It takes forever to get going.
“Doctor Sleep” has to give us all this backstory, remind us who Danny Torrance, the kid with “The Shining,” was. It has to recast the kid from that movie, and more famously, his “Here’s JOHNNY!” dad — Jack Nicholson then, Henry Thomas now.
Alex Essoe replaces Shelley Duvall as Mom, Wendy Torrance.
And Carl Lumbly has to fill the shoes of the formidable Scatman Crothers as Danny’s friend, the handyman/cook with “The Shining” himself, Dick Halloran.
They had to recreate the Overlook Hotel (digitally), and put Danny back on a big wheeled trike, tooling down its scary halls, filled with iconic haunted twins and the Walking Dead cadaver in the tub.
But once all that stuff is out of the way, once that ominous Wendy Carlos/Rachel Elkind “Shining” theme has returned to the soundtrack, once the adult Danny (Ewan McGregor) has let us see the miserable, drifting and substance-abusing life he’s lived in the intervening 40 years, Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Stephen King’s sequel-novel gets on its feet.
And once it (finally) gets going, it has us going, too.
Flanagan, the director of “The Haunting of Hill House” and that Netflix evergreen “Gerald’s Game” is no Stanley Kubrick. His film lacks the stateliness of Kubrick’s tone poem in horror. Nobody’s going to be obsessing over the mise en scene, every minute detail, and turning up in a documentary about such obsessives and their fixation on the Overlook Hotel’s “Room 237.”
But with a good cast, a great villainess and some absolutely stunning and horrific effects, he delivers a perfectly frightening, if ridiculously cluttered, simple confrontation between good and evil.
The set-piece moments — “Shining” practitioners tilting the building they’re in until they slide down the walls and into a precarious situation in another location, characters screaming and gurgling and shriveling and dying and turning to dust right before our eyes — aren’t the real selling point. What sticks with you are the story’s heartbreaking, pitiless and excruciating crimes against children.
That’s what’s giving young Abra (Kyliegh Curran) nightmares. She and her parents have known about her “gift” for years, but in her tweens, she’s shining too much, seeing too much. Children like her, who can read minds, communicate without speaking and see future events, are being hunted and slaughtered.
We’ve already met Rose the Hat (“Mission: Impossible” villain Rebecca Ferguson, silkily scary). She and her “family” (think “Manson” family, with RVs) travel the continent, hunting gifted kids, murdering them and stealing their “steam” — a vaprous representation of the soul exiting the body on death.
Abra’s distress has pierced the ESP void and found 40something Danny. He’s found sobriety and purpose, thanks to AA friends (Cliff Curtis, Bruce Greenwood) in this New Hampshire village where he’s settled.
“Do dying people bother you?”
Noooo, he insists. Everybody’s dying. “The world is one BIG hospice!”
That’s how he’s become “Doctor Sleep,” an after-hours custodian at the local hospice who follows the house cat who “senses” who will be the next to go, comforting the dying as only a man who can see “the other side” can.
Abra reaches out to Danny just as she’s detected by Rose the Hat. Can he protect her? Is she strong enough in “The Shining” to defend herself?
Flanagan’s film rarely bogs down after the long, establishing opening acts, but labors when his script tries to cram in a Hogwarts School Year’s worth of names for types of “Shining,” always brought up in debates between Rose and her chief lieutenant, Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon).
Their best moment as characters driving the plot is their “recruitment” of a Jedi Mind Trick teen (Emily Alyn Lind) who has been luring sexual predators into her trap, where she uses psychosomatic suggestion to disable and punish them.
And sure, while some of her glory is just the empathetic badass role she was cast in, young Miss Curran’s screen debut as Abra is a dazzler.
McGregor has a few moments of his own and is most impressive in the early scenes, Danny as down and out drifter, brawling in bars, picking up fellow addicts and irresponsibly stealing from them and abandoning them. That might be the reason old Dick (Lumbly) is still visiting him, years and years after Danny’s dad killed him with an axe at the Overlook.
There’s a lot going on here, none of it terribly deep. But “Doctor Sleep” still makes a worthy successor to “The Shining,” that rarest of sequels driven by genuine curiosity and fascination with characters and their continuing story and not by corporate bean counters and their bottom line cynicism.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use.
Credits: Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, based on the Stephen King novel. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:31