Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

There are spoilers throughout.

Stanley Kubrick's liberal adaptation of Stephen King's novel, The Shining downplays the book's supernatural element and makes it more about a recovering alcoholic becoming crushed by isolation, despair and failure, and falling off the wagon in the most spectacular way imaginable.

I'll be honest: The Shining isn't a movie that grabbed me when I first watched it. It's a movie that grew on me exponentially since my original viewing. Not that I disliked it when I first encountered it, but when I was 13, I found it overlong and took too much time kicking into gear, with many false starts (although it did have Jack Nicholson running around this large nearly empty hotel terrorizing people with an axe, which my 13 year-old self appreciated).

And okay, fuck it. I first saw The Shining during my full-blown, rabid Stephen King fanboy days, a time when I would take less-than-faithful adaptations of his work a little too personally. Though, I think by now we all know that this isn't a "Stephen King film." It's a Stanley Kubrick film, through and through.

Carrie is a Stephen King film (even though it's quite ably directed by Brian De Palma). Stand By Me is a Stephen King film (again, no offense to Rob Reiner intended). The Shining is a Kubrick film that, like all his films (virtually all of Kubrick's feature films were adapted from literary works) happens to use King's novel as creative fodder to tell this own story his own damn way.

So, I won't go over the differences between the book and the film, simply because there are just too damn many. It'd be a shorter list of how they're similar (pretty much the characters' names and that it takes place in a closed up haunted hotel are what they have in common).

When I saw it again five years later, I found every single frame filled with menace and dread, from the ominous opening credits to the slow tracking shot of Danny in the bathroom talking with his imaginary friend Tony about his dad getting the job at the Overlook Hotel. And those are just in the first few minutes of the movie. We haven't even gotten to those fucking twins or the woman in Room 237 or seeing "ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY" written in various formats on reams of paper (it's such a simple scene but it's so effectively chilling).

And I've seen it many, many times since. It's a creepy-ass movie.

Despite King's originally expressed disappointment with the film, the material suits Kubrick well. His signature unnerving slow tracking wide-angle shots are perfectly suited for a horror film (his only entry in the genre), truly capturing the cold, bleak isolation of the expansive Overlook Hotel.

You may be asking a very reasonable question. Why am I praising The Shining, which has a much longer run-time and is all about buildup and eerie atmosphere, when I criticized Rosemary's Baby of being substandard for the same reasons? First off, I find Rosemary's Baby dull and find The Shining engaging. For me, Kubrick is more successful in creating a mood of slow and steady dread in The Shining than Polanski is in Rosemary's Baby. In some ways, it's as simple as that. But no, I'm a quasi-professional here, so I'll continue to elaborate.

Second, and I admit this is pretty bitchy, things actually happen in The Shining. From Danny's hallucinations to Jack's slow and steady meltdown to Jack's investigation into Room 237 to the relentless, "Oh, shit! Dad's got an Axe! RUN!" conclusion, shit actually happens. With Rosemary's Baby, you've got one amazing sequence, a whole lot of nothing, then a muted and somewhat anticlimactic conclusion.

And third, simply put, The Shining is scary while Rosemary's Baby is not.

(Okay, I really should stop, lest this seem like I'm just bashing the shit out of Polanski's film. I don't hate it. Really. I just think it's overrated and should be cut by 30 minutes.)

The Shining opens with Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) interviewing for a job at the Overlook Hotel as its off-season caretaker. In the interview, the manager warns him that a previous caretaker got cabin fever and killed his family and himself during the long winter in which the hotel, which is built on the site of an Indian burial ground, is completely isolated.

Jack's son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), talks to his imaginary friend, Tony, about his bad premonitions about the hotel. Jack's wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), tells a visiting doctor about Danny's imaginary friend "Tony" and that Jack had given up drinking because he had dislocated Danny's shoulder after a night of heavy drinking.

The family arrives at the hotel on closing day and is given a tour. The elderly black chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) speaks to Danny telepathically, offering him some ice cream.

While they have ice cream, Hallorann explains to Danny that he and his grandmother shared the gift; they called the communication "shining." Danny asks if there is anything to be afraid of in the hotel, particularly Room 237. Hallorann tells Danny that the hotel has a certain "shine" to it and many memories, not all of them good. (Hallorann's simile of the memories lingering like the smell of burnt toast is an element where Kubrick tries to connect the concept of ESP and evil spirits connected to the real world.) He warns Danny to stay out of room 237.

A month later, Jack is trying to write, but doesn't seem to be making much headway. In fact, when Wendy tries to engage in chitchat with him, he's outright hostile.

Danny enjoys riding around the endless halls of the hotel in his Big Wheels bike, until he has one of his..."hallucinations." That's right. It's those fucking twins; the two daughters of the previous caretaker who went batshit insane and went after his family with an axe.

Yeah. Fuck this hotel.

When the snow piles up, the family is officially shut in for the winter. The snowstorm knocks out the phone lines and makes travel nearly impossible. I particularly love the sequence where Wendy is speaking to a dispatcher on the radio, needing to go, "Over," then switching the radio from talk to listen mode for the conversation (emphasizing how cut off they are from the outside world).

Then there's that truly horrific scene in Room 237 where Jack goes to see what's in there that attacked Danny. Even before the "gotcha" moment when the hot naked lady turns into the not-so-hot deformed semi-corpse naked lady, the scene, which unfolds slowly and in one of those long wide-angle shots Kubrick was known for, always puts me on edge.

But throughout all this supernatural creepiness, which builds and builds and builds until Jack is eventually coached by the ghost of the previous caretaker to "correct" his family (and of course by "correct," I mean, "chop up into little pieces with an axe"), there's a through-line of a recovering alcoholic desperately trying to keep it together...and failing, due to outside forces beyond his control.

Though Kubrick has never been known for his warm portrayal of humanity (and The Shining definitely follows Kubrick's theme of humans being insignificant and powerless specs against giant outside forces of nature), and I certainly wouldn't argue that The Shining is an exception to this rule (it's not), I was struck listening to Jack's rant about going on the wagon after injuring Danny (at the four-minute mark in the above clip). He clearly feels regret about injuring his son, but still tries to downplay it as an accident anyone could have made (that Wendy has blown out of proportion). For someone not known for portraying humanity, this is a surprisingly emotionally honest scene.

Although The Shining ultimately reveals that the ghosts and demons are literal (how else would Wendy see the furries going at it, and how else would Jack escape the walk-in fridge, and what about that final shot of the old photo with Jack in it?), the film just as interested - if not more so - in the metaphorical demons that trigger Jack Torrence's descent into homicidal madness.

Making sure the Sidewinder still runs,

James "Snowblind" Comtois

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Blogger Sean said...

Dude, watch the end of the typewriter scene.

TAP TAP TAP (space)
TAP TAP TAP (space)
TAP TAP (space)
TAP TAP TAP TAP (space)...

Leave it to Nicholson and Kubrick to make sure he's actually writing in the rhythm of "All work and no play..."

9:06 AM  
Blogger joshcon80 said...

What is wrong with you people? Stuff happens in Rosemary's Baby! They move into a beautiful apartment, the attend and host dinner parties, Rosemary redecorates said apartment, occult book shopping, christmas shopping at Bloomingdales, and Rosemary's haircut! I could say it until I'm blue in the face.

That said, I think The Shining is the scariest fucking movie of all time. Also, and to piss off 13 year old James, I think The Shining is one of the only exceptions to the whole "the book is better than the movie" rule.

The scene at the end where Shelly Duvall finally sees all the ghosts is horrifying. That bear suit giving head to the guy in the tuxedo? What the WHAT? Run, Shelly, run!

12:48 PM  
Blogger DPS said...

I'm one of those who thinks that Shelly Duvall is terrible in the movie, but at the same time I don't think it would've been the same movie without her. I was just always amazed that she didn't actually get killed.

And of course I was blown away the first time I found out that "The Shining" was originally begun as a three-act play. Man, what I wouldn't give to read a completed version of that. They've gotta have it in Morpheus's library, right?

3:01 PM  
Blogger DPS said...

I'm sorry, I was incorrect. It was a five-act tragedy.

But Shelly Duvall still sucks.

3:08 PM  
Blogger joshcon80 said...


You must hate beauty. No bow legged, bug eyed, chain smoker has ever looked so good in a mock turtle neck.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh, that Stan. Ever the, "let's just shoot and see what happens!" kinda guy. Wow. Why am I not surprised that Jack's actually typing out the words? I had always thought, "Man. The props person must've hated making that prop," but now I suspect that, with the multiple takes they did on the film, Jack typed up that damn manuscript himself.

The Shining really does lend itself well to being a stage play. After all, 99.9% of it is in a self-contained, closed space. Guess we're going to have to call King's people again to make another "dollar baby" arrangement (they'll go for that, right?).

And beware, Josh. Although my 32 year-old self may agree, my 13 year-old self may kill you in your sleep. He may be weak, but he's wiry and full of rage. And oh-so cute.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Okay, who am I kidding? Look at that photo of me. I'm about 13 there. Does that look like a rage-filled teen?

6:54 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

And The Shining the scariest fucking movie of all time? Oh, no no, sir. It's up there, yes. But the scariest fucking movie of all time is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Sean said...

James, you and I may not see eye-to-eye on everything, (except for the fact that chubby grey haired men in their 30s are possibly the most attractive men on the planet), but I gotta tell you, the scaredest I've ever been was watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

That was the kind of scary that leaves you drenched with fear. I actually thought I was gonna die.

10:46 AM  

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