Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Shining

Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining seems to divide horror fans. Many regard it as one of the best horror movies ever made while others regard it as a travesty for the changes Kubrick made to King's text. Me? I'm somewhere in the middle. Kubrick's skill and craftsmanship are as stellar as you're going to see in any movie anywhere, but part of me wishes he retained King's human touch.

The Shining is the story of a writer, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), who becomes the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. He, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) will be all by themselves, and Jack, a recovering alcoholic, will have time to write. But the hotel is haunted, and the spirits prey on his mind. Danny knows something is wrong; he has a psychic ability, called "Shining," which the hotel's head chef Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) told him to use if he ever needed help.

I read The Shining for the first time last year, and while I can see why see why it's an important part of King's bibliography, it's not one of my favorite books of his, so I hold no value for any movie being that faithful to it. If anything, I like many of the changes Kubrick made, stripping most of the extraneous background material, replacing the croquet racket with an ax, among others. There are some changes I don't agree with, but I'll get to those soon enough.

Last night, I was fortunate enough to see The Shining in a theater with an audience, the first time I've ever done so with a Kubrick film, and it was a great experience. The stark, desolate halls of the Overlook Hotel have never appeared so overwhelmingly claustrophobic and twisted. Kubrick loves his wide angle lens and tracking camera, especially when they follow Danny on his Big Wheel, leading to one of the great shocks when he rounds a corner and spots the ghostly twin girls at the end of a hall. There's also the famed Kubric glare, the demented stare of deranged people looking straight at the camera, fitting in a movie about madness. Kubrick's style has often been called cold, and in the case of The Shining, that's a fitting descriptor. The wintry setting of the Colorado mountain pass is just so bleak and isolating, that after a while, the viewer feels trapped alongside the Torrances.

As a ghost story, The Shining is not filled with cheap scares or flashy special effects, nor does Kubrick rely on shadows and bumps in the night. Much of the film is brightly lit in rather normal surroundings. In fact, an argument could be made there aren't any literal ghosts in at all. Sure, there is an occasional phantom image, apparently figures from the hotel's past, but they are witnessed by troubled characters who aren't necessarily in the right state of mind. They could just be hallucinating, imagining, or confused. That ambiguity is a source of great unease throughout the film. Is Jack Torrance ready to explode because of cabin fever and alcoholism or are ghosts playing on those weaknesses to drive him crazy?

But as I said above, I do wish the movie kept the humanity King imbued his novel with. Kubrick strips all sympathy out of the movie. Instead of a flawed but decent man struggling to be a good husband and father, Jack Torrance as played by Nicholson is pretty much deranged from the start, even before going to the hotel. In the car ride up, his body language and face indicate he can't stand Wendy or Danny. This eliminates his tragic arc and leaves him nowhere to go dramatically. Wendy is also too waifish, too much of a pushover and would-be pleaser instead of the resourceful, determined mother of the novel.

I've heard the argument state this family dynamic is perfectly rational and plausible. Families of real-life alcoholics and abusers constantly live in fear that they can explode at any time over anything. That's certainly a fair reading, but I don't think it makes for the most interesting of movies. Nicholson, who always seems demented, especially when he smiles, kept making me think of the Joker as his performance borders onto self-parody while Duvall is too whimpering. By the end, her constant "Isn't this nice?" statements and blubbering make one wish Jack would brain her with the ax already.

The titular shining is given little attention. In the novel, the hotel wanted to add Danny's power to its own, hence why it was using Jack to get him. Here, it's used for some admittedly freaky visions and a call to help to Dick, who's rescue effort ends up being one, big dark joke.

Still, I can't deny the power and effectiveness of the movie. Kubrick's still very much at the top of his game. He might not care for the lives of his characters, but he knows how to put his audience through the emotional wringer. By the end, when the ax-wielding Jack is chasing Danny through the snowy hedge maze of the hotel, it's about as good as horror can get.

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