Horror movie sequels are notoriously bad, even those that come out a year apart. So, the bar was low for Doctor Sleep, the adaptation from director Mike Flanagan based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name. As a sequel to The Shining, the book was a best-seller but also received ire from some King fans because of the stark contrast the book provided to the first. Flanagan had to choose how to situate his film. Would it be a stand-alone, a sequel in source material only, or would it be a direct sequel to an adaptation, which film version of The Shining would it follow?
In the very first trailer for Doctor Sleep, we got our answer and while the peak at Flanagan’s impeccable recreation of Kubrick’s Overlook got me excited, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. Heralded as one of the best horror movies of all time, grounding the film in the 1980s, The Shining is a bold move and one Flanagan pulled off beyond just the setting, as Flanagan recast iconic roles with new actors that not only evoked the spirit of the originals but were dead ringers for them. While I want to commend them each individually, it’s best to see them on screen for the first time unspoiled.
If you’re not familiar with Doctor Sleep, this direct sequel to The Shining was originally published in 2013 and in Flanagan’s adaptation, he goes to great lengths to map King’s book into the world that Kubrick created, which is famously different than the original novel. Flanagan does this so much that watching Kubrick’s The Shining immediately before watching Doctor Sleep may be one of the best horror double features to date. In the film, we get to see the life that Danny and his mom had after the Overlook and ultimately how that haunting and turned his father into a man mangled by trauma, looking for relief in the bottom of the bottle.
But Doctor Sleep is more than just a story about Danny and his shine. Where The Shining is focused on a haunting and the ability of a location to eat away at a soul, this sequel sees the introduction of a new enemy, a vampire-like clan that survives by consuming the magic of children. Where O’Hallaran and Danny describe their magic as shine, this new vampire-adjacent family describes it as steam, deepened in taste and power through pain and fear. As they begin to starve from a lack of magical children, they begin to look for a whale that can sustain them. That’s when Abra comes into the picture.
Stronger than Danny, than all of them, Abra (Kyliegh Curran) is a child who unwittingly finds herself in the vampires’ path when she stumbles into one of their murders while sleeping. But what makes Abra such a strong character, and one that stands out against many other protagonists whose great power puts them in harm’s way, she never once questions not doing the right thing. From the moment she realizes what Rose and her crew are doing, she wants to fight them, even if it means that she’ll be in harm’s way. Where Danny ignored his gift our of fear, Abra embraces hers, set on using it to stop those harming others like her.
Having communicated through their shine for some time, Danny has to make a choice, instruct her to hide and cut ties or answer her call and help her as Dick Halloran helped him, even it means returning to the Overlook one more time. Abra’s tenacious spirit and moral code is refreshing and represents a foil to Danny. As much as he is helping her, she helps him. In the role, Curran is phenomenal. Thrust into terrifying situations, her acting and emotion are perfectly read on screen. Additionally, Ewan McGregor‘s portrayal of Danny Torrance is terrifying in his apathy, in his sadness, as he begins to walk the same path of his father. McGregor pulls you down into Danny’s pain, while also bringing you up as his arc shifts and he enters a more paternal role.
The balance between Danny and Abra is one that is always appropriate, with authentic care coming from them both. As her Uncle Dan, he’s there for her when she needs it, to save her like he needed to be saved. Often in horror, magical children are turned into adults quickly, forced to grow when confronted with the world. But not in Doctor Sleep. Never once where she is pushed to be more than a child, nor expected to be, as Danny does what he can to safeguard her from the vampires hunting her, shield her where he can.
The rest of the cast is stellar as well, with no weak link on screen. As Rose, Rebecca Ferguson is beautiful in the same way panthers are beautiful. Graceful and incredibly dangerous and powerful. Crow is charismatic and cunning, although the anticlimactic fate of his character is my only issue with the film. We also get to see how the clan became the vampire-like creatures who live off the shining through Emily Alyn Lind‘s Andi. Finally, Cliff Curtis as Billy is one of my favorite choices of casting. His character also serves as the window into making the audience care for older Danny. Billy works to make us see the good in him, to believe that Danny can be the man we see at the end of the film.
While the casting for the characters in the new roles is great, it’s the casting of the characters taking over the roles made famous in The Shining is perfection. There is never once where I question the timeline of the story, never once where I find the references to the Overlook and the events that took place there as a just an Easter egg. Instead, Flanagan has created the perfect sequel to the original and one of the best horror sequels of all time.
Doctor Sleep wonderfully highlight’s Flanagan’s attention to detail when it comes to bringing the now dilapidated Overlook back to life. The wallpaper, room 237, the elevators, the twins, it all sings from the screen. Additionally, lines from the original are used to showcase Danny’s trauma and how it resurfaces in his adult life. But the beauty of a successful sequel in Doctor Seep comes from Flanagan’s ability to blend Kubrick’s casting choices and visuals while working in pivotal lines from the book and the 1997 King-made miniseries to ground Danny and his relationship to his father. Culminating in the use of “take your medicine” and how Flanagan uses it throughout the film.
While the film feels like both King and Kubrick, Flanagan brings his own visual style that has made me a fan since Oculus and captivated in last year’s The Haunting of Hill House. With this comes his particular sense of character-driven horror that is never dwarfed by the supernatural elements of the film nor the set pieces. In all of the chaos, magic, and violence of the film, the characters stand strong, each and every one of them. This balance is thanks to both the actors’ abilities to deliver the horror and Flanagan’s eye for crafting scenes with depth while still keeping his characters in the center.
Doctor Sleep is a sequel that comes nearly 40 years after original and yet does not lose its footing. By continuing the legacy of one of the most iconic and popular pieces of the horror canon, it also manages to stand on its own. While some, like myself, will be blown away by how impeccably the Overlook we know and are terrified of has been brought back, Doctor Sleep stands on its own merit. The vampires are enough to make its story be set apart, but it’s truly Abra and McGregor’s performance that makes this film succeed instead of imitating the original. Truly, Flanagan is a horror master, as if Hill House didn’t already prove that, and Doctor Sleep is on its way to take a spot at the top of any horror list made this year.
Doctor Sleep is a sequel that comes nearly 40 years after original and yet does not lose its footing. By continuing the legacy of one of the most iconic and popular pieces of the horror canon, it also manages to stand on its own.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.