.
Doctor Sleep’s plot is fairly simple. We follow three distinct threads: Danny’s long road to getting sober and putting his life back together, the discovery of a child named Abra whose ability to shine is incredible strong, and the exploits of a group called The True Knot, led by the villain of the piece, Rose the Hat. Rose and her compatriots are entities that forsake their humanity by consuming the energy from people with Danny and Abra’s abilities; children being their favorite dish.
From recovery comes growth, and that’s what drives both Danny and Abra. Danny’s resilience to stay on the path, and how he comes to Abra’s aid when she’s targeted by Rose, is the opposite of what his father did for him when faced with similair danger. Abra herself grows from a child to a teenager, her power growing in parallel – in fact, this is what makes Rose such a neat big bad. She and her family can never grow, stunted and trapped in their bodies as their would-be victims grow and change.
And then there’s that iconic hotel. The closer you get, the more you don’t want it to come. It’s not just Danny that fits the Hulk comparison, it’s the Overlook. What is so impressive about Flanagan’s approach is that he knows that in order to go back to the the malevolent hotel, you have to earn it, build its horror into your own story instead of just falling back on the groundwork already laid. It’s a testimony to the skill of the film, the emotional resonance, that when Danny finds himself back to his own nightmare, that I didn’t want him to go in. This is the place that makes men monsters. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the third act within the Overlook is fantastic.
Doctor Sleep is a wonderful film. It’s emotionally honest and it uses the horror genre to tell a story about recovery, about how it sucks, and that you just have to keep on keeping on. And, with all that said, I’ll allow you to think about The Shining again.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via ImDB)