Orson Welles once said that the trick of a happy ending “depends, of course, on where you stop your story,” and in a culture besotted with sequels and franchise extensions, it’s hard for that happiness to last. The Shining ends with Danny Torrance and his mother Wendy escaping from their abusive drunk of a father and husband, leaving his tortured soul to haunt the frozen remains of the Overlook Hotel. But that ending is only a relief if you don’t think about it too hard. What’s next for Wendy, nearly murdered by the man she once loved? And what about Danny? The things he experiences in the movie—not just his father’s spiraling madness but ambulatory corpses and hallways awash in a river of blood—are not the kind you just put behind you and move on from.
Stephen King has never gotten over The Shining either. He’s infamously un-fond of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation, so much so that he oversaw a more faithful, and instantly forgotten, TV miniseries version in the late 1990s. King’s sequel, Doctor Sleep, naturally follows from his original novel, but Mike Flanagan, who wrote and directed the new screen version, has the unusual task of fashioning a movie that fits both King’s book and Kubrick’s film, pleasing a writer who hates the latter and the fans who love it.
Doctor Sleep’s solution, in a sense, is to do neither. Those who love the ominous mystery of Kubrick’s movie are likely to find Flanagan’s baggy and overplotted, not to mention bristling at its literal-minded re-creation of Kubrick’s iconic images. (Alex Essoe, who takes over the role of Wendy, does a startlingly good job of evoking Shelley Duvall’s train whistle inflections without mimicking her; Henry Thomas, tasked with the role of embodying Wendy’s late husband, falls before an admittedly impossible task.) Where The Shining mumbles some nonsense about Indian burial grounds as an all-purpose excuse for its lingering horrors, Doctor Sleep introduces us to Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her band of itinerant soul-eaters, a traveling caravan of quasi-immortal monsters who feast on the abilities of people like Danny, especially when they’re young and pure.
After a brief prologue that shows Danny and his mother resettling in sunny Florida, Doctor Sleep jumps to the present day, where Dan (Ewan McGregor), as he now calls himself, is still having a rough time of it. He’s found a niche in small-town New Hampshire and finally gotten a handle on the alcoholism that’s plagued him for decades. But he’s not really OK. Like the grown-up children in Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House, he’s been broken in a way that can never mend. Just scraping by is a triumph.
The existence of Rose and her band, known as the True Knot, has also lately grown fraught. The “steam” they extract from their victims—preferably young, purified by pain and fear—has grown less plentiful in recent years (one member suggests that cellphones may have something to do with it), and they’ve become more desperate. With her flowing shirts and hair beads, Rose looks like the star of a Stevie Nicks tribute band, but when she and her cohort get hungry, she’ll gleefully torture a little boy and suck the breath from his lungs.
What exactly this has to do with The Shining doesn’t become clear until Doctor Sleep’s final act, when Dan is called upon to save a teenage girl (Kyliegh Curran) from Rose et al.’s clutches, and to confront his own (literal) demons. This last section leans heaviest on Kubrick’s movie, and in practical terms, it’s the reason Doctor Sleep exists at all. But it also feels tacked on, like a graft that never quite took. (It also doesn’t help that the movie arrives the year after Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which more explicitly, and ingeniously, addresses the manufacture of Kubrick fan fiction.)
One of Doctor Sleep’s early scenes is set in a movie theater, and as the characters walk away, you can see that the marquee looming behind them reads “Now Showing: Casablanca.” It could be a charming homage to a film classic as long as you don’t remember that, to the people who greenlit Doctor Sleep, that movie is just another piece of Warner Bros.’ intellectual property, perhaps someday to get an unneeded sequel of its own. Flanagan is more faithful to The Shining than he was to Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, but he ends each with a twist that functions as a smug reproach—unintentionally in Hill House, and very much at King’s bidding in Doctor Sleep. He’s become a horror director who gives in to happy endings, who wants to slam the lid shut and assure us that the ghosts are gone for good. But even in Doctor Sleep, the ghosts are just dormant, waiting for their next victim—or their next turn in the spotlight.