Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 24: The Shining (1980)
Writer: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Joe Turkel
Plot: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a desperate writer, takes a job as the winter caretaker to a mountain resort hotel. Jack and his family – wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) — move to the hotel for the long, isolated winter months, during which there will be little or no contact with the outside world. Even before arriving at the hotel, Danny (via his imaginary friend, “Tony”) has visions of a pair of horrifying twin girls and a river of blood gushing from an elevator. The family makes the long drive to the hotel and meets the outgoing staff, including the chef, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers). Halloran senses Danny has a psychic gift, and reveals to the boy that he shares the same power, something Halloran’s grandmother called “Shining.” Halloran tells Danny that the hotel has its own “shine,” including some bad memories, and warns him to stay away from room 237.
After a month in the hotel, Jack is struggling with his writing and thirsting for alcohol (he’s been fighting his alcohol addiction since it previously cost him a teaching job and nearly his marriage, when he hurt Danny in a drunken stupor). Fortunately, while the hotel is well-stocked with food for the winter, there’s no booze left in the Overlook. A storm rolls in and knocks out the phone lines to the hotel, and Danny’s visions grow more horrific, while Jack’s behavior grows more surly, abusive, and erratic. When Wendy finds bruises on Danny’s neck she blames Jack, driving him to the hotel’s ballroom, where a friendly bartender ghost (Joe Turkel) pours him his first drink in months. Wendy suddenly bursts in, saying that Danny told her his wound was really the act of a crazy woman in Room 237. Jack investigates the room, seeing a dead woman rising from the bathtub even as Danny – and far away in Miami, Dick Halloran – has horrible visions of the same. Jack lies to Wendy, reporting that the room was empty and that Danny must have bruised himself.
Jack returns to the ballroom, now full of ghosts in a full-on 1920s soiree, and goes for another drink, only to encounter the ghost of a previous caretaker, who advises Jack to “correct” Wendy and Danny. Halloran decides to return to the Overlook, flying in to Denver and renting a Snowcat to get there. Wendy discovers the “work” Jack has been doing – page after page of nothing but the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” She knocks him out and locks him in the pantry, but learns he damaged their own Snowcat, making escape impossible. As Jack returns, Danny escapes, but Wendy is unable to follow him. He hides in the kitchen as Halloran arrives. Jack kills the old man, and Danny’s scream as he “feels” the death alerts him to the boy’s location. Danny flees into the hotel’s hedge maze and Jack follows him, but Danny manages to trick his father by backtracking over his own footprints. When Wendy arrives, fleeing the ghosts of the hotel, she and Danny take Halloran’s Snowcat and run for safety, leaving Jack to freeze to death in the maze. As the film ends, we see an old photograph of Jack, smiling… in a hotel party from 1921.
Thoughts: The statement I’m about to make will firmly divide everybody reading this, so let’s just get it out of the way quickly: I don’t like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And the thing is, it’s not because I don’t think it’s a good movie – it is, for many reasons I’ll discuss in the next few paragraphs. The reason I don’t like it is because I think it’s a poor adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. I understand that it’s necessary to change some elements of any book when you make it into a movie – some things that work on the printed page just flat-out don’t work on the screen. I get it. But as the sort of person who always comes down on the side of the original storyteller, I think it should be the job of the filmmaker to at least capture the spirit of the original as much as possible. Kubrick took the skeleton of King’s novel and twisted it around, the ending in particular, to make something far more bleak and pessimistic. The amazing thing about King is (with a few exceptions, most of them written under his pseudonym of Richard Bachman) he’s actually a pretty optimistic writer. Good usually wins in his stories, although evil is rarely fully defeated, and the hero usually has to pay a pretty devastating cost. But he ends things with a grain of hope. In the novel, the story ends with Jack Torrance managing to overcome the demons that have him in their grip long enough to blow the Overlook Hotel’s massive boiler unit, destroying the hotel and sacrificing his own life to save his family. The way Kubrick ends the story, with Torrance freezing to death as he tries to kill the son he’d professed such love for earlier, strips the story and the character of Jack Torrance of any element of good he had. If he had done that with his own characters, that’d be fine. Doing that with someone else’s character, to me, is practically a crime.
Okay, enough of that. Let’s talk about why this film is considered to be a classic by many people. Kubrick was a very effective visual storyteller. Even though he downplayed the supernatural elements in favor of having the sense of danger emanating from Jack (were it not for the telepathic moments with Danny and Halloran and Wendy’s brief encounters with the ghosts at the very end, you could almost dismiss everything as the product of Jack’s insanity), he did managed to craft a very expressive Haunted House story, along with all the necessary tropes. The characters are completely removed from outside help – in their case by geography and, once winter comes, weather. Even when Halloran attempts to come in to help out, he has to get a snowmobile and winds up getting killed for the effort. The supernatural elements are introduced fairly early, then used as part of the story’s very slow build-up, with some characters ignoring their existence and others showing a particular sensitivity to the ghosts of the hotel.
The story does lose a point for going with the rather clichéd “Indian Burial Ground” excuse for the hotel’s nasty disposition, but there’s at least a theory that Kubrick tried to use that to make a statement on the plight of the Native American. It’s kind of a strained metaphor, but if you squint really hard and tilt your head a little bit to the left, you can sort of make it out. The other cliché is much more on-the-nose, though. When Jack makes his way to the ballroom, he actually offers his soul for a beer, verbally, out loud, in case the Faustian elements could possibly be lost on the audience. Then again, when Lloyd the Ghost Bartender pours him a drink, he gets bourbon instead. Perhaps this was a subtle cue that the contract wasn’t entirely fulfilled? That Jack – at this point in the story – was still in rudimentary control of his own destiny? Perhaps I think about this a bit too much?
The hotel itself is nearly perfect – a gorgeous, classic-looking setting that changes very easily to a place of sheer terror. The film has a very slow build – we’re over a half-hour into the 144-minute running time before the Torrance family is finally left alone in the hotel, and with the danger implicit therein. Even once we’re alone, Kubrick uses slow techniques to build the tension, such as the long steadicam shots following Danny as he roams the hallways on his Big Wheel bike or the images of Wendy and Danny wandering the hotel’s hedge maze, juxtaposed with the terminally blocked Jack as he wanders the hotel itself.
King reportedly was against the casting of Jack Nicholson, on the grounds that audiences familiar with his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would anticipate him going crazy too early. That may be the case, but he still plays the descent into madness well, if a bit too abruptly. Once he starts going loco about 45 minutes into the movie or so, he’s on a pretty straightforward plunge. Again – and I apologize for harping on this – this is a problem for me. We rarely get the sense that Jack is fighting his descent, or that he’s trying to cling to the love of his family. The scene where he tells Danny how much he loves him could have been played as a man who wants terribly to fight back the darkness, and is losing. It’d be a tragic scene in that case. But instead, you get the feeling right away that at this point he’s already completely Looney Toons and he’s going through the motions, even as the madness creeps through his eyes. To Kubrick’s credit, the next scene does show him waking up from a dream, horrified at the vision of himself murdering Wendy and Danny. It’s a rare moment where Jack is legitimately the victim of horror instead of the source. Later, in the ballroom, Jack bemoans Wendy’s lack of trust, claiming he’d never harm Danny and confessing to the one time Danny was injured by him – a “momentary loss of muscle control” when he yanked the boy up too hard by the arm. Again, this is an attempt to humanize Jack a bit, make him less of an out-of-control outlet for evil, and it’s appreciated. It would just be appreciated more if we saw some of that when he was actually with Danny.
Shelly Duvall – who was by many accounts brutalized by Kubrick on-set to get the performance he wanted – works as a woman who is clinging to a dying hope, then sees it shatter. Danny Lloyd is okay – not particularly memorable amongst the pantheon of child actors but not particularly offensive either. And Scatman Crothers? Hell, there isn’t anything in the world that couldn’t have been made 83 percent cooler by the addition of Scatman Crothers. In truth, I’ve always felt the Halloran character was somewhat wasted in this story – after a fairly epic run where it seems like he’s going to play the cavalry, he instead dies moments after entering the hotel, serving no purpose other than to reveal to Jack where Danny is hiding and to provide a second Snowcat – which, once Jack is dead, is kind of unnecessary. He’s a great character, and gets thrown away pretty much for nothing.
The pop culture footprint of this film is enormous, of course, and I don’t just mean that one SimpsonsHalloween episode that parodies it. Danny’s refrain of “Redrum” and the steady typing that gives us “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” have both become milestones, shortcuts to demonstrate horror in parody. Images like the blood flowing from the elevator and the frozen Jack in the hedge maze, too, are iconic at this point. Although perhaps the most recognizable moment of the film – Jack bursting through the door with a fire axe and exclaiming “Here’s Johnny!” was an ad lib by Nicholson on the set. It’s funny how things like that can happen – a moment of playfulness by Jack Nicolson makes it into the nightmare highlight reels for the next 30 years.
Moving on, it’s time to get to some of the real boogeymen of the 80s, the characters that kept my generation up at night (either scared or laughing, I’ll leave you to be the judge). Tomorrow we look at the first Friday the 13th.