Doctor Sleep is more heavily indebted to King, and the film is alternately elevated and crippled by the prolific author’s variable qualities. The shine energy is referred to as steam by the True Knot, and in King fashion, terminology is used ad nauseum. Themes of addiction, abusive fathers, and the use of precocious children as protagonists are well-trod King ground, and nothing new is broached here. The film is far too long at 152 minutes, most bloated in its multistage climax and obligatory return to the Overlook. Conversely, King’s utility with a villain is on full display. Rose the Hat is a major highlight of Ferguson’s burgeoning career, an evil-and-loving-it killer of children who also manages to momentarily blind the viewer to her considerable sins with a deep love of her fellow cult members. Her costuming and the surprising physical aspect of the performance make her the Poochie of Doctor Sleep. Who cares about Dan Torrance when Rose the Hat is around?
A great villain allows Flanagan plenty of opportunity for satisfying set-pieces, either of Rose in action or on her back foot. The film’s first scene is a cumulative creeper of the True Knot finding a victim, and it’s not the only time they feast on a screaming tween. These ravenous atrocities create a huge amount of cathartic energy, and Flanagan detonates it in crowd-pleasing sequences. The True Knot’s numbers mean there’s lots of opportunity for visceral revenge, and Flanagan doesn’t cheap out on it. He doesn’t use Dan to do this, as he’s a guide figure instead of an instigator, but Abra. She isn’t a credible child, as she’s written as an adult in a child’s body, and while that breaks the character’s realism, it allows her to be a worthy adversary to the True Knot. Doctor Sleep plays with expectations by setting adults against children, and lets the shine function as an equalizer.
As the emotional center of the film, Dan is as uneven as Doctor Sleep itself. The film wants to suggest an equivalence between him and his father, such that a closed arc rules out that Dan will become Jack, but McGregor has none of Jack Nicholson’s erratic energy and that never feels like a possibility. Dan’s alcoholism is the kind that loses time, not the kind that ignites conflicts. On the other hand, the aforementioned length of the film is padded by long scenes of Dan at work in the hospice, all of which work well. The peace he’s able to find here, and the peace he’s able to give to dying patients as a man who can sense their deaths coming, provides ample stakes once the action kicks up. However, Flanagan makes the questionable choice to eschew some classic horror imagery to preserve the warmth of these scenes. Dan says he envisions flies coating people who are about to die, but it’s never shown onscreen. It’s not the wrong choice to go with drama over horror, but it’s a noticeable one.
Flanagan furthers his reputation as a rising horror director by taking this freighted project on in the first place and making something coherent out of it. Rose the Hat is too great a villain and the film that contains her has too many pleasures to be fully dismissed as an overly reverent paean to its source material. The flawed Doctor Sleep takes a long time to get through, but this is one Big-Wheel ride worth enduring. C+