Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Shining (1980)

Speaking of Stanley Kubrick, The Boy and The Flower had never seen The Shining, so when the local second-run theater had it as a late-night Friday showing, I offered to take them down to see it. The Flower had some babysitting to do at the last minute so it turned out just to be the two of us.

Late night showings can be a mixed bag, since few there are interested in avoiding spoilers or being quiet, but after about 5 or 6 false starts where the sound didn't play, we were on our way. We did not need the extra 20-30 minutes tacked on to the 2:24 minute runtime—back from when 2:24 was a really long-ass movie, especially a horror flick—but it's remarkable how well this nearly 35 year old ghost story holds up.

I mean, seriously,  you can count the number of horror movies that remain truly effective after 35 years on the fingers of one six-fingered, mutant hand. (OK, it's not quite that bad, but it's not good.)

Here's the peculiar thing: Kubrick's film is basically a funhouse horror flick combined with a very restrained slasher. It's only in the last half-hour that we find Jack Torrance running around The Overlook with his axe. Up till then, it's all shocks and scary images—all atmosphere.

What's fascinating is that the shocks and the scary imagery by-and-large still work. Like Nosferatu, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and even Nightmare on Elm Street (and, of course, I'm referring to the Murnau, Siegel and Craven versions, respectively), they still pack a visceral punch, especially when viewed on the big screen. And in the case of The Shining, in particular, even when they've been parodied endlessly for the past 20 years.

The performances are awesome. They'll make you laugh, they're so good. For what feels essentially like an epic, there are only about a dozen people in this film, and the half-dozen or so with lines are near perfect. Everybody knows about Jack, of course. His performance was instantly iconic. And little Danny Lloyd (now in his 40s) also became an instant cinematic standard (despite or perhaps because this was basically his only role).

On a second viewing—I'm pretty sure I haven't seen this since it came out, and I was the only one in the audience who was old enough to have done so, it seemed—I found Shelley Duvall's performance very nuanced. It's easy to think she's just being a backdrop for Jack's lunacy, but she actually balances being kind of annoyingly weak with plausibly finding strength when she needs it with being on edge, etc.

Scatman Crothers plays Dick Halloran, the first of 47 magic negros found in the works of Stephen King. I always liked Crothers but that may be because he played the voice of Hong Kong Phooey and Meadowlark Lemon. (I always assumed, with a name like "Scatman" he was a singer, and he was, but I've still never heard him sing outside of The Aristocats.)

Anne Jackson is great in her little scene as Danny's doctor, and someone who thinks very little of domestic abuse, indeed. (Back in 1980, we just called it "wife beating".) And Joe Turkel, who would go on to play the prototypical Evil Corporate CEO in Blade Runner, is ridiculously creepy as Lloyd the Bartender (a role originally to be played by Harry Dean Stanton, who bowed out because of scheduling conflicts with Alien).

The music, as such, is very effective, too. The "classical" stuff works but most of the atmosphere is fleetingly melodic electronic synth buzzes (not to mention the electronified "Dies Irae" that serves as the title music) which, dated as they are, are still spine-tingling.

It doesn't all work. There are a number of scenes, particularly in the beginning of the film, that are ridiculously expository, at least in modern terms. They come off a bit hokey.

A number of the ending shots don't work either: The furry with his butt hanging out is a kind of "Huh?" moment: It's actually set up thematically by the hotel's roaring '20s history but it's not really supported by much else. And the Gold Room filled with cobweb-covered skeletons is cheesey amusement park level stuff.

I remember the ending favorably but while I still liked that it didn't have a Big Showdown, I'm not sure that it was up to the level of the rest of it.

Also, why was Jack reading the January 1978 issue of Playgirl in the lobby while waiting for his bosses? The '70s were weird, man. Probably the most horrifying thing about this to modern viewers will be Wendy exposing Danny to secondhand smoke.

The outdoor shot of the parking lot (the Timberline Hotel in Oregon, though most of the movie was shot on a sound stage in England) was basically wall-to-wall ugly cars. The '70s was hard on automobile aesthetics.

The Boy really liked it which, again, for a horror movie from 35 years ago, is really saying something.

I, personally, get a perverse pleasure out of this being the best adaptation of one of Stephen King's horror stories, and he absolutely hates it, to the extent of having shepherded a not-great TV remake in the '90s. I think because King is Torrance, and his book (which actually turned me off King) is more sympathetic toward him. (There's one scene in the movie where you have a moment of pity for him: When he has a nightmare of what's to come.)

The movie is more from Danny's perspective: Jack is scary, as all good fathers are (no matter how much we love them), and he's scariest when he's being good. He lies. He cheats. He plots. As a metaphor for alcoholism, it's great.

Here's something I noticed this time: The Hotel never actually does anything that we see. Danny suffers at the hand of a "crazy lady" in Room 237, but we don't see it. And Grady lets Jack out of the freezer so he can terrorize his family—but we don't see that either.

The only damage done in the film we can verify is done by Jack, and he could have hurt Danny. (Wendy fumbled considerably with the latch on the freezer, meaning Jack could've busted out.)

Although I'm generally disinclined toward movies that pull out "Scooby-Doo" endings (where there were never any ghosts, just some dink with a mask and a projector), I'm inclined to side with Kubrick for most of his choices both in terms of narrative and characterization.

Anyway, good times. Next up on the revival calendar: Taking The Flower to see The Big Lebowski.

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