Who on Earth would want the responsibility of making a sequel to “The Shining?” Stanley Kubrick’s seminal horror film is about as widely beloved as a movie can be, with a reputation that ranges from slumber party staple to arthouse classic to bottomless gold mine for conspiracy theorists, among other things. What’s more, it’s almost completely self-contained, trapping a family unit in an empty hotel with a bunch of ghouls in the middle of a blizzard, suggesting little outside of its story. And though it has inspired many imitators, none have managed to capture the bizarre intensity of the genuine product.
Of course, Stephen King already did make a sequel to “The Shining.” The author has voiced his displeasure with Kubrick’s adaptation of his work and continued his version with the novel “Doctor Sleep” earlier this decade. Warner Bros.’ inevitable ordering of a belated sequel to the 1980 film poses an odd puzzle: How should a sequel balance the gargantuan personalities of both Kubrick and King? For director Mike Flanagan, the man that took on this project, the answer is simple. Make a straight-down-the-middle genre film with no pretensions other than threading a good yarn and crafting some effective scares.
Decades after Jack Torrance froze to death attempting to kill his wife and son with an ax, the young Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has grown up and taken up his belligerent father’s vices, guzzling booze and picking fights. Attempting to sober up, he moves to a small town, begins to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and takes up a night job in a hospice. There, he uses his “shine,” the telepathic abilities he’s been burdened with since childhood, to ease dying patients into the great beyond. His reawakened powers connect him to Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl struggling to live a normal adolescent life by repressing her shine. More troublingly, the two also attract the attention of a band of vampiric drifters led by a woman named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who eats the souls of children and wears a silly hat.
Between a vintage Warner Bros. logo and some slavishly recreated shot compositions, there are more than a few early touches that suggest a dully cutesy homage to “The Shining.” But soon enough, “Doctor Sleep” burrows into its own corners, exchanging the original’s claustrophobic terrain for a grand sweep of the United States that captures how absurdly large and unknowable the country is. Like its predecessor, there’s a driving thrill to puzzling over how the movie juggles its central, telepathically bound trio. This time around, “shining” essentially functions as a superpower, making for a tale about well-equipped individuals explaining unknown spectral forces, fashioning them into tools instead of being tormented by them.
What could easily be drearily expository dribble turns out to be a pretty great match for Flanagan, who’s continuously managed to make generic concepts sing over the course of his career by employing a tight narrative economy and a confident handle on the tricky internal logic of ghost stories. Here, he boils down King’s massive sprawl to a patient series of hand-offs between three pained people, each able to project their consciousness to distant locations. Navigating between these individual perspectives, as well as between their earthly and psychological planes, the film shifts in and out of reality with the snappy jolt of a rubber band. When the characters clash, as in a sparsely staccato firefight or a home invasion initiated in the cosmos, the careful balancing act accelerates into unsettling flurries of carnage.
By the time the characters find themselves back within the walls of the Overlook Hotel, Flanagan rolls out the red carpet for the spartan imagery of “The Shining.” A roaring soundscape of groaning metal and humming electricity serves as an overture that pays tribute to Kubrick’s film, the paean earned by effectively selling the enormity of a long-dormant creature awakening once more, taking in its first breath in decades.
From there, the film’s incorporations of “The Shining” are less effective. In particular, the casting of Henry Thomas and Alex Essoe — two talented performers themselves — as Wendy and Jack Torrance is ultimately a distracting attempt to approximate footage that’s already burned in horror fans’ brains. No human beings in history have ever looked like Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson, after all. To his credit though, Flanagan isn’t simply adopting these images to borrow their scare potential. Instead, he lures his story back into their fold while attempting to discover new angles to them. Although the execution is questionable, nothing is forced.
While it splinters in many directions along the way, “Doctor Sleep” is simply too in awe of “The Shining,” conceding itself to its predecessor’s filmmaking in its grand finale. Once the ghosts are put away though, an essential optimism shines through that is uniquely Flanagan’s. The film grounds itself by continuing to loop back to this certain tranquility, most moving when capturing the finality of death and the kindness of strangers. Of course, ”Doctor Sleep” isn’t as commanding or as tantalizing as “The Shining.” But it is commanding. It is tantalizing. And, just like the labyrinthine hallways of the Overlook, it takes joy in teasing what lurks behind each corner.