FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE...beware yon spoilers!

May 18, 2006

Ghost Week Day 8: The Shining

"We're all gonna have a real good time."

Yes, folks, it's time to discuss one of the Big Mother Ghost Movies, Stanley Kubrick's beautiful, messy masterwork of horror, 1980's The Shining.

Most genre fans, if not just plain ol' movie fans, know the film's plot by now. Meet...the Torrance family. Father Jack (Jack Nicholson) is a frustrated writer and recovering alcoholic. His wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) tries her best to keep the family together despite all the problems. What she lacks in self-esteem she more than makes up for with love for her son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny's gifted with "the shining", a psychic ability that allows him to see glimpses of the past, present, and future. Not entirely sure how to deal with his visions, Danny has invented Tony, the boy who lives in Danny's mouth and "tells him things".

After losing his teaching position, Jack takes the job of caretaker for the Overlook Hotel while it's closed up for the long Colorado winter. Soon after the Torrances are shut up inside the sprawling hotel, the malevolent forces of the Overlook begin to manifest themselves, calling to Jack. Already in a position of instability mentally, Jack soon descends into madness and attempts to kill his wife and son by "chopping them up into pieces" with an axe. With the help of hotel cook Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), who also "shines", Wendy and Danny escape the Overlook and its raging caretaker. After killing Dick, Jack becomes lost in the hedge maze outside the hotel and ends up freezing to death in the brutal cold night.

It had been some time since I'd seen The Shining, and while I've always enjoyed it (and gotten some good creepy scares out of it), what struck me most while watching it today was the beauty of the whole thing. Visually, The Shining is one of the most stunning films I've ever seen- finding a horror movie to top it in that regard would be no easy task.

The opening sequences of the Torrance family VW Beetle driving to the Overlook are breathtaking...with the mountainous scenery, that's unavoidable. However, Kubrick effectively uses the dirge-like sounds of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and sweeping camera shots to effuse the sunny landscape with a surprising feeling of bottomed-out dread. The camera, so high above the tiny yellow car, follows along- an unseen force travelling right behind Jack until eventually the car is overtaken and the camera moves on to the hotel itself, grand and imposing. Even over my lunchtime ravioli, the sequence was chilling.

The Overlook Hotel is an evil place...it's got its ghosts. It's got a bloody history which may or may not have to do with the fact that it's built on the site of an Indian burial ground. What's unusual about this story, however, is the fact that the hotel isn't obviously haunted. It's a perfectly functional, brightly lit, popular resort hotel...until the caretaker takes over. What is it that amps up the evil energy in the building? Who knows. Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson don't tell us.

Much of The Shining is open to interpretation. What exactly lurks in Room 237? Again, who knows. We do, however, know that it's real, as are all of the ghosts in the Overlook. They don't simply pass through walls, they don't fade away- whatever they are, they're as real as you or I. They can pour you a drink, they can roll you a ball...they can unlock doors and leave bruises on a young boy's throat. Beyond that, however, they need the "caretaker" to capitulate to their desires before they can claim their victims. It's the caretaker, not the ghosts, that chop families up into bits.

The title placards used during the film subtly show the build in intensity as events reach a fevered pitch- the leisurely pace of "one month later" gives way to daily updates ("Thursday") which give way to specific hours. Despite this seemingly frantic pace, there's no sense of linear time in the Overlook itself...events crisscross back and forth, while the past, present, and future are all liquid, running into and over one another repeatedly. Everyone, it seems, has their role to play as events play out time and time again. Charles Grady has been a caretaker, so has Delbert Grady...here's Jack Torrance in 1980, and there he is in a photograph dated 1921. Is it reincarnation? Maybe, maybe not. While Jack is told he's "always been the caretaker" and Jack himself expresses feelings of deja vu, we have no clue who was the caretaker the year before Jack or the year before Grady, for that matter. Various characters intone the phrase "forever and ever" repeatedly, as if there is no beginning or end to anything at the Overlook. Additionally in that regard, it's very telling that Jack's life ends inside of a maze- he's trapped in the cycle of time, consumed at last by the hotel.

While Jack Nicholson's performance is the one that people remember from The Shining, I've always found it to be way too over-the-top. Occasionally there are true flashes of brilliance, but they come in the quiet moments; his reaction to Wendy's accusations when she finds bruises on Danny's neck, for example. Nicholson conveys surprise, confusion, anger, and detachment without uttering a word. As he goes deeper into "Crazytown", though, it's such an obvious act that to me, any potential terror is taken out of the equation. Folks might disagree with me because everyone loves the "Here's Johnny!" and "Honey, I'm home" quips, but watch it all again and see- particularly during his conversations with Lloyd, the ghostly bartender. Nicholson mugs, rolls his eyes, wags his tongue, shucks, and jives as he acts "insane", and it's all put-upon to the point of distraction. We shouldn't be laughing at him- this man has descended far enough into madness that he's got an uncontrollable bloodlust for his wife and young son. He's a monster, but I don't think that ever really comes across effectively. The role, I think, would have been served better by a more understated performance.

The performance that does knock me out throughout the film is that by Shelley Duvall. The nervous tics and slight stutters during a calm conversation with the child psychologist early on betray so much about Wendy Torrance; as she attempts to rationalize her husband's violent outbursts, her cigarette ash grows longer...and Duvall's line readings are so effortless that it seems as if she's not acting at all. Whereas Jack Nicholson acts crazy, even at her most manic Duvall doesn't get all wrapped up in histrionics and obvious attempts at acting scared- she simply is. She's bleary-eyed and terrified, but most importantly, she's confused by her husband- she doesn't understand what's happening and why he's suddenly turned homicidal. It's an outstanding, amazing performance.

Aside: is it just me, or does Danny sport the best outfits in this movie? I should be ashamed of wanting to dress like a 6-year-old boy from 1980, but he's such a little fashion plate. His sweaters are fucking rad.

Kubrick manages to induce feelings of being trapped in a space where you wouldn't expect to experience them: the huge, sprawling hotel. During the tour of the building, Wendy comments that she'll need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs everywhere she goes so she won't get lost. How could cabin fever set in in such vast space? It seems impossible, but the audience experiences it firsthand thanks to Kubrick's brilliant shot composition and framing. There are hundreds of instances where the director uses symmetry in the shots, putting the focus directly in the center of the frame. It's a confrontational, objective, and detached view, and yet the limited scope leaves the viewer feeling cramped, even in the largest rooms. He very frequently adds the ceiling in the shot as well, to heighten the claustrophobic effect. Some examples:

Methinks me smells a lietmotif.

And yeah, there they are- those damn creepy Grady Girls.

While it's not a flawless film, The Shining is a damn fine horror movie that loses little impact over the years, even through repeated viewings. It seems I find something new to admire about it every time I see it. Visually, it's a stunning achievement. The Overlook Hotel is one bad, bad place...but only sometimes. I give it 9 out of 10 rocket ship sweaters.

FYI, there's a fantastic page of trivia about The Shining over at imdb.com. Follow this link.

22 comments:

Goose said...

I remember going to see this at the movies when I was a kid with my mom. It scared me to pieces. I loved it. This was the 1st horror movie I saw at the theatre. It will always have a special place in my heart.

Recently I read the book. (well, listened to the audio book) It was really good as well.

Craig Moorhead said...

Jack always seemed crazy right from the beginning, which was my least favorite thing about the movie.

But it does stand the test of time and I think that's because there are no big explanations and, really, there's very little dialogue of any consequence. Kubrick keeps it quiet and visual (except for those pesky "Here's Johnny!" moments, which aren't deal breakers, but aren't really strong choices, either).

I think King wrote the story as an allegory for alcohol addiction tearing the guts out of a family.

Stacie Ponder said...

You're right Craig...Jack doesn't have very far to fall, it seems, given the way he acts early on- it's not shocking when he goes mad. He's been distant and cruel to his family from the get go. He doesn't seem at all bothered by his newly-found homicidal impulses- he just goes with the flow.

It's IS a quiet, visual movie, and that works well, I think. There's no explaining, or even questioning as to what's going on. Like Halloran told Danny, it's all just "pictures in a book". Given the things she saw in her last moments in the hotel, I'd really like to know Wendy's thoughts after they get away...

It's kind of amazing that it's a gothic movie without any of the gothic trappings. It's all brightly lit, centered in the frame for the viewer. Kubrick doesn't hide anything in the big spooky house. I love the way he reveals the horror: in silent flashes.

I'd say this story can definitely be seen as an allegory for alcoholism- particularly given King's troubles in the past. You could stretch it a little and add writer's block in there, too.

B.A. Slattery said...

I must say, Stacie, this is one of the most intelligent, well-written posts I've seen. Often I've thought of The Shining in the light you present it, but never have I put it down in words. I guess I don't even have to think about it anymore because you've done it all.

I particularily like the addition of Kubrick's beautiful shots. Until you see them again, and again, you don't truly realize how much art he put into his films.

I think it's a daunting task to find a better looking horror film. I definitely think Halloween is on the list of excellent-looking horror films, if only because its opening, first-person shot was revolutionary at the time.

One thing I must disagree with: Nicholson's acting. I think it works perfectly well, cheesy lines and all. Imagine a two and a half hour long movie with nothing but intense psychosis. Now imagine Kubrick directing it. It'd be like Eyes Wide Shut but slower ... and that wouldn't work. Nicholson's over-the-top crazy man act is hilarious and effective. You're laughing, but at the same time, you see Duvall's reaction to his behavior, and suddenly it takes on a serious edge -- this isn't just fun and games for Jack; what he's doing is truly terrifying.

Kubrick brutalized Duvall to get that performance out of her. Frankly, I think actors should be brutalized more often so we can get that quality of fear in films.

Again, well done. Great rainy day reading o'er here in Cambridge.

Craig Moorhead said...

And, yeah, you mentioned how new and clean the hotel is. For some reason that never really hit me before, but you're right. Something horrible happening in a nice, bright, clean place makes it that much more horrible. And the way Kubrick isolates people with those centered frames you're talking about... every frame is just so creepy.

slatts said...

Excellent, Stacie!

This film's been a FAV of mine since seeing it open in the theaters (when? a long time ago)...

I became a fan of Kubrick. Always enjoying what he "does" to buildings and space. THIS being his true masterpiece!

It's all about the place!

Chadwick H. Saxelid said...

One day I'm going to do a compare/contrast review of King's source novel, Kubrick's film, and the mini-series. But, today, I'm just going to bounce a few thoughts and ideas around.

I am of very mixed emotions when it comes to Stanley Kubrick's adaptation on King's The Shining, which I consider to be his most personal novel.

A little background: King's father had abandoned his family when King was very young. He also grew up in crushing poverty. The novel The Shining was written when his writing career was just about enter into the land of the runaway bestseller. King was also a new father struggling with emotions he could not understand. I think all these things, and others, fused to create a truly unique tragic figure in the brooding, angry, and overwhelmed Jack Torrance. The thing that is most potent in the novel (other than the scares) is Torrance's rage, both directed at himself and at a world that won't give him a fair shake, it seems. The most emotionally devestating moment in the novel occurs toward the end, when a battered and bloody Torrance briefly comes to his senses, sets down the mallet, kisses his son before telling him, "Run Danny, but never forget how much I love you." Torrance then falls back into his psychotic state and, laughing and screaming, hammers at, and destroys, his own face with the mallet as Danny runs away. Kubrick's film completely ignores that self-destructive rage and the fierce love/hate duality in Torrance, and it nearly destroys his film.

My father, who loved the novel, hated the movie because of Nicholson's goofy performance. I consider it nothing more than a dry-run for when he would play the Joker in Batman nine years later. He is as frightening as a paper sack.

What Kubrick did get right was that feeling of utter isolation, and of being overwhelmed and swallowed whole by the enormity of it all. Of getting lost within destracting details. The maze imagery in the film is just wonderful.

If there was one director of that era who could have cracked open that underbelly of rage in King's novel, it was William Friedkin. Friedkin did such a wonderful job combining shock with psychology in The Exorcist, I can't help but think that his version would have been brilliant.

So, I think Kubrick's version is a splendid example of style-over-substance.

Stacie Ponder said...

Chadwick, thanks for the info. It's been a long time since I've read The Shining, and I've never seen the TV adaptation that's supposed to be more faithful to the source material. King must have crapped his pants when he saw this film for the first time, it's so vastly different from his novel.

Some changes Kubrick made I understand and agree with: opting for a hedge maze instead of topiaray animals, for example. Even today, with superior effects to thise of 1980, I don't know if the animals would be effective. If anything, I think they'd pull the viewer out of the story when shown- in the book, in my imagination, I think they work just fine.

What bothers me about Nicholson's performance (and, as a default, the script, I suppose), is that we don't see Jack's mental battle whatsoever. He clearly hates his wife from the beginning and holds her responsible, we can assume, for his miserable life. Why? We don't see that played out enough...does Wendy's submissiveness inspire the anger in him? Maybe. There's just so few interactions with Jack and his family- and virtually NO friendly, loving interactions- that he just doesn't have far to fall, and there's no sense of tragedy to his madness. It seems like he's always wanted to kill Wendy- he hasn't been PUSHED. In the bathroom, Grady talks about his need to "correct" his wife and daughters...it's quiet, and it's terrifying- the whole idea of the monster living alongside you, how could your husband or father turn like that?

While I agree, Brennon, that two hours of internal struggle would most likely be boring, I think if there had been more of a contrast between pre-Overlook Jack and post-Overlook Jack, the latter would be that much more effective. As it stands, if anyone less talented than Shelley Duvall had been playing Wendy, it wouldn't have worked whatsoever.

Yeah, Kubrick sure tortured his actors, eh? Did you read that trivia at the link? 127 takes for a shot? It's a miracle anyone would or COULD put up with that.

Great dialogue guys! And thanks for the compliment, Slatteries...sometimes I like to talk about movies somewhat seriously! :D

warrenzone said...

It's funny how Stephen King hates this movie. He said Kubrick was not educated enough on horror movies from prior years.

Michelle said...

I keep meaning to watch the made-for-TV version of The Shining.

I like Kubrick's movie but after re-reading the book in the last year or so I felt that the movie lost a lot of the psychology that was so central to the book.

Speaking of SK miniseries, I'm looking forward to the Desperation miniseries next week.

Artur said...

The Shining is one of those sublime moments when a lesser literary work becomes something far more by the hands of a talented director. The film gave new meanings to the book, and, essentially, imortalized King's work.

Artur said...

And the creepy music were symophonies by Krizstof Penderecki and Béla Bartók's Music For Celesta, percussion and strings...

Dirk Manning said...

What REALLY impresses me about THE SHINING is that just about every freakin' shot in the movie is symmetrical...

Neat, eh?

Stacie Ponder said...

It IS neat...that's probably why I mentioned it in the review! :P

Robert said...

Found your review, which is excellent... caught the movie again on the Sci-Fi Channel last night, and it definitely holds up, despite all the controversy over the changes that Kubrick made to King's novel.

It's actually a pretty good adaptation of the book - the main change (a big one, admittedly) is that Kubrick really isn't interested in the horror from the ghosts and things that inhabit The Overlook - his emphasis is on the horror that comes from a loved one who wants to kill you.

Nicholson's performance is exaggerated and showy... but having seen the movie upteen times, I've come to the conclusion that Kubrick wanted to show, straight from the beginning, that Jack is The Monster that everyone should be concerned with.

Finally, it's great to see someone acknowledge Shelly Duvall's performance - she should have been nominated for an award.

the decadent conspirator said...

i`ve always thought the shining to be an over-rated film its got a marvellous atmosphere and the first 2 hours are very good but its the ending that has always let the film down, in my opinion its a total cop-out, thats why i prefer the t.v. mini series with rebecca de mornay, now i know that would be sacrilage to fans of stanley kubrick but i`ve always regarded him as a very over-rated director, in fact i think the only film he ever made that truly deserves to be called a masterpiece is "BARRY LYNDON" in fact i believe lyndon to be the greatest film ever made, where-as, for instance, any of john carpenters horror films blows the shining out of the window.

Fujibayashi said...

Watched this again recently after reading a very interesting bit by Roger Ebert (a newer entry in his "Great Films" essays) which points out that *no* character's interpretation of the events in the film can be trusted; he also suggests that the Wendy character might not have been there at all - the film is a much more interesting watch considering that. Danny and Jack may possibly both have been crazy in the beginning, and the ghosts as well as Wendy's presence at the hotel were just a figment of either or both their imaginations.

Stacie Ponder said...

It's interesting that Wendy is the only one who doesn't really have any supernatural experiences at the hotel...until the end when everything goes apeshit and she sees furry fellatio and all that. Had she not seen ANYTHING at ANY POINT- now THAT would have been a great angle to explore. The Overlook is the trickiest haunted house ever.

Christopher said...

If you're interested in The Shining and ever want to lose an entire day of your life, here's a mind-blowing, somewhat-pretentious, but always-fascinating uber-long essay: http://mstrmnd.com/log/802

RJ Battles said...

I agree totally- you don't see any stretch between Jack at the beginning and Jack at the end. I read somewhere, though that that is the kind of performance he was looking for; he wanted a "James Cagney type" for the part. I think his movies need that: His movies, beautiful & orderly can pull towards being dull if there isn't a strong personality on the screen. Imagine Full Metal Jack without R. Lee Emery.

I also agree with Kubrick's decision to dump the shrub animals and go with the maze. The leafy lions & tigers seemed a little far-fetched in the book.

The one thing I would definitly change about the movie is Jack's face at the end when he's frozen and he's crosseyed and looking up; it's almost funny.

My favorite thing about The Shining is the opening shot. Right after the Warner Bros. screen card fades there is that small island and its reflection in the lake. It's so clear and perfect.

Joe said...

A little tardy to the party, folks, but my two cents:

The Shining was among the first movies I saw in HD-DVD, and what a revelation! After twenty years of crap-vision VHS, seeing it in 1080p was a real thrill. I was hooked from the opening credits (and so want to go check out Glacier Nat'l Park and the Timberline Lodge now).

While I agree that at times Nicholson's performance was over the top, and that a pre-Overlook, post-Overlook progression might have been more affecting, consider the sequence of the family driving to the hotel on closing day. They're not even there yet, and Jack is already pissed with both Danny and Wendy. This could serve as some clear, dark foreshadowing, ie, uh-oh, things are gonna get really ugly...

Kubrick's thing seems to be taking people who are already flawed but functioning and pushing them until they break. Take a bow, Private Pyle. Kubrick's Jack Torrance is the same.

My take on the rad sweaters, even seeing this on HBO in '81 or so, was that Wendy passed a lot of her time knitting.

Nate said...

I watched the film once again last night (a fave that I frequent over the years).

This blog makes some good points like Duvall's performance was stellar. I felt so bad for her, the sweetest lady, stuck in this situation. She really portrays realistic terror. Some good observations concerning the nature of the hotel and it's ghost were made as well. Great catch on the symmetry of the shots and camera angles, they really do have a dramatic effect. I don't really see how Kubrick could have improved here.

Of course I am biased, but I think that Jack's performance was astounding. I understand how some can say that it was over the top, and I only partially agree, in some small aspects.

He really presents himself in the beginning to be a man of reason and sensibility. So the first seen where Wendy comes into the room and and he curses at her and tells her to stay out of his work space, I can see how that was a harsh response from someone who was just starting to lose his mind. It was as if he was EXTREMELY angry, with no sense of self restraint at all. I do love that scene, however (and all of the scenes in this movie), and accept it for what it is.

The mannerisms that were pointed out, like Jack's performance in the bar for the first time, I can see how they are perceived as over-doing it, but I also can imagine a person's personality coming out in such a way when they are overwhelmed with adrenaline, rage, and a healthy dose of insanity+ghost interaction. Again, I am biased, but I don't know of many performances that can match the ever present,complicated, emotional and intellectual shifts that Jack goes through with his facial expressions and mannerisms. Bravo, Jack, bravo.

I also really enjoyed Scatman Crothers performance as the cook. What a character!

One thing that I think makes this movie, in addition to the directing, filming, writing, acting, and storyline, was the score. The music itself could give you a chill, and in combination with the creepy scenes, I certainly could feel a tingle go down my spine. Without this original music by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, the movie would not have been anywhere near what it became in it's entirety.

The one weak spot for me, and I agree with some of the other bloggers here, was that the end was a little disappointing. the adrenaline certainly waned off towards the end, and there seemed to be a lot of potential energy built up in the film that kind of dissipated. I feel guilty stating this, as Jack coming through the door with an axe is quite climactic, but with all of the eerie forces at work, you almost are salivating for some sort of supernatural nuke to go off. I don't know how it could be improved, but compared to the more stimulating previous scenes, the long chase at the end just did not stand up.

Altogether I think the film is extraordinarily well done, and an all time favorite of mine! :D