Friday, October 10, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: The Shining

 This is the first part of a three part series posted earlier this year. Parts two and three, devoted to Room 237 and Kubrick's shorter cut of the film - released internationally - will be posted tomorrow.

 I've been slowly working my way through Stephen King's Doctor Sleep, which is much better than I expected it to be (his recent output has been hit-or-miss). For those of you who managed to miss out on the hoopla surrounding its release, Doctor Sleep is a sequel (of sorts) to The Shining, one that centers on a grown Dan Torrance who crosses paths with a roaming "family" that feeds on people with the "shine." In a lot of ways, King is doubling down on the differences between his book The Shining and Stanley Kubrick's loose adaptation, which has come to dominate popular culture. When people think of The Shining now, they predominant image in their minds is going to be Jack Nicholson.

 Since I'm not done with Doctor Sleep yet, it wouldn't really be fair to compare the book(s) with the film, although I'd recommend you read The Shining before you read Doctor Sleep (people coming to King's sequel with only the knowledge of what happens in the film are going to be very confused by the immediate appearance of a character that dies in the movie). Reading the book did put me in a mood to watch The Shining again, and since Room 237 arrived from Netflix, that seemed like a good time to revisit the film. (I'll look at Room 237 separately tomorrow).

 At this point in time, The Shining is such a part of our cultural zeitgeist that even people who haven't seen the film know about it. "Here's Johnny!" is nearly as universally recognized as the shower scene from Psycho, and whether people have seen The Shining or not, it feels like we know the basic beats of the film: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as the caretaker of The Overlook Hotel while it's closed from November to May, and brings along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Never mind that the solitude drove Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) mad enough to murder his wife and children with an axe, and then kill himself. Or the fact that Jack seems.. maybe a little unstable and has issues with his wife and son. They'll be fine. And everything is going, let's say pretty well until a snowstorm comes through, and they're stuck inside. But it isn't the solitude that gets to them. Nope. Something is... off about the hotel, and after a series of potentially ghostly encounters, Jack loses it and tries to kill his family. Danny has "the shine," which gives him visions and allows him to reach out to Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), the Overlook's cook, but can her arrive in time to help?

 What people tend to forget - or simply don't know because they haven't seen it - is how deliberately paced The Shining is to keep audiences off kilter. It's not simply that Danny's imaginary friend "Tony" has an inherently creepy voice, or that the film is punctuated with slow push-ins on Nicholson staring, often ending in smash cuts to title screens, but the overall atmosphere of The Shining is one of discomfort. Before it's even clear that the Torrance family has serious issues, the film exudes a sense of foreboding doom, one that builds to a fever pitch well before Jack finally snaps.

 At the same time, Kubrick is careful to never explicitly acknowledge whether The Overlook is haunted or if Jack is simply feeding off of the isolation to finally abandon his façade of being a good husband and father. (SPOILERS AHEAD) In every shot involving Jack talking a ghost, you'll notice that there's also a mirror, save for the scene where Grady unlocks the storage closet and let's him out. It is, aside from Wendy's journey through the hotel at the end, the only time the dead patrons of The Overlook go from phantoms to active participants in the madness. Danny's visions of Grady's daughters and the blood flowing from the elevator can, one could argue, simply be a reflection of his "shining." This doesn't necessarily explain who opened room 237, although Wendy never sees it, and she's the closest thing we have to a "reliable" protagonist in the film.

 The Shining has a strong undercurrent of "is this happening or isn't it," and is punctuated with lots of odd details you might take for granted the first time you watch it, but with repeated viewings become more and more obvious. Danny and Wendy are watching a television that isn't plugged in. Jack's typewriter abruptly changes during the course of the movie. The layout of the hotel doesn't seem to match where the characters are at the end of the film (pay close attention to where the Torrance's room is in relation to the front of The Overlook when Dick arrives compared to the paths Jack and Wendy take to get to the lobby). Every moment, every scene, is slightly off kilter, designed to keep audiences from ever settling in. The Shining is a masterful example of a horror film where very little actual horror occurs, but where the viewer is terrified of what will happen.

 Remember, Jack only kills one person in the film. That's it. He threatens Wendy and chases Danny through the hedge maze, but the only person who is murdered on camera in The Shining is Dick. We only see Jack after he's frozen to death, right before the final shot, the ambiguous extension of Jack visiting The Gold Room of the 1920s. Grady tells him earlier in the film that "you have always been the caretaker," so how much of what happens in The Shining really did happen?

 After the film premiered in the United States, Kubrick insisted that projectionists remove a two minute coda where Ullman visits Wendy and Danny in the hospital. He tells them there's no trace of Jack's body, but then gives Danny his father's tennis ball, and laughs. It's certainly a more conspiratorial ending, and I can understand why he dropped it, but that's not the only change Kubrick made to The Shining.

 I'm not sure how many American fans of the film are aware of this, but as a result of the critical reaction to The Shining (it was, in case you didn't know, nominated for two Razzies*), Kubrick recut the film for international release, removing thirty minutes. There's an ongoing debate about which version is his "preferred" cut, with many insisting the shorter version is, in fact, the one Kubrick intended to be "his" cut. The person who wrote IMDB's "Alternate Versions" page claims "the144 minute 'US version' is often erroneously called the Director's Cut when in fact director Kubrick regarded the 113 minute version as the superior cut of the film" but somehow the longer American cut is still primarily the one available on home video. I only bring this up because the original Stanley Kubrick collection released on DVD in 2000 was approved by Kubrick (before his death) using masters from 1989, giving him plenty of time to decide which cut of The Shining to use.

 While I am waiting to watch this shorter, 119 minute version (the disc should be arriving soon), the list of scenes removed makes the film seem more overtly supernatural: much of what's cut involves the strong hints of marital and familial discord in the Torrance household, including the examination of Danny after he passes out and the subsequent conversation between Wendy and Danny's pediatrician about the dislocated shoulder incident, or half of Jack's interview (the part specifically about him being a teacher and looking forward to the solitude). Parts of the tour of the Overlook are missing, including the explanation that there's no alcohol, and Danny and Dick's discussion about parts of the hotel being able to "shine" are gone, as are parts of scenes with Jack and Lloyd the bartender. The "skeleton" scene with Wendy has been removed, as are Hallorann's attempts to contact the Overlook before he flies from Miami to Colorado.

 All told, it sounds like serious tonal shifts in the film, and some of the transitions have been described as jarring, so I'm looking forward to seeing this shorter version. As it is, the 144 minute version of The Shining has an ominous, hypnotic quality to it, one that feels designed into keeping you off balance and unnerved. I'm curious to see the effect of dropping so much of the secondary details about Jack, Wendy, and Danny on the film. Expect a supplementary review after it arrives and the Cap'n has had time to digest it.

 As it is, I'm still continually evolving on The Shining: it's a film so layered with details, with apparent contradictions within the story, that I can forgive abandoning much of what King wrote in favor of a more ambiguity. Yes, it's impossible not to see Jack Nicholson and know that he's unbalanced from the first interview, and yes, Shelley Duvall's Wendy is already teetering on the brink of a mental collapse before the family leaves Colorado (due, in large part, to Kubrick's deliberate cruelty to the actress during the nearly year-long production). It's up for debate to how much of the long shoot contributed to what could be continuity errors and what might be deliberate (as we'll discuss in the Room 237 review), but I suspect many of those will go largely unnoticed until you've seen The Shining many times. For a first time viewer, it adds to the sense of unease about the world being presented to you in the film. While The Shining might not be my all time favorite horror movie, I certainly contend that it does a damn fine job of creeping me out.

* Worst Director and Worst Actress, if you can believe it.

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