Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” is a masterpiece. Enough said.
Kubrick’s film will undoubtedly go down in history as an absolute icon of the horror genre. Its incredible cinematography; vivid design, nail-biting tension, unsettling score, and truly harrowing performances make it a viewing experience never to be forgotten. Popular culture has given the film a legacy of being parodied to death, (it’s likely we saw Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, Chucky and the Annoying Orange screaming “HERE’S JOHNNY!” before we even saw the film), and it inspired the documentary Room 237, which centred entirely on theorists trying to unpack the film, (their interpretations include Indian burial grounds, the Holocaust, disappearing rooms, sexual hedonism, and Kubrick’s admission that he helped NASA fake the moon landing). While I’ve never read the original text, I am aware of Stephen King’s famous hatred towards Kubrick’s adaptation, but nothing King says will ever tarnish my love for the film. So I went into “Doctor Sleep” with mixed emotions, already resigned that it would never live up to Kubrick’s tour de force.
But . . . . I was pleasantly surprised.
I saw “Doctor Sleep” on Halloween night, hoping it would pass for a horror movie. However, the film is more of a tense, psychological thriller with some horrific elements than an outright horror flick. After watching “The Haunting of Hill House” through my fingers, I was expecting director Mike Flannagan to pepper the story with terrifying jump scares, but instead, the film is quite subdued. Most of the supernatural scares are either toned down, or lurk in the shadows. The horror comes from the sadism and power of the main villains, and the unspeakable things they do to achieve their ends, not from the vengeful ghosts. It’s unfortunate that the film can’t really tap in to the cosmic unknowable terror of King’s original, but it still delivers on all fronts.
As a direct sequel to Kubrick’s ‘The Shining,’ the film does not win fantastic points for book accuracy. After all, isn’t the Overlook supposed to be a flaming wreck by the end of the novel? But the writers should be commended for trying to blend the two completely different mediums, adaptation and sequel, into one homogenous story. Because for the most part, they really succeed. The plot is easy to follow and even at plus two hours, it never drags. The tense moments establish the nerve-wracking tone instead of slowing down the film, and the characterisations actually build character, instead of just relating a lot of garbled plot threads. The majority of emotional moments take place in complete silence, absolutely cementing the human core of the movie. The final act does feel a little disjointed, but I can’t deny this film has an engaging narrative flow.
Obi-wan McGregor, (sorry Ewan, but I’ll never be able to see you as any character other than Kenobi), is outright fantastic in his role. His American accent impressed me from the start; McGregor is one of those incredible actors who can nail an accent. As our tortured protagonist, Danny Torrance is incredibly relatable. Like his father, McGregor shows us the sympathetic portrayal of a wounded and suffering alcoholic, but his performance is much less axe-murdery. Torrance is instantly likeable, his morals set him apart from the other characters, and his struggle to interpret and deal with the horrors of his “shine” provide the emotional backbone of the story. However, half his screen time is shared with newcomer Kyliegh Curran, and I very well believe we have struck gold with this young actress. Curran plays telepathic teenager Abra Stone, with a performance as nuanced, quirky, poised, compelling and intimidating as any seasoned actor. She really shines in this role (no pun intended).
“Doctor Sleep” does involve flashbacks, but, in a wild card move in this era of digital de-aging, Flanagan goes old school and finds look-alike actors to play Jack, Wendy, Halloran and a young Danny. They are all astonishingly good. Halloran especially impressed me; everything down to the cadences in his voice absolutely nailed the original. The supporting cast were all very enjoyable, but despite my love for the two main lead, I have to grudgingly admit that Rebecca Ferguson as ‘Rose the Hat’ was the absolute standout of this movie. Far detached from Jack Nicholson’s gurning madness, Ferguson plays a charismatic, but still threatening villain, the type that can switch from delivering casual one-liners to putting people out of action in a heartbeat. Her slight Irish accent and kooky dress sense add to the dignified physicality of her role, and you can tell that Ferguson is really treating this character seriously. She exudes power and casual sensuality with every line and gesture, and it’s so much fun to watch.
Flanagan may be coming off the heels of Kubrick, but he takes full advantage of the prestigious original film. The stage is set by the iconic theme playing over the first few seconds of footage, and Flanagan follows it up so well. Fans will most likely be thrilled at the detailed recreations of iconic sets and places, from Stuart Ullman’s office to the shattered REDRUM door. Flanagan constantly emulates Kubrick’s ground-breaking cinematography, with extended takes and Stedicam tracking shots showing Danny Torrance wandering around the rotting husk of the Overlook. The film knows that we know “The Shining” inside out, so deliberately messes with our expectations. It’s a ton of fun. But for the casual viewer, I think they’ll enjoy the visuals just as much without context. Like “Hill House”; the style is dark, overtones of blue and grey creating a shadowy and often melancholic setting. Even bright sunlight seems either muted or over-saturated, separating reality from the world of those who “shine.” The scenes involving telekinesis or telepathy are exemplified with immersive, almost VR-like imagery, which ranges from trippy, to beautiful, to unsettling, to horrifying! My mouth was hanging open in a few of the scenes.
I say again, nothing will ever beat “The Shining” for me, but I was overjoyed at how much this film exceeded my expectations. It’s well paced, well acted, a visual feast and tense enough to have you clawing at the armrests. I’m not sure it’ll go down well with horror movie fans who like to be deliberately scared, but as an engaging character narrative and an emotional thriller, I think Mike Flanagan has just added another horror gem to his extensive list of films that go bump in the night.
Words by Rachel Denham-White