Wheeeere’s Johnny? Nearly 40 years ago Jack Nicholson went berserk in a snowbound Rockies hotel, smashing an axe through a bathroom door behind which a pop-eyed Shelley Duvall cowered in terror. It is one of cinema’s truly iconic scenes, once voted the most petrifying in movie history.
Now award yourself points if you remember that the family in The Shining were called Torrance. They had a son, Danny, a psychic little boy haunted by apparitions as he pedaled on his trike along the corridor’s hallucinogenic carpets. Danny has now grown up into Dan Torrance and assumed the form of Ewan McGregor who stars in the sort-of-sequel Doctor Sleep.
The Shining was, arguably, the crowning achievement of Stanley Kubrick, one of those rare film-makers accorded the accolade of an exhibition devoted to his oeuvre, which recently ended at London’s Design Museum. If you are going to bring the world of a masterpiece back to life, you’d better be good. The director of Doctor Sleep is Mike Flanagan. For anyone not steeped in the horror genre, his middle name may as well be Who? In the past decade Flanagan has written, directed and edited films with titles such as Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil and was the showrunner for two series of The Haunting of Hill House. Not many Space Odysseys or Dr Strangeloves or Clockwork Oranges on that spooky CV.
Doctor Sleep begins with a bird’s-eye view of a lushly green sunlit forest. Subtext: we’re not in Colorado any more. A little girl is warned by her mother not to wander too far from the camper van and soon enough she is being sweet-talked by a seductive woman in a gaucho hat. Rosie the Hat (which is a dumb name) leads a creepy posse of roadies and groupies who (as ludicrously) call themselves the True Knot. They have the ability not to age, so look just the same in 1980 when we first meet them as they do in the present day. Rosie and co. are technically not undead, but behave as if they are, buying themselves extra longevity by pornily fueling up on the dying breath — the so-called steam — of their victims. They exclusively murder minors who possess psychic powers, but such kids do not grow on trees. So the True Knot are literally running out of steam in the hunt for fresh prey.
Meanwhile, there’s Danny, now Dan. He’s first glimpsed as a troubled boy learning to live with his psychic power — the shine, as his mentor from the far side calls it. By the time we catch up with him in adulthood, he’s an alcoholic coke-addled hobo. When he fetches up in small-town New England he joins AA, spruces up and gets a job in a hospice. It’s here that the eponymous nickname, which has no plot function, is conferred on him by a grateful patient at whose bedside he whispers coaxing mantras about the journey to the beyond.
All would be well with Dan, but then he starts receiving messages from a psychic child called Abra (Kyliegh Curran). Abra reports the murder of a boy by the True Knot. Before you can say alakazam, they have teamed up to confront and destroy Rosie the Hat and co.
The Shining was adapted from the third novel by Stephen King. This is adapted from something like his 53rd. The best bits of King’s filmography have generally fallen into two broad categories: ones with blades and blood (Carrie, Misery, The Shining) and paeans to friendship (Stand By Me, Shawshank, The Green Mile). Doctor Sleep aims for a kind of generic no man’s land somewhere in between: to shiver your timbers with a spoonful of sugar.
This renders it a lot sloppier than The Shining. It’s also way less scary. My skin remained firmly unjumped out of despite many a helpful screech and thump from the Newton Brothers’s hyperactive soundtrack. The cast don’t help here. Rebecca Ferguson scowls and prowls like a rock vid vamp, doing psychic yoga atop her Winnebago and storing the breath of her victims in swanky thermoses. Ewan McGregor is as ever the personification of decency but cannot quite shake a Ready Brek glow of blandness. It’s all a bit Scooby Doo with better CGI.
It becomes clear what’s missing when the plot, having magicked its way round several awkward corners, eventually bears down on the famous old hotel. There Dan has an encounter with a Jack Nicholson doppelgänger and even pokes his head through the famous bathroom door (here’s Danny!). There’s also a good lookalike for Shelley Duvall. While the homage dutifully ticks these boxes it misses the vital one: there’s not a whiff of psychological savagery. Instead you get a vague stench of cinematic necrophilia. Also, at two and half hours, someone should have swung an axe.