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Review: ‘Doctor Sleep’ is One of the Better Horror Pictures Over the Last Decade

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Review: 'Doctor Sleep' is One of the Better Horror Pictures Over the Last Decade

In my last article, I praised the state of television horror while describing the current film industry as producing “good, but perhaps not great” movies of the genre. Well, I may have to revise that assessment after watching Doctor Sleep on DVD last weekend.

I had heard good reviews of Doctor Sleep for several months, dating back to its November 2019 theatrical release. Our family viewing did not prove disappointing. To the point, the movie is excellent. It’s a creative story pitting good but flawed characters against powerful and supernatural evil, while also featuring multiple plot lines that come together in a sensible way, along with very fine acting across the board.

Let’s begin with the top-billed actor, veteran Ewan McGregor, who plays Danny Torrance. He is the son of Jack Torrance, the character played so fiendishly by Jack Nicholson in 1980’s The Shining, the movie that Doctor Sleep succeeds nearly 40 years later. At first, the younger Torrance lives the life of an alcoholic (like his ill-fated father), young man wandering aimlessly without purpose or function. He becomes motivated to move to a small town in New Hampshire, where he finds a supportive friend played by the chameleon-like Cliff Curtis. Torrance enrolls in Alcoholics Anonymous, turns his life around, and becomes a valuable employee at a local clinic, where he offers comfort to those in hospice care. Helping those patients transition comfortably to death, he becomes known as “Doctor Sleep;” in other words, he is helping them achieve a peaceful rest, or sleep, rather than having to face a dark and lonely death. Through this worthwhile work, Danny has finally achieved his purpose in life.

Rebecca Ferguson Doctor Sleep

McGregor is sympathetic in his portrayal. Even as an alcoholic, his character mostly avoids the mean-spirited temper of his father, while showing a sincere interest in redemption. Viewers will find themselves rooting for McGregor’s Torrance, who is determined not to repeat the mistakes of his father.

The same cannot be said for the character known as Rose the Hat, played by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson. Attractive even while wearing an odd, old-fashioned black hat, she initially seems friendly and charming, but that façade quickly wears off as she chooses to abduct a young girl who has wandered off in the woods. We will eventually learn that Rose the Hat is the leader of a traveling cult, known as The True Knot, a group of supernatural beings who can live for hundreds of years by drawing “steam” from those people who have the gift of “shining” (or communicating with others telepathically), as does Danny. Ferguson plays the evil character well, giving Rose a veneer of charm, which covers up a selfish and despicable desire to live as long as possible, regardless of how many victims she and her followers have to murder.

The two adult leads are both convincing. So is the young actress, Kyliegh Curran, who plays Abra, a young girl who has a particularly powerful “shine,” one that will allow her to witness Rose’s atrocities from a long distance away, but also put her in the crosshairs of The True Knot. Curran was all of 13 during the filming of Doctor Sleep, but like so many of today’s child actors, she seems wise beyond her years. She handles her role with an unusual calmness, conveys the intelligence of someone who is 10 to 15 years older, and comes across just as likeably as the more familiar character of Danny Torrance. Curran’s Abra will seek out Danny for help in her impending battle with The Knot. At first, he is unwilling to become involved, but a visit from his old friend, the ghost of Dick Hallorann (played so memorably by Scatman Crothers in the 1980 film) convinces him otherwise.

Aside from the individual performances, one of the real strengths of Doctor Sleep is its willingness to do what so many sequels don’t: pay an appropriate level of respect to the original film. There is plenty of that. For example, the actress playing Danny’s mother (Alex Essoe) sounds exactly like Shelley Duvall, to the point of eeriness. The hotel bartender, played by Henry Thomas, looks like a 1980s version of Jack Nicholson, particularly with his unkempt hair and psychotic smile.

In a broader sense, the film smartly circles back to the original version of The Shining by bringing the action back to the Overlook Hotel, now an abandoned, decrepit building that has been deemed off limits because of its inherently evil nature. In its crumbling state, the Overlook becomes the setting for the dramatic showdown between Danny and Rose the Hat, while also involving Abra in a secondary role. Unlike so many of today’s horror films which end with a discomforting level of tragedy and too many unanswered questions, Doctor Sleep gives us a more satisfying conclusion, one that has us feeling hopeful, if not completely gleeful.

Doctor Sleep does not come without at least one flaw: its length of two hours and 32 minutes. In my mind, the film was about 20 minutes to a half-hour too long, and shows some evidence of lagging during the final half-hour. With some judicious editing, the film could have come in at under two hours and not lost any vital part of the story.

All in all, that’s a small criticism, and it’s preferable to a movie that ends too quickly and abruptly. Doctor Sleep is one of the better horror pictures that I’ve seen over the last decade, and it’s certainly worth the patience and effort needed to see it through to the finish. Take the time and enjoy it.

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