The Shining, the motion picture from 1980, is better than The Shining, the novel from 1977, but I will concede the point that the latter is an awfully good read even so, one of the best books ever written by Stephen King. Meanwhile, Doctor Sleep, the 2013 sequel to the 1977 novel (and pointedly not the 1980 movie), is emphatically not one of the best books ever written by Stephen King. It is drudgery, coming up with a frankly dumb notion for how to broaden the mythology of The Shining (the book; King has of course always disliked the movie), and larding up the not-dumb portions of its story with endless asides about Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, my logic went like this: if it took a genius on the level of Stanley Kubrick to make a better version of The Shining than King's, significantly overhauling the narrative to get there, then surely a much smaller genius would be able to improve upon Doctor Sleep. And along comes Mike Flanagan, who is indeed no Kubrick-scale genius, but is a very strong and reliable director of horror movies; maybe the most consistently successful horror filmmaker we've got in the 2010s. And, you know what, fair is fair: the movie version of Doctor Sleep he wrote and directed is, in fact, better than King's novel. It is, unfortunately, still not good. But better.

The opportunities for a better film announce themselves almost immediately. The film starts in 1980, where a peculiar-acting woman named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) manages to trick a little girl into sitting still for long enough that the members of the True Knot, a sort of vampire cult that Rose leads, to pounce on her. The film starts in Miami, where Danny Torrance (Roger Dale Floyd) and his mom Wendy (Alex Essoe) have fled to heal from the psychological torment of what happened to them at the haunted Overlook Hotel in Colorado the previous winter. But the Overlook isn't done with Danny: one its more horrifying ghosts has followed him, and it takes a visitation from the spirit of the kind, dead Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) to teach Danny how to use his unique psychic power - his "shining" - to lock malevolent spectres away for good. The film starts in 2011, where 36-year-old Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has turned out to be his father's son, turning to alcohol to stave off his traumatic memories. As he hits a new low point, stealing money from a single mother who is passed out from a bender while her toddler crawls around their filthy apartment, Dick Halloran's ghost appears to sadly reprimand him, and this is what it finally takes to send him looking for a path out, which he finds on a journey to a small town in New Hampshire. The film starts with Rose the Hat recruiting a new member of the True Knot, a teenage vigilante that she nicknames Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), giving us a very confusing sequence where we see the story through Andi's perspective despite her almost complete lack of importance in the story to come.

And then, once it finally stops vomiting up prologues, Doctor Sleep can actually start its goddamn story already, which is set in 2019, with Dan reluctantly mentoring Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who lives a couple of towns over, and has a shine stronger by far than anything Dan has ever experienced. Stronger than Rose the Hat has ever experienced also, which is why she decides to devote all of the ailing True Knot's resources to finding Abra and devouring her "steam", the physical manifestation of the shining that appears when children are horribly tortured to death, and the primary food that keeps the True Knot immortal and young. I get it, background is nice and all. But Doctor Sleep is too damn long and too damn slow at 152 minutes - longer than even the longest cut of The Shining, and that's not a movie guilty of racing through things. And it's a real bummer to see it precisely replicating one of the most annoying missteps of the source novel, going on a marathon of set-up that could be pretty easily summarised, assuming we even needed this information at all, and couldn't just pick thing up as we go along.

It also precisely replicates one of the other most annoying missteps, which is to make this a story about shine vampires. I try not to fault stories, be they books or be they movies, for their scenarios; any scenario can be executed well, and all that. But this is a real fucking stupid hook upon which to hang a sequel to The Shining, in any medium. At least in the book, which tediously and minutely details Dan's experiences in Alcoholics Anonymous (derived from King's own experiences, one imagines; certainly, they are written with the haranguing enthusiasm of a true believer), there's some sense that this is all about different forms of addictions: Dan and alcohol, the True Knot and endless youth. Here, Dan's alcoholism has been reduced to a matter of three or four scenes scattered across the feature, which is on the one hand appreciated very much, but on the other, it just makes the central concept seem that much more baldly dumb. Shine vampires. Got it.

Flanagan does what he can with this. His last feature, the 2017 Netflix original Gerald's Game, was also a Stephen King adaptation, presumably one with a much higher degree of difficulty, and while I don't think the results are an unqualified success, it's damn strong work. Doctor Sleep demonstrates, at an absolute minimum, that Flanagan hasn't lost his eye: it's a film full of interesting, purposeful visuals, with compositions that use focal depth to quietly overlay character subjectivity on scenes, with lighting that provides great tonal contrast between Dan's new world of sanitising sunhine and the True Knot's fuzzy murk (this is true even when he's shown at night and they're shown during the day). And Flanagan's training as an editor - he cut this film, as he has cut everything he's directed - means that there are some really wonderful scene transitions, blending locations through matches on movement and continuous momentum in a way that stresses the three-way psychic connection between Dan, Abra, and Rose with a cinematic fluidity that trumps anything in the book. I wish he and cinematographer Michael Fimognari had rethought the amount of obvious digital color grading they were happy with, but you can't have everything.

On the other hand, the style is mostly just augmenting a story that would be better served by hiding it. And it's clear, after a certain point, that what Flanagan really cared about was doing his best Stanley Kubrick impression, particularly as the film arrives in the last phase of the plot, and... I mean, technically it's a spoiler, but the ad campaign really wants us to know that the film ends up in the ruins of the Overlook, which has been re-made by production designer Maher Ahmad and set decorator Gene Serdena down to the finest detail. At this point, where the film necessarily breaks from the book (the continued existence of the Overlook being a main difference between the two versions of The Shining), it basically turns into elaborate, expensive fan fiction, as Flanagan recreates shot set-ups and even uses some of the long cross-dissolves that dominate the editing of the 1980 film. It's a labor of love, and I feel bad about finding it contrived and dragged-out and pointless, because I love the same things Flanagan clearly loves.

Besides the generally high quality of the filmmaking, the acting is also excellent: there's not a weak link in the cast if you don't count how none of the people replacing cast members from the original movie look particularly like their predecessors. Ferguson is the stand-out, creating a tremendous movie villain for the ages: her piercing glances have the dangerous curiosity of a predator, and her accent is a perfectly slippery thing that keeps circling around not-quite-Irish without ever actually settling down, giving her a feeling of being subtly but persistently inhuman. But as the other two legs of the central conflict, McGregor and Curran are doing impressive work with roles that don't offer as much as Rose does. And that's the thing, again: if extremely good actors are doing strong work for roles that just kind of flop about like dead fish, is that actually a good thing? We're in exactly the territory of the 2003 film Dreamcatcher: a lot of talented people on both sides of the camera are doing extremely strong work to bring life to a story in which King started off on the wrong foot and stayed there, and so it's all so much gilt on so much pig shit. I mean, hell, Flangan was able to make a terrific ghost story out of the prequel to the insanely bad Ouija; but apparently the profound mediocrity of third-tier Stephen King was too much even for his powers.

Want more thoughts on the movie? Check out Rob and Carrie's video review, and Catherine's notes on the film's ending!