Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1980)

11. The Shining

Following the box office disappointment and mixed critical response to “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick was determined to make a commercial film. With this prospect in mind, he chose to make a movie in that most nakedly commercial of all genres: The horror film. He selected Stephen King’s “The Shining” as his source material. “The Shining” initially received mixed reviews from critics, including from King himself. Of course, now “The Shining” is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time, if not the greatest. By bringing his technical perfectionism to the ghost story, Kubrick created once of the most foreboding films ever made.

Struggling writer Jack Torrance agrees to take the position of winter watchmen at the Overlook Hotel, rooming with his wife Wendy and his young son Danny through the off-season. Isolated in the Colorado mountains, the hotel is soon surrounded by walls of snow and ice. Jack and his family are trapped inside the Overlook. And the Overlook has demons. Danny, who occasionally displays telepathic abilities, knows this. Doc Hollaran, the hotel chief who can also “shine,” knows this. Jack discovers this, the Overlook's spirits encouraging him to indulge in his alcoholism. Soon, the ghosts are also driving Jack to attack his family.

From its opening minutes, “The Shining” is ominous. As Jack’s VW Beetle drives towards the Overlook Hotel, a helicopter shot flies behind him, as if some ominous force is watching him. The film’s title slowly rise over the picturesque scenery, perverting the natural setting with their presence. Wendy Carlos’ unnerving score drones on, a funeral dirge for deaths that haven’t occurred yet. Even before the main characters get to the hotel, there’s something deeply wrong. The viewer feels an immediate apprehension that never lets up. “The Shining” is a college course in what tone can do for a horror film. Just with music and camera movement, “The Shining” instantly makes the watcher uncomfortable.

In order to get the most out of the uncanny, the ordinary must be established first. “The Shining” makes use of documentary style title cards, ascertaining the day of the week, location, or passage of time. Many early scenes are devoted to characters sitting and talking: Jack’s job interview, Wendy discreet conversation with the doctor, Danny and Halloran’s conversation. “The Shining’s” stillness roots it in the real world. Once we understand that stationary worldliness, Kubrick immediately disrupts it with the roaming Steadicam shots. The famous shots of Danny’s big wheel riding through the hotel continues the opening’s sense of an ever-watching, otherworldly force. It also builds a nervous energy inside the Overlook’s walls, further putting the audience ill at ease. Tricks like these subtly upset without the viewer even realizing it at first.

As subversive as “The Shining” is, the film isn’t above just throwing freaky shit around. Part of the film’s enduring pop culture appeal is its collection of startling horror imagery. Reportedly, Kubrick studied “Eraserhead” while making “The Shining.” Both films seem to understand the power of an indelible image, of crossing nightmarish dream logic into the land of the waking. Which is how we got “The Shining” most famous moments. The elevator opening its doors, to release a flood of blood. Two spooky girls appearing to Danny, their gorily cut up bodies flashing before our eyes. A man with a bloody face, complementing us on a fine party. This is Stanley Kubrick’s idea of a traditional haunted house movie. Once we get a room full of cobweb covered skeletons, it even feels like the director is joking around, tossing out every attempt to be scary as possible.

Yet there’s also something else in the air at the Overlook Hotel. In one of the few themes directly carried over from Stephen King’s book, the excesses and obscenities of the rich haunt the hotel. The spectre of 1920s partiers bring with them an unseemly decadence. “The Shining” is especially obsessed with deviant sexuality. Inside Room 237, the sexually alluring siren turns into a leprous old crone, who cackles insanely. Wendy gets a split-second glimpse at some fur suit assisted oral sex. These images make us uncomfortable, especially when placed inside the context of a traditional narrative. That’s why they’re here.

But all the ghosts in the world ultimately don’t matter because evil is a man. Stephen King’s main contention with Kubrick’s “The Shining,” which he never misses an opportunity to bring up, is that the director couldn’t grasp the otherworldly evil of the Overlook. This is because King’s superstitious spooks and born bad buildings didn’t interest the director. Instead, Kubrick draws upon a more grounded anxiety. Early on, Wendy shares a story about Jack hurting Danny while in an alcoholic rage. When passing his father in a bedroom, Danny uncomfortably sits on his father’s lap. Their conversation seems to imply that the father may hurt the boy. The father soon has a nightmare about murdering his wife and child. After the woman in Room 237 attacks Danny, Wendy quickly blames Jack. The truth is the spirits in the Overlook don’t have to do much to drive Jack mad. Because he already wants to kill Wendy and Danny, subconsciously. Kubrick’s film exploits the creeping suspicion, the lingering fear, that every parent secretly hates their child.

Stephen King has also criticized the casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence. King wanted an every-man actor like Jon Voight or Christopher Reeves. He feared that Nicholson’s Torrence would be threatening from the beginning. He was right. Jack is obviously crazy, right from the start. During the drive up to the hotel, you can tell he already resents his wife and child. This creates a slowly boiling tension, as the audience waits for Jack to snap. Torrence’s frustrated creative process only further aggravates his simmering homicidal tendencies. By the time he picks up a fire axe, Nicholson has been driven into a sweaty, wild mania. In his final scene, he screams like a madman, sounding more animal then human. Nicholson even sneaks some humor into the part, via the widely parodied Ed McManhon’s impersonation or whispered insistence to be handed a bat.

Upon release in 1980, “The Shining” was actually nominated for two Golden Raspberries, Kubrick for directing and Shelley Duvall for acting. Aside from showing how clueless that organization is, it also puts on display another of the film’s then criticized elements. Duvall was pushed to the point of madness by Kubrick’s tyrannical direction. He constructed a hostile film set environment, in order to get as high-strung a performance from her as possible.  The end result is perfect for “The Shining.” Duvall’s stringbean frame and squeaky voice makes her seem as vulnerable as possible. The story puts Wendy Torrence through the wringer, reducing her to screamed pleas for help. It’s one of the most helpless portrayals of a woman in any horror film, showing a person gripped by total terror. There’s no glamour to Duvall’s performance, any movie star gleam torn away to expose pure human insecurity.

It’s a famous anecdote. Danny Lloyd, who plays the young Danny Torrence, did not know he was starring in a horror movie. Lloyd was all of six years old at the time. Befitting an actor that young, Lloyd’s performance is totally raw. When voicing the imaginary friend Tony, he shrieks in a screechy whisper. When reacting to the terror around him, his face bends in wide eyed shock. It’s less a performance then a kid simply acting like a kid. This is nicely pointed out when Lloyd has scenes alongside Scatman Crothers, a performer with fifty-five years of experience. Despite Halloran being another of King’s undistinguished magical negro parts, Crothers projects a genuine warmth towards Danny and Wendy. Amusingly, the film’s unnerving tone doesn’t dissuade even during Danny and Halloran’s scenes of “shining” together. It’s just another element of how wrong the hotel’s environment is.

Because of “The Shining’s” high profile in pop culture, and because it was directed by the most studied American director of all time, many different readings of the film exist. There’s so many that an entirely separate film exist to discuss them. Some of these theories are more creditable then others, their topics ranging from moon landings, the Holocaust, or hidden sexual or mythical symbolism. However, one subtextual thread does seem to run through the film. The Overlook is supposedly built on an Indian burial ground, the settlers having fought off Indians. The interior of the hotel is decorated with kitschy versions of Indian art. When Halloran races towards the Overlook, the ghosts refer to him with a racial slur. As opposed to the book, Jack murders the black man. Both of the murderous caretakers we meet are male, attacking their wives. The negative energy that the Overlook feeds on is pointedly aggressive, masculine, and white.

Kubrick’s drive to unnerve the audience extends even to the structure of the Overlook. As others have pointed, the interior architecture of the Overlook makes no sense. Doorways, windows, rooms, and hallways are places that they shouldn’t be. It’s totally subconscious, as you don’t even notice it until it’s pointed out. This is just one of the many ambiguities purposely bred into the film. The exact nature of the haunting is unknown, as how much influence the ghosts have on the real world vary from scene to scene. And then there’s that ending, which continues to generate debate. Jack is either adsorbed by the Overlook or has always been a part of it. The point is clear. “The Shining” never wants you to be sure of what’s happening.

Like everything else Stanley Kubrick has directed, “The Shining” has been endlessly picked apart. As impossible as it is for any one film to earn the title, “The Shining” is certainly a viable candidate for best horror film ever made. Its technical construction, the way the entire movie is built to unnerve and disturb, is practically unrivaled. The acting, music, and direction are all top notch. Practically every aspect of the film has become iconic. Yet even apart from the hype, “The Shining” remains a masterpiece, an impressive exercise in how to give your viewing audience the creeps. [Grade: A]

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