H'ween Horrorthon: 'The Shining' (1980)
Stanley Kubrick took Stephen King's story to horrific heights... but remains the most polarized movie of the late master filmmaker.
"I'm not gonna hurt you. 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 going to bash your brains in! Gonna bash 'em right the fuck in!"— Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance to his on-screen wife, Wendy, played by Shelley Duvall
Hello everybody. I'm now at the last legs of my Horrorthon. As much fun as it's been; I'm a little sad to see it end. There are many other films I wanted to review and suggest for anyone's horror movie marathons, but as its now the last week, I'm down to about three more films and the last one will indeed be a surprise. So, those who have been following, I thank you all and look forward, life willing, to be doing this again in 2018.
This latest entry is always a favorite of mine for Halloween and any other season. Master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick undertook making Stephen King's 1977 bestseller The Shining and pretty much made it his own. An absolutely mesmerizing, unapologetically terrifying, epic horror opus that starts off very slow, but builds and builds, until it basically blows up in your face and you're pretty much on your own with sleepless nights. Still, it's interesting to point out that despite the genius at work and a now iconic performance by Jack Nicholson as an alcoholic writer who goes off the deep end, it was not respected and dismissed at the time of its release — even by it's own creator, Stephen King.
King, in many interviews, has been forward about his dislike for what Kubrick did during filming of his novel. He felt Kubrick deviated from many of the author's themes, such as alcoholism and the unraveling of the nuclear American family in favor of the more supernatural elements of the story. He felt Kubrick essentially made a Kubrick film and not a Stephen King story which he feels was lost in translation. Kubrick, before passing away in 1999, also made it clear he had no intention of sticking to King's text or story arc and quite frankly, also made clear that his vision was going to take precedence. Not having a smash hit out of his last film, the enigmatic and even confusing costume epic, Barry Lyndon in 1975, he felt the King book was his entry into the mainstream big time. The last horror film to cause such a fuss was Halloween, and even though he also turned down directing the 1973 classic The Exorcist, he felt this would put him on the map with a genre he had at the time never dared to tackle.
The 1980 One-Sheet Poster.
The gist of the plot (at least, film-wise): Jack Nicholson, his most off-the-cliff performance to date, second to the Joker in Batman in 1989, plays Jack Torrance, a failed writer trying to get a book going when the opportunity of a lifetime arises. The Overlook Hotel needs a winter caretaker and are fielding out applicants. He's interviewed and he's obviously poised to get the job. His potential employer (Barry Nelson) is all set to have Jack sign on the dotted line, except for one thing. He's told a story that would make any natural human being run for the hills. His predecessor (Philip Stone) had gone berserk and chopped off his entire family with an axe and shot himself through the mouth with a shotgun. But Jack is intrigued and feels the urban legend is an actual selling point, and is even convinced his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), will be on board, as will his young son, Danny (Danny Lloyd).
Danny is a precocious, but solemn little kid, but has that little extra something. The gift of telepathy and of seeing visions (the "shining" of the story, as it were). He's already wary of his father getting the job, and sees things no kid should ever see. Ghosts, rivers of blood through elevator doors, corpses etc. etc. But he's a trooper and tries to go along with it. Wendy herself is on board at first, but begins to notice bizarre and ugly changes in Jack. He's testy and anti-social. He's always writing, but there's no purpose to it. Time and again, Jack is seeing things and begins to unravel mentally. He begins to take it out on Wendy and is soon beginning to show signs of homicidal psychosis.
So, we as an audience are now asking questions. Is it the hotel? Is it possessed or haunted? Danny, with his precognitive skills is able to see the ugliness all throughout the Overlook, but Jack is somehow kept spellbound. It all culminates when Wendy goes to see Jack about leaving the hotel, only to finally read his alleged masterpiece, a near 400 page opus entitled:
All Work and No Play, Makes Jack a Dull Boy
It's here that is the ultimate deal-breaker, but Jack is NOT giving up on her. Even threatening her and his son with ultimate bodily harm, even death, if they even so much as think of leaving. Danny is now chanting the non-sensical word "Redrum" over and over again. It doesn't sound like anything but an irritating chant, but before the iconic scene where Jack wields an axe and pounds his way into the door, we see through a window what this nonsensical word really is... "Murder" backwards!
I'm done. I personally feel that despite its long length and a few lapses in credibility (not to mention a few visual gaffes, surprising me because Kubrick was such a perfectionist), The Shining is still a grabber and keeps you glued to the screen from start to finish. It manages to scare without the benefit of "boo" moments always jumping into the frame or excessive use of gore, except only when necessary. Another strange selling point is Shelley Duvall as the harried wife who is now his potential victim and must now, fight or flee. It was reported that Kubrick had hounded Duvall extensively during filming almost to the point of a nervous breakdown. Jack Nicholson doesn't flinch with his chilling, but even comical performance as a man so convinced of his superiority as the alpha male that he's actually willing to go on a homicidal rampage. Danny Lloyd (eight years old, I believe I read somewhere) gives an all-out creep-you-out performance as the kid with too much knowledge about the hotel and even about how it may all end.
In closing, Kubrick made a killer horror film. Scary and unsettling with no reason to compromise. As to whether it matches the King story verbatim is not really necessary. I'm sure the book is great (I didn't read it, despite my love for King's books), but as what Kubrick did with this adaptation, it still made for great shock theater. He made Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and his last film, Eyes Wide Shut in 1999. He was a tried-and-true genius till the very end. Even a genius can scare the living crap out of us without having to copy its source material to the letter.
My Two Cents: A great documentary called Room 237 made in 2012 is a great companion piece to the film. It's an interesting commentary by film scholars and professors about the many ambiguous motifs and narratives Kubrick used in the film. Give it a try... seriously.
Next Up: John Carpenter's classic film; needs no introduction.