I was late to Mike Flanagan’s 2019 Doctor Sleep, a sequel to one of the best films made by Stanley Kubrick, The Shining (1980). Did the likely best horror movie of all time need a sequel? No, but Stephen King did write the novel The Shining in 1977 and then wrote its sequel Doctor Sleep in 2013, and King himself did give Flanagan his blessing to adapt the latter book so a Shining sequel in 2019 wasn’t entirely desperate.
The premise of Doctor Sleep is simultaneously more interesting and more absurd than you might guess. Dan Torrance, played with characteristic likability by Ewan McGregor, has grown into a traumatized and angry alcoholic after he and his mother were nearly killed by his possessed father at the Overlook Hotel all those decades ago. He has his moment of clarity after doing something truly selfish and amoral in New Jersey and then taking a bus to New Hampshire where he is taken in by a kindly park groundskeeper played by the ever-reliable Cliff Curtis. After sobering up with the help of AA, Dan gets a job as an orderly at a nursing home where a white cat named Azzie is prone to lay on the beds of elderly patients as they are about to pass away. Dan uses his telepathy, what he refers to as his ‘shine,’ to comfort his dying patients as they leave this world by helping them go to their final sleep (hence his nickname Doctor Sleep). The film’s scenes in the nursing home are consistently sad and touching as Doctor Sleep and Azzie help ease the suffering of vulnerable people at the end of their lives and Flanagan and his cinematographer Michael Fimognari clearly watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master before embarking on this equally decades-spanning narrative.
A movie just about Dan Torrance and a prescient cat assisting the dying out of inter-connection and compassion alone could have been a strong movie, but King has consistently illustrated that goodness exists amongst evil and so one film about a sober Dan Torrance assisting the elderly nearly switches gears and becomes one about his fight against concentrated evil. As Dan Torrance is staying sober in New Hampshire, a young black girl in the same state is also developing her own shining powers. Abra, played with plausible precociousness by Kyliegh Curran, has very strong shining abilities. Hers are so strong that she not only reaches out to the decent Dan, but also a caravan cult known as the True Knot who murder children and feed off their innocence. If this sounds fantastical, just consider how seriously film scholars have taken seriously the premise of the Overlook Hotel as a haunted hotel for four decades. The True Knot is led by Rose the Hat, a woman who is evil enough to kidnap and kill innocent children and conniving enough to convince her cult followers that what they’re doing is justified because it keeps them alive. Rose is played by Rebecca Ferguson, who gets the film’s showy part and her charming and melodramatic performance would make 80s era Jack Nicholson proud.
When I first started watching Flanagan’s director’s cut, Doctor Sleep felt like highbrow fan fiction complete with flashbacks to the events from the first film as well as recurring characters from the original text. There’s more depth to this late sequel than meets the eye though. If the Overlook Hotel was a fixed manifestation of evil, then the mobile True Knot is an allegory of ever-feeding capitalism, crossing state lines and borders, leaving behind only suffering and death. Rose and her minions dress like aging hippies, but their counterculture aesthetic merely masks American capitalist selfishness. The True Knot only think of themselves, and what feels good to them and how they can take the lives of others in order to prolong their own lives and pleasures. In that regard, they share common ground with both the conservative anti-maskers of this year along with the allegedly liberal victim-status cancel culture mob of the past few years as well. The power of Doctor Sleep is that its vision of evil is all-encompassing and boils down to selfishness: from the self-centeredness of taking too many drinks to taking any lives.