Review: 'Doctor Sleep'

The past is hard to escape in Stephen King's sequel to 'The Shining'
DANNY MAN: After drying out, Ewan McGregor's Danny confronts his violent past in 'Doctor Sleep.'

The best parts of Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining (1980), do without Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King's senses of gigantism. It's not a haunted house movie trying to end all haunted house movies, even as it reprises shots: toy-sized cars on a snowy lonely road, or Danny, pedaling his Big Wheel down endless hallways covered over a strobing carpet pattern that sets your teeth on edge.

Director Mike Flanagan (of the terrific bad-mirror movie Oculus) sources David Lynch, who scares me far more than Kubrick ever did. Still, he mixes Lynch's ominous banality with accidental banality—there are small town scenes filmed in a way that look like Flanagan didn't have any opinion of a small town. The music is also familiar, even beyond the snippets of Wendy Carlos' moody Moog of Doom from The Shining, there's that echoing violin screech they've been using since Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The Lynch-ian elements include a haunted hallway in a suburban home, the light so uncertain that you can't tell what time of day it is from looking out of the window. As in Lost Highway, the hall has man-sized shadows that could swallow a human whole.

We commence with a pack of non-humans, nigh-immortals. Like the other-world denizens in Twin Peaks, they seem to live on what Lynch calls garmonbozia: the distilled essence of pain and suffering. The killers range in age from elderly (Carel Struycken, the hollow-eyed Giant from Twin Peaks, who looks like an evil Abe Lincoln) to a stabby blonde Lolita called Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind). They vape up their meals from Thermoses. "Steam" is what they call it. The best quality is hard to come by, complains Rose the Hat, the queen bee of this traveling coven. Something's polluting the essences these days—"too much Netflix?" she wonders.

The lovely and malign Rose (Rebecca Ferguson) is kind of a witch, kind of a vampire. Though her age and exact backstory are vague, she might have become whatever she is now about the time Guns and Roses' Appetite for Destruction came out. The undead are always a little unfashionable in their dress.

King's gift is rooting horror in everyday evil: the friendly stranger who beguiles a child and vanishes them forever, the temptation to destruction being as simple as that glass of whiskey you must not drink. The boy casualty of the Overlook Hotel, Danny (Ewan McGregor, at his best) grew up to be a mean alcoholic, just like his late dad, Jack. Danny floats into a small town in New Hampshire and is bailed out by a good-guy municipal worker (Cliff Curtis) who gets Danny to go to meetings.

Cut to eight years later; the chip is in Danny's hand, not on his shoulder. He's landed a job as an orderly at a hospice, where his empathy is put to good use. (These scenes about happy death are a bit flabby: the optimism is dismaying, starch King puts in as filler.)

Meanwhile, there's Abra (Kyleigh Curran), who has The Shining in abundance, a beacon bright enough to summon Rose's family of fiends from all the way across the country. In a state of terror, Abra telepathically witnesses them harvesting a little boy in Iowa—a scene of genuine horror kept in the faces of victim and victimizers, and not in the entrails. Abra has been in communication with Danny for years as a psychic friend. He warns against challenging Rose and her gang. But being the headstrong, affluent, Harvard-bound girl that she isÉ

Don't get me wrong. If today's kids aren't smarter than their forebears, we're all cooked, but in outline, Abra is the paragon child who seems to feature in everything Young Adultish and beyond. The point is that Curran does a great deal with the part. By the end, she's a heroic teenage sorceress such as hasn't been seen since the aforementioned Buffy.

What the monsters fear is something called "cycling," essentially dying a thousand deaths at once. As it ends, this movie starts to cycle, too—it's a reunion of the old beasts from the Overlook. The girl twins (hi, Diane Arbus!), the blood floodgate (Rose sees this and makes a face that says, "Oh, how quaint.")... Flanagan hardly needed to revisit this familiar house of horrors when the story he's telling was already a highly satisfactory horror movie: a bonbon for those of us who haunt theaters and suck up other people's suffering.

Doctor Sleep
R; 151 Mins.

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