Doctor Sleep: How Mike Flanagan's 2019 sequel to The Shining uses fan service to great effect.
Fan service is a funny concept. On the one hand, if you’re a fan of the property, then it can be an exhilarating and emotional experience. You only have to look at the overwhelming response to something like, say, Avengers: Endgame to see this in action. I don’t think there are many people out there who would claim that as a movie on its own, Avengers: Endgame works perfectly. Without the years of build-up, much of the impact of the film would no doubt fall short. It’s a movie that is built almost entirely on fan service (I’m not saying this is a bad thing, after a decade of hard work they deserved the party), delivering not just the moments that people have been waiting to see for the last decade, but also constructing its entire narrative around the idea of returning to the fan-favorite moments from across the series – and also Thor: The Dark World – to replay those sequences and celebrate everything that has come before.
Of course, when it comes to Avengers: Endgame this focus on fan service paid off. The franchise is a true behemoth and has overshadowed basically every other cinema release since it brought all those characters together for the first time. But fan service isn’t always as successful. Star Wars: The Force Awakens may have broken the box office, and it has a lot of vocal supporters, but it remains a hollow, half experience of a movie. Without any real moments of true emotional impact that isn’t built around fandom’s pre-existing knowledge, most of the film seems to exist in the shadow of what came before, content solely to call back without ever really moving forward. Its lackluster attempt at a narrative of its own is, as far as I’m concerned at least, a key part of what set the sequel trilogy on the wrong path to begin with.
The director of The Force Awakens, J J Abrams, is of course no stranger to poor attempts at fan service. His Star Trek movies are riddled with similar issues. Perhaps the most notable of these is the moment Benedict Cumberbatch’s Kahn explains who he is to Kirk and Spock. The music swells, the characters look shocked, and the audience goes, “Oh, yeah! I remember Kahn!”, but within the internal logic of the film the scene is meaningless… they don’t know who Kahn is, nor would they care. While he is not alone in his overreliance on fan service, Abrams is one of the biggest culprits of it; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is so preoccupied with referencing the past that it winds up not even making any sense. It throws out any semblance of consistent plot in favor of big moments of fan service like the return of Emperor Palpatine, which it ultimately winds up botching anyway in a desperate attempt to further please fans who felt let down by the previous movie.
None of this, however, is evidence that fan service as a technique is always bad, just that it in the wrong hands it can be genuinely problematic for the movie. Perhaps the biggest consistent issue, at least as far as I can see, is when fan service takes precedent over the logic of the story. A film, first and foremost, should work on its own. Fan service, when used appropriately, can enhance a viewing without obscuring it for those who are not “fans”, and although it didn’t exactly do gangbusters at the box office, I think there are few films quite as efficient and clever at utilizing the potential of fan service than Mike Flanagan’s 2019 sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep.
Made some 39 years after the release of Kubrick’s classic horror, Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, at least at first glance, might seem like a typically cynical studio attempt to cash-in on a pre-existing property. The Shining is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror movies ever made (a notion I agree with, it must be said) and its imagery is among some of the most iconic and recognizable in all of cinema. It would have been easy, then, for Warner Brothers to use the opportunity to adapt Stephen King’s sequel novel to simply pander to those out there looking for a nostalgia fix. But while Doctor Sleep does offer up a certain degree of fan service, it does so in a way that never detracts from its narrative.
See, the most important part of how Doctor Sleep succeeds where others have failed is in the fact that ultimately Doctor Sleep is its own story. You do not need to have seen The Shining to enjoy the story Doctor Sleep seeks to tell. Of course, the experience is enhanced if you have, but it works on its own, focusing on different characters and a different view of the world.
While The Shining tells the story of Jack Torrance (played by the excellent Jack Nicholson in a career-defining role) slowly going mad while isolated in the terrifying and haunted Overlook Hotel with his wife, Shelly Duvall’s underappreciated Wendy, and son, Danny, Doctor Sleep tells the story of a now-adult Danny Torrance (played by Ewan McGregor, who is as good here as he has ever been) attempting to overcome the ghosts of his past – both figuratively and literally. It’s arguably a broader, more expansive story than The Shining, and for a big portion of the runtime it doesn’t even attempt to make any callbacks or visual references.
However, the real genius in the way Flanagan approaches the fan service of the movie, is that he builds it into the plot. The shadow of following-up such a beloved and influential piece of cinema hangs heavy over the film, but Flanagan is smart enough to know this and use it to his advantage. The specter of the events that took place in the Overlook Hotel is what drives the plot forward in Doctor Sleep, and thus the memory of the film is acknowledged within the story. In fact, not only is it acknowledged, it’s integral.
As the movie progresses Danny, and the audience, begin to realize that it is almost inevitable that at some point he will have to return to the location of The Shining. As the audience's anticipation for the return grows, so too does Danny’s fear of it. Flanagan uses the audience’s foreknowledge of events to heighten the growing uncertainty. Much like Danny, we are both desperately curious to see the place and terrified to go back there, and by the time the film finally does deliver on that anticipation, the desire and the fear have been driven to a fever pitch.
Flanagan’s movie goes to great pains to recreate the look and feel of Kubrick’s masterpiece, and in doing so not only manages to deliver its fair share of fan service but also pulls a lot of dread and lingering atmosphere over from the film. As Danny enters the Overlook and we a transported back to the 1980 classic, the fan service element is doing two key things, all of them in conjunction with the film on its own. Firstly, it is heightening the already present horror for those in the know. As we move around corners and into recognizable locations a sense of terror rises in us. Of course, it’s there without the knowledge of The Shining anyway, as the creepy location, shot design, and music are all doing their job, but having an awareness adds to it.
The second is that it is continuously placing the audience in line with Danny. He knows what to expect, and so do we. We saw it last time. So being back here and expecting the Grady twins to be lurking down the corridor, or expecting a ghost to appear through a doorway, puts us as on edge as Danny. Flanagan uses the fan services to enhance not just the scenes but his central character. Fans become more in line with Danny Torrance that general audiences, who the film has already done a good job of making us relate to.
As I said before, fan service is a funny concept. There are times when it works and times when it doesn’t. But I’m not sure I can think of a recent example so on point or expert in its delivery of fan service as Doctor Sleep. For me, the film is the bar at which the use of fan service should be set, and it’s genuinely disappointing that the film didn’t do better with cinema-goers upon release. Kubrick’s movie is an untouchable masterpiece, there’s no doubt about that, but Flanagan’s film is a loving tribute, a well-crafted homage, and a great movie in its own right, and that’s pretty damn impressive.