Saturday, May 27, 2017
(May 1980, U.S.)
For Stanley Kubrick's 1980 screen version of Stephen King's THE SHINING, I'm going to take a writing approach I've never done before on my blog. What I shall do, basically, is offer two (2) perspectives of the legendary horror film - the first shall be how I interpreted the film when I first saw it at the age of thirteen in 1980 (THEN), followed by my current feelings and perspectives of it as a mature (sort of) adult of cinema (NOW). This sort of approach is personally significant to me because THE SHINING was one of the earliest horror films I managed to see on the big screen, and believe me when I tell you that it required some deception and sneaking around to do because both my parent were rather unreasonably strict about their son watching horror films. But as the old saying goes, the more you're denied something, the more you want it...badly! So here we go...
In January 1980, my grandmother took me and my younger brother to a Brooklyn movie theater to see a comedy of three old Hollywood veterans called GOING IN STYLE (recently remade). The reason I mention this movie, having nothing to do with horror, is because before it began, the trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING was shown (it’s only relation to the main feature being released by the same studio, Warner Brothers). The trailer was short and quite frankly, to the point; a pair of red elevator doors in the center of a hotel lobby that suddenly started to gush oceans of blood coming right towards us! As much as I was fascinated at such ambiguous images of horror, I was scared to death, as well. I mean, no actors, no dialogue, no story content – just lots and lots of blood! I think my grandmother may have tried to reach over and cover my eyes, I’m not sure. She certainly covered my brother's eyes, at least. Small children should not being seeing such horrifying images on the screen! In May 1980, I had absolutely no idea who Stanley Kubrick was. Yes, I’d seen (most of) 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY on NBC-TV in 1977, but at that young age, I was hardly connecting movies with their respective directors on any level. I also didn’t know who novelist Stephen King was (ironic, considering how much King I’ve read in my adulthood). I’d heard of the 1976 movie CARRIE and had watched SALEM'S LOT on CBS-TV in 1979, but again, no connection with the author was being made. Hell, Jack Nicholson was hardly a recognizable name in my small and limited world.
Of THE SHINING, I knew only what I’d seen in the frightening trailer and what I was hearing in the TV commercial for the movie; “a masterpiece of modern horror.” What I was able to gather of its story was very simple and to the point from my perspective – a family alone during the winter in a haunted hotel. As I was still very much in the process of my horror movie curiosity, I hardly needed any further information on the subject. As luck would have it for the second time that summer, THE SHINING came to one of the local movie theaters in my hometown of Great Neck, Long Island and by the first Saturday in June, a friend of mine from middle school and I were in our seats waiting to see whatever was about to hit us. My first memory of the movie was taking note of the strange combination of the beauty of the Colorado mountains and the rather sinister-sounding music that opened it (I knew little-to-nothing of classical music). Still, beautiful or not, it was clear that we were headed toward something that was going to mean trouble later. The camera was taking us straight to the Overlook Hotel, giving us a good look at the front of the building, and then going to black to really begin the story of Jack Torrance and his family.
To begin with, little Danny Torrance was haunted by something (or someone) evil named Tony that gave him horrible visions, including the blood-gushing elevators I’d seen in the movie’s trailer. On the day of the family’s arrival at the Overlook, during the process of the tour, Danny learned just a little bit more of his mysterious visions from the friendly hotel cook, Mr. Hallorann, who appeared to be gifted (or cursed?) with the same powers as Danny; powers he called "shining". While Mr. Halloran gave a rather detailed explanation of Danny’s powers, I can’t honestly say I understood every word he was saying, but it seemed clear that both of them had the ability to see what had happened in the past and what was going to happen in the future. And as Mr. Hallorann put it in the case of the hotel’s history, "not all of it was good". The warning he gave Danny to stay out of Room 237 was surely clear enough, even to thirteen year-old boys in the theater whose horror movie experiences were still rather limited. By the time the family had been at the hotel for a month and the first snow storm hit, there was (again) that sense of environmental beauty combined with a sense of dread from the accompanying musical soundtrack. We were finally beginning to understand that this family was on its own in the middle of nowhere during a crippling snow storm, and no one or nothing would save them when they faced the horrors that were still yet to come.
It all really started when Danny disobeyed Mr. Hallorann’s warning and went into Room 237 when he came across the open door. I remember preparing myself for something really terrible to happen to the poor boy then and there. Instead, the scene dissolved into something else. It was later after Jack awoke from a horrible nightmare that we learned of Danny’s experience inside Room 237. Apparently, the family wasn’t alone in the hotel. According to Wendy Torrance, there was a crazy woman inside Room 237 who tried to strangle Danny. When Jack went to investigate, we were witnessing something that may or may not have real. Again, keeping in mind that this was a tale of a haunted hotel, I presumed the woman with a great naked body (for a short time, anyway) was a ghost of some sort. Surely, if there was any doubt about that scene in the room, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind during the ballroom bar scene that Jack was talking to a ghostly bartender of the past and very likely not even really drinking the alcohol that he’d been given. It couldn’t have been real, because it all disappeared when Wendy entered the ballroom to tell Jack of the crazy woman.
After more than half of the movie had passed, it was easy to see that THE SHINING was not like the typical slasher movies that were constantly being released at the time. The movie wasn’t even particularly violent or bloody. This movie was clearly able to scare its audience by constantly suggesting what might happen next around any given corner. We were also watching Jack Torrance slowly go insane. I can recall an intrigued smile on my face during the scene when just after Wendy discovers that all of Jack’s writing consisted of only the repeated sentence, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.", he showed up in her face and proceeded to scream and threaten her in a completely crazy state of mind. Regardless of exactly what he was saying to her as he rattled on, it was entertaining enough just to listen to an actor like Jack Nicholson (whom I’d never forget after this movie!) make his presence and his words so well heard and feared. By the time the movie was hitting its climax, Jack Torrance had gone completely crazy and was now coming after his family with an axe (just as the previous caretaker had done in 1970, so we were told earlier). It was during the chase scene inside the snow-covered hedge maze that I really started to notice the camera work that was involved (I almost never paid attention to just how a movie was made when I was a kid). The camera made you feel like you were moving with Danny as he ran for his life from his father, around one corner and another (I’d learn later in my college youth that this was known as a tracking shot), as well as Jack’s perspective and he hunted down his son.
When it was all over and it seemed as if every horror of the hotel’s past had come back to haunt Wendy Torrance, she and Danny were finally able to escape the hotel with their lives, leaving Jack behind to freeze to death. Things ended quietly with the camera zooming into a series of black and white pictures on one of the hotel walls. In one of the photographs dated July 4, 1921, there was a man who looked just like Jack Torrance, smiling among a crowd of partygoers. Whoah! What did this final shot mean? Was Jack really alive? Was he once a person of the past in another life in the same hotel? Was it Jack’s grandfather? I was dumbfounded and confused, and so was my freind. Later, as we sat down at the local pizzeria after the movie, we tried to come up with some sort of reasonable explanation as to how THE SHINING had ended and what it all really meant. Two slices and two sodas later, I don’t think we accomplished our goal. Still, I was grateful to have added another awesome horror movie to my slowly growing list of experiences. I think we spent the next week at school repeating the line, "Here’s Johnny!"
THE SHINING is my favorite horror film of all time by my favorite director of all time - it has been my entire adult life. As a thirteen year-old kid in 1980, it was very easy to claim my appreciation for the film simply because it was scary and a totally cool movie to watch about something as simple as a haunted hotel in Colorado. Those are the cinematic interpretations of a child, and they may be considered more than credible for someone that age. Eventually, however, you grow up and you (hopefully) learn to watch films and interpret them by not only their story content, but by their hidden meanings and messages, as well, when applicable. Call me crazy, but I simply cannot resist a motion picture that dares me to use my brain and take the time and patience to figure out the complexities of its content. This is why the great films by the great filmmakers often require multiple viewings for the full understanding and appreciation they surely deserve.
Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s novel (a version that King himself has long considered a poor adaptation) is not simply a horror movie that you watch as you would any other cheap offering. The Overlook Hotel is not merely a mountain resort, but rather an invitation to the dark and evil side of our human personality. There are challenges to the mind and questions that require time, thought and effort to try and answer. There are ambiguities, feelings of open-endedness and elusiveness that force the observer of the film to wonder just which version of reality we’re meant to accept. Is it simply the ghostly disturbances that dominate an isolated setting with an evil past or are we perhaps members of a living nightmare that’s possibly manifested through Danny Torrance’s powers of "shining"? Is it possible that the Torrances are not even at the Overlook in the first place, but rather drawn into the above-mentioned nightmare through their son’s powerful abilities?
Let’s begin by examining the Overlook Hotel itself. In a number of traditional horror films, there’s often a feeling (if not an art) of claustrophobia because the story setting is set in a limited environment that may be difficult for its characters to escape forces beyond their control. Think of the motel grounds and Victorian house in PSYCHO, the bedroom of Regan MacNeil in THE EXORCIST, the suburban Haddonfield home in HALLOWEEN, the two-story colonial house in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and the confined New Jersey camp grounds and woods in FRIDAY THE 13TH; we can’t help but feel trapped inside a tight space. The Overlook, however, is a complex space that’s so vast, we become frightened of what possibly lurks around the corner of a long, enclosed corridor. Kubrick recognizes this and uses his trademark steady tracking shot to follow Danny as he rides his big wheel down corridor after corridor until he finally comes face to face with the (presumed) supernatural ghostly apparitions of the twin Grady girls who we’ve come to understand as previous victims of their father’s homicidal rage. Although we may not have been entirely sure of what was waiting for us around the bend, we knew very well that Kubrick was setting us up for a good jolt at the end of Danny’s ride. This odd combination of grand spaciousness and confinement provides an irresistible uncertainty as to just what’s real at this hotel and what’s not. I suppose it's all as real as the Torrance family is willing to believe and accept as real or not.
THE SHINING is ultimately a tale of madness and not necessarily traditional ghosts. Kubrick may even be suggesting the possibility that the ghosts don’t exist at all, except in the mind of the Torrances, perhaps victims of the so-called cabin fever mentioned by Mr. Ullman at the beginning of the film. Reality becomes an unreliable entity through their eyes and perceptions. Perhaps its only the character of the hotel cook Dick Halloran that is the impartial party in this entire situation. He has the power of "shining", as Danny does, but he’s on the outside looking in, even from as far away as Miami, Florida. His arrival at the Overlook hardly puts together any solid understanding of what’s happening, but rather just a chance participant as a concerned human being for the lives of Danny and his parents. His presence at the hotel is short and sweet and cut down violently when he’s axed to death by Jack (the only scene of blood in the film other than the visions of the elevator). In the end, the only truly reliable observers to the events of the film are us, and we have to decide for ourselves what’s real and what’s not. These challenges may not necessarily be scary within the film’s content, but they create, nonetheless, a terrifying feeling within ourselves that makes such a horror film work effectively.
Now, about Jack Torrance himself. During his job interview, Mr. Ullman mentions the previous caretaker of 1970 whose name was Charles Grady, who murdered his family with an axe before taking his own life with a shotgun. Later in the film, during the ballroom scene, Jack meets and talks with Delbert Grady, a butler of the year 1920, in the men’s room. Are the two men different people in different lifetimes or are they two manifestations of the same inexplicable evil entity of the Overlook, or perhaps even Jack’s mind? Delbert Grady tells Jack that he’s "always been the caretaker", which would suggest that somehow Jack was present at the hotel in 1920, which in turn, may give us some clue to his presence in the black and white July 1921 photograph at the end of the film. Or, like Grady, is it possible that Jack Torrance is, indeed, two people - one who freezes to death in the present day of 1980 and one who lives in the year 1921? There’s also the (valid) argument that upon freezing to death, that Jack’s spirit may have been absorbed into the Overlook itself, transcending him back in time to 1921, where he may or may not have existed before as a member of the hotel’s history. These are tough challenges that are not necessarily easy to answer. I don’t have the answers. Perhaps in the end, there is no right or wrong answer. Like a great painting hanging on a museum wall, it’s a simple matter of personal interpretation and just what sort of message and meaning its content offers you. Maybe it’s best not to have these questions answered at all. For were they to be answered, THE SHINING may cease to be the extraordinary viewing experience that it is, that it has always been and shall continue to be if everything is so easily delivered in a box with a lovely ribbon on it. I don’t ever want that to happen! The thirteen year-old kid I was in 1980 was more than willing to wrap things up nice and neat after just over two hours of film time. The grown man and lover of Stanley Kubrick cinema that I am today outright refuses to accept things so neat and tidy. That’s too damn easy!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Jack Torrance: "What are you doing down here?"
Wendy Torrance: "I just...wanted to talk to you."
Jack: "Okay, let's talk. What do you wanna talk about?"
Wendy: "I can't...really remember."
Jack: "You can't remember."
Wendy: "No...I can't."
Jack: "Maybe it was about... Danny? Maybe it was about him. I think we should discuss Danny. I think we should discuss what should be done with him. What should be done with him?"
Wendy (sobbing): "I don't know."
Jack: "I don't think that's true. I think you have some very definite ideas about what should be done with Danny and I'd like to know what they are!"
Wendy: "Well, I think...maybe...he should be taken to a doctor."
Jack: "You think maybe he should be taken to a doctor?"
Jack: "When do you think maybe he should be taken to a doctor?"
Wendy: "As soon as possible?"
Jack (mocking her): "As soon as possible?"
Wendy: "Oh, Jack!"
Jack: "You believe his health might be at stake."
Jack: "You are concerned about him."
Jack: "And are you concerned about me?"
Wendy: "Of course I am!"
Jack: "Of course you are! Have you ever thought about my responsibilities?"
Wendy: "Oh, Jack, what are you talking about?"
Jack: "Have you ever had a single moment's thought about my responsibilities? Have you ever thought, for a single solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employers? Has it ever occurred to you that I have agreed to look after the Overlook Hotel until May the first? Does it matter to you at all that the owners have placed their complete confidence and trust in me, and that I have signed a letter of agreement, a contract, in which I have accepted that responsibility? Do you have the slightest idea what a moral and ethical principal is? Do you? Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future, if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you!? Has it!!?"
Wendy (swinging the bat): "Stay away from me!"
Wendy: "I just wanna go back to my room!"
Wendy: "Well, I'm very confused, and I just need time to think things over!"
Jack: "You've had your whole fucking life to think things over! What good's a few minutes more gonna do you now?"
Wendy: "Please! Don't hurt me!"
Jack: "I'm not gonna hurt you."
Wendy: "Stay away from me!"
Jack: "Wendy! Darling! Light, of my life! I'm not gonna hurt ya. You didn't let me finish my sentence. I said, I'm not gonna hurt ya...I'm just gonna to bash your brains in! I'm gonna bash them right the fuck in!"