Most cult movies start slowly. A bit of awkward dialogue. A bizarre invitation. Subtle clues that something is wrong before it’s suddenly too late, you’ve been sucked into an evil cult. But, of course, there are some exceptions.
In 2019, Stephen King fans got an unexpected gift: a sequel to The Shining. Based on the 2013 book of the same name, Doctor Sleep picked up the story of Danny Torrance decades later. That alone should be enticing enough, but Doctor Sleep goes one step further by introducing an incredible new element to the world of The Shining: a terrifying demon cult.
Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, Doctor Sleep stars Ewan McGregor as Danny, now an adult and a recovering alcoholic still struggling to process the trauma of his childhood. McGregor is great in the role (he’s always great, after all), but the real star of this show is Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat, the leader of an evil cult of immortal beings called the True Knot who need to feed on people with psychic abilities (like Danny) to stay alive.
Ferguson, who spends most of Doctor Sleep wearing an absurd top hat and somehow pulling it off, is almost scary enough to make you forget about Jack Nicholson. (Almost.) The first time you meet her, it’s actually pretty subtle. Rose recruits a new member to her cult, one with impressive powers of suggestion. But it doesn’t take long before we see the truth.
Another scene shows the True Knot feeding on a young boy with Shining powers. After capturing him, the cult encircles the boy and feeds on his psychic energy, animalistically draining his “steam” as they feed.
Rose and her followers aren’t a traditional cult, but the basic tropes remain the same. A charismatic leader, loyal followers, a willingness to prey on the young and the innocent. It’s all there, cranked up to the extreme thanks to Stephen King’s sinister creations.
At the center of it all is Rose, an incredible villain even by cult leader standards. In an interview with GQ, Ferguson said that she never tried to play the character as the hero of her own story. She was always the bad guy:
Oh, she’s an absolute villain. She is the antagonist in this story. She's an iconic, cool villain. I would never take that away from what she is. But then the question is, how do you make her that? What is it that makes her such a brutal, hardcore, cool rock star villain? It is her passion. I feel that she's 100% dedicated to everything she does. She's a lover. She's a carer. She feeds, she hunts. She does everything that you and I do to protect the people we love. It's just that the outcome and the consequences of what she does are a little bit darker.
Rose works as a cult leader for this exact reason. She’s a villain through and through. And despite not being a killer clown or a bloodthirsty dog, she’s one of Stephen King’s best.
Doctor Sleep is streaming now on HBO Max in the U.S.