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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 24: The Shining (1980)

shining-posterDirector: Stanley Kubrick

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.

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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 20: Carrie (1976)

carrieDirector: Brian DePalma

Writer: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Piper Laurie

Plot: Slow-to-develop Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a high school senior, the frequent scapegoat of her classmates due to her sheltered life and the oppressive nature of her mother (Piper Laurie). Carrie’s troubles are compounded on the day she gets her first menstrual cycle, without any idea what it means. The other girls torment her mercilessly, and Carrie is sent home. But along with the changes to her body, something is happening to Carrie’s mind as well. In moments of stress or anger, she finds herself moving objects without touching them. When her mother learns about the incident, she tells Carrie the “curse of blood” is punishment for sin and locks her in the closet to pray. The girls who mocked Carrie are given a harsh detention with the gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels guilty about tormenting the girl, and convinces her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to ask her to the prom. The ringleader, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), wants to get back at Carrie for her trouble, and convinces her high school dropout boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) to help her get a brutal revenge. Carrie agrees to go with Tommy, but her mother forbids it. Carrie lashes out wither powers, declaring that she’s going to go and sending her mother into fits of prayer. Billy and Chris, meanwhile, set up a bucket of pig’s blood above the stage of the gym, waiting for Carrie’s big moment. At the prom, Carrie unexpectedly finds a measure of acceptance from her classmates, who treat her as just any other girl – something Carrie has wanted all her life. Her joy is shattered when Chris springs her trap: she’s rigged the prom election so Carrie will win, and just as she comes up to the stage, the pig’s blood spills on her. Tommy is knocked unconscious when the bucket itself falls and strikes him in the head, and the audience erupts in laughter.

If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you probably recognize this as the point where the students made a particularly stupid mistake.

The already-fragile Carrie snaps, locking the doors to the gym and setting it on fire, trapping everybody inside. When she leaves the burning gym, Billy and Chris try to run her over, but Carrie simply flips the car and causes it to explode. Returning home, Carrie cries to her mother, who now believes her daughter to be the product of the devil. Margaret White stabs Carrie, and Carrie uses her powers to hurl dozens of blades at her mother, killing her. Finally, Carrie destroys her mother’s house and kills herself in the process. The film ends with an image of Carrie crawling from her own grave, but it’s only a bad dream for survivor Sue Snell, whom one suspects will never have a good dream again.

Thoughts: I became a fan of Stephen King in high school, probably when I was about the age of Carrie White in the film, but I didn’t get around to reading his early works until many years later. In fact, by the time I actually read Carrie or saw the movie, I was already a high school teacher myself, so I think I have something of an odd perspective on the story. King was ahead of the curve when it came to depicting the victims of high school bullying becoming monsters in their own right (he explored a similar theme, sans the supernatural element, in his novel Rage), and these days when I see a kid in the sort of dire straits Carrie finds herself in, I feel particularly strong about trying to help them before it goes bad. Sometimes, though, you just can’t do anything.

It’s hard to see Carrie White as a monster, though. She lashes out, and she causes an incredible amount of death and destruction, but it’s hard to say that anyone else wouldn’t have reacted the same way in her situation. Her overbearing mother is a chilling creature, and would drive anyone mad.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie make the film, Laurie being cruel and sadistic, Spacek being a broken, shattered creature even when we first meet her, which makes those moments when Chris snatches away her brief moment of happiness all the more tragic. In fact, if Carrie’s rampage had ended with the deaths of her tormenters instead of spreading out to the rest of the school, the audience likely would sympathize with her entirely. The deaths would be understandable, if not entirely justified. But at that point, she can’t control herself. She gets her tormentors, but she also gets Tommy and Miss Collins, the two people who have never been unkind to her at all (even Sue, the lone survivor of the massacre, joined in on the initial mocking of Carrie at the beginning of the film). Sometimes you’ll see that the one person who treats the “monster” well is spared its wrath. Not so, in the case of Carrie White. By then, Spacek’s face grows hard and her eyes empty, as if she’s no longer even in control, just an uncontrollable force of nature being used to guide the chaos all around her to its horrific end.

Even then, though, she’s never as horrible as Piper Laurie in her final moments, walking towards her daughter with a bloody knife in the air, smiling with the confidence that she’s doing God’s work. The last moment of horror comes when Carrie slays her, pinning her up in a sort of grotesque crucifix that mirrors the unsettling one her mother forced her to pray under in the closet.

The story itself is actually very simple – I’m pretty sure this is the shortest plot synopsis I’ve written in weeks – but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Sometimes it’s those simple beats that hit close to home. We see the archetypes here – Carrie as the victim-turned-killer, her mother as the iron fist that squeezes until her child pops, Chris as the cruel one, Sue as the guilty party that tries to make good. We recognize all of the characters, and that helps us get into the story easily. There isn’t much of a backstory behind Carrie’s powers, but again, one isn’t really needed. She’s telekinetic, and at this particular time in the 70s that was something that was making the rounds of speculative fiction.

The film draws from interesting sources to create its mood. The musical sting we hear whenever Carrie uses her powers is inarguably reminiscent of the legendary shower scene from Psycho, for example. It’s Carrie lashing out, but the music brings Norman Bates to mind. Otherwise, the music is fairly unremarkable – perhaps even a little too soft and lyrical most of the time. It’s there to disarm you, of course, to prevent you from being prepared for the incoming horror, but it doesn’t really succeed.

The odd moments in the movie are when Brian DePalma works in a few moments of comedy, particularly as Tommy and his friends try on tuxedoes. For some reason that still doesn’t make any sense to me, he goes into fast-forward just for a few seconds, speeding up the conversation so the boys sound like the Chipmunks. It’s a bizarre moment that doesn’t fit at all with the atmosphere of the rest of the film. DePalma also works really hard to artificially draw out the tension. From the time Carrie steps on stage until the blood falls on her head we’ve got a long, protracted scene of Sue discovering the prank and trying to warn Miss Collins, all stretched out due to slow-motion and made a little more horrible by the lack of audio. He goes into split-screen at this point, alternately showing Carrie herself or various points in the gym as she begins to trap her victims. Strangely, the split screen works very well, allowing you to see more of the terror and give it a sort of real-time element. I’m reminded of the TV show 24 whenever it breaks this way, although whether the producers of that show were specifically influenced by Carrie, who can say?

The measure of any movie is really the way it’s remembered, of course. Carrie is still considered a landmark horror film, with echoes in every story of high school terror that came afterwards, everything from A Nightmare on Elm Street right down to The Faculty. Horribly, you can see the reactions in the real world as well, any time some high school outcast snaps under the pressure and turns on his classmates. How many times have you seen a story like that on television or in the newspaper that compares a real-world killer to Carrie White? Carrie should have been a simple little horror story. Instead, it became part warning, part social commentary, part prophecy. I liked it better when it was just a horror story.

We’ve spent most of our time on this project in America, mainly because I don’t really know the history of foreign horror enough to speculate on it. But there are a few foreign films with a large enough footprint to make it on to my radar. Tomorrow, we go to Italy, for Susperia.