Friday, April 6, 2012

THE SHINING 1980

In 1980, if you were of R-rated moviegoing age and among those who first got a glimpse of that unforgettably chilling, minimalist classic of a theatrical teaser trailer for The Shining; there was no way in hell you weren't going to see the movie. (1980 Teaser Trailer for The Shining on YouTube)
If I remember correctly, I first saw the trailer at Hollywood’s Mann’s Chinese Theater as early as December of 1979 or January of 1980 (The Shining was released in May, 1980 to kick off the Memorial Day weekend). Then, as now, the average movie trailer hewed to the familiar pattern of sensory bombardment combined with the suspense-killing, full disclosure of each and every plot point that might  have rendered the film even remotely intriguing (the term,“spoilers” didn't exist). The trailer for The Shining deviated so significantly from the prevailing standard that when first appeared that famous static shot of the twin elevator doors, accompanied by that eerily intensifying discordant music, the theater became so still you could practically feel the collective pupils of the eyes in the audience dilate all at once.

In 1980 Stephen King was not the household name he is today so the floating title, “The Shining” drew little response. It was only when Stanley Kubrick’s name was revealed that the crowd joined together in what can best be described as an aggregate, apex-of-the-rollercoaster, intake of air. At the same time—as nothing had yet happened onscreen beyond the music growing increasingly agitated and ominous— a pervasive air of, WTF? mushroomed throughout the theater like a vapor.
And then, the slow-motion torrent of blood began to spew forth from the elevator shaft. Oh…My…God. All at once the thudding soundtrack was drowned out by a consolidated, rising-tide of “Whoooooa!” from the audience that lasted until the now-bloodstained screen once again displayed the film's title. A second or two of stunned silence was followed by applause, animated chatter, and delighted giggles of the sort usually associated with a children's birthday party after a magician has pulled off a particularly startling bit of trickery. On the strength of this one remarkably classy, 90-second trailer, coupled with the anomaly of an Oscar-nominated director of Kubrick’s stature venturing into the realm of horror, over the course of the next few months The Shining became the movie to see. 

When the Saul Bass-designed poster for The Shining began appearing all over Los Angeles, the film immediately jumped several points on my personal "Cool-o-meter" (I took this pic in April of 1980 on The Sunset Strip in front of the famous Whisky a Go Go during its short-lived punk phase)
I was especially hopeful about The Shining, inasmuch as I have always loved a good scare at the movies but had grown increasingly dismayed by 70s horror films’ over-reliance on gore and their tendency to think of shock cuts as viable substitutes for suspense and atmosphere. Considering both Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Barry Lyndon (1975) to be, if not exactly masterpieces, then certainly masterful, I sincerely believed that Kubrick’s The Shining had the potential to be the Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist of the 80s.

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance
Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance
Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance
Scatman Crothers as Dick Hallorann
Barry Nelson as Stuart Ullman

If ever you want to get both the best experience of a movie, yet at the same time the least reliable impression of how that film will actually perform at the boxoffice, go see it on opening day. I attended an evening show of The Shining when it opened on May 23, 1980 at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.  The turnout was amazing. The crowds stretched around the block, past the parking lot, and into the nearby residential neighborhood. All of us waiting in line (some as long as three hours) were geared up for the scare of our lives, positive we were going to be among the first to see the big blockbuster hit of the summer. Fanning the flames was an enormous blow-up of Newsweek magazine’s rave review of The Shining (“The Ultimate Horror Movie!”) displayed in the theater’s forecourt. When the ushers came to release the velvet rope, I’m sure our faces had about them the look of vague genuflection, as though we were being granted a supreme privilege rather than just being allowed to see a movie we’d just paid for.

Original Ending
I was lucky enough to have seen The Shining before Kubrick mandated the excising of the scene that takes place after Jack freezes to death in the maze, but before the final shot of the photograph in the Overlook Hotel lobby. The deleted scene, which adds another layer of "What??!!?" onto an already maddeningly enigmatic conclusion, had a suspiciously solicitous Stuart Ullman (the hotel manager) visiting Wendy and Danny in a hospital where Wendy is recovering from shock. Wendy is interested in hearing if any evidence had been found at the hotel of all that she had recounted to the authorities. Ullman informs her that while the bodies of her husband and Hallorann had been recovered, there was no evidence in the hotel of any of what she had reported as having seen or occurred there. He insists that she must have suffered some kind of breakdown and that it was all in her mind. After this I seem to recall his making an offer for Wendy and Danny to move in with him, and (this was the kicker) before he leaves and out of Wendy's view, he hands Danny the yellow tennis ball that had earlier materialized out of that mysterious room 237.
Personally, I LOVED this ending and preferred it to the one that now stands, but I seem to be alone on that score. I went to see The Shining again the weekend after its opening and the scene had already been deleted.

There’s a point at which one’s expectations for a movie can be so high that, on first viewing, you’re not responding to the film so much as reacting to whether or not the film has met or dashed your hopes. Such was the case for me on first seeing The Shining. So keen was I on The Shining being the epic horror film the pedigree of its cast and director augured, that when it proved itself (only) to be an intelligent, superbly well-made, largely effective horror thriller, I was disappointed. 
And from the feel of things, so was the opening night audience. The electric tension that greeted the film’s early scenes over time gave way to a funny kind of mistrustful hesitancy in not knowing how to respond to the minimum horror and maximum attention to visual style. Let down by the film’s lack of cover-your-eyes scares, the eager-to-be-entertained audience instead zeroed in on the burlesque of Jack Nicholson’s performance. As Nicholson trotted out the entirety of his even-then overfamiliar arsenal of arched eyebrows, Cheshire cat grins, and baroque overplaying, the audience assuaged its sense of letdown by losing itself in the film's mood-killing,dubiously intentional black comedy.
It's very difficult for an actor to convincingly portray drunkenness or insanity without resorting to overacting and cliche. In The Shining, Jack Nicholson has the dual challenge of playing an alcoholic driven to madness (as Nicholson plays it, it's a pretty short trip). 

Taking their cue from an actor who didn’t appear to be taking things seriously himself, the audience started to find everything Nicholson did funny. Even when he wasn’t trying to be. The Shining began to pick up and find its rhythm by the latter third, but by then the audience had already been lost. The crowd leaving the theater that night was a considerably more subdued and bewildered one than had entered. By the end of the 3-day Memorial Day Weekend, word of mouth had more or less undermined all the good the trailer and the film’s sizable advertising budget had done, and The Shining limped along for the rest of the summer, a modest success, eclipsed at the boxoffice—proportionately by budget—by that other summer horror film release of 1980 (God help us), Friday the 13th.
Ultimately, time, cable TV, home video, and the overall decline in the quality of horror films over the years, has allowed for a more clear-eyed, fair-handed assessment of The Shining’s virtues. Today it is widely regarded as a minor classic and one of the Kubrick's most highly regarded films. Me, I like it a little more every time I see it, finding it easier to appreciate what Kubrick was trying to do when I no longer filter it through what I wanted him to do.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Stanley Kubrick is perhaps a little too removed a director to engage me emotionally in the way necessary for me to be made to feel real fear (the way Roman Polanski can), but there is something ideally chilling in the setup of a vaguely dysfunctional family holed up for an entire winter in an isolated hotel that may or may not be haunted. Where Kubrick really excels is in creating indelible images (the elevator scene alone qualifies the film for classic status), developing tension, and establishing a world wherein events proceed on a collision course of horror that feels devilishly preordained, yet the particulars of what is real and why it’s all happening are open to any number of interpretations. Letting his meticulously evoked intermingling of the paranormal and the supernatural propel the plot, The Shining is almost willful in its ambiguity. (And don’t let anyone convince you that there is a single “right” way to interpret The Shining. Part of the film's brilliance - and no small part of its frustration to many - is how well it supports many different, perfectly valid interpretations.)

The Torrances: One big, happy family.

PERFORMANCES:
Jack Nicholson has been a star for so long that it’s easy to forget that in the years following his 1975 Oscar win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, many thought that Nicholson had fallen victim to the dreaded “Oscar Curse” (later dubbed The F. Murray Abraham Syndrome)— a downward-trajectory jinx that befalls the careers of many Academy Award winners. Jack Nicholson’s hammy and/or ineffectual turns in the late 70s flops The Missouri Breaks, The Last Tycoon & Goin' South, played like dry-runs for his over-the-top performance in The Shining, and critics were less than kind. Until just recently, I’ve always felt that Nicholson single-handedly ruined The Shining and that Kubrick afforded him far too much leeway (as he did Peter Sellers in Lolita). Even today I can’t say that I’m fully persuaded by Nicholson in the role, but I’ve since warmed up to his particular acting “choices” for his portrayal of Jack Torrance. The common complaint that Nicholson's Jack Torrance looks plenty crazy before he's even driven insane in The Shining echo a similar grievance leveled at the choice of actor John Cassavetes for the husband in Rosemary's Baby. To critics in 1968, Cassavetes looked guilty of something before his character even did anything.
On the flip side of my feelings about Jack Nicholson is my affection for the popularly-unpopular choice of actress Shelley Duvall. I think she is terrific in The Shining and any emotional engagement I have in the film at all is attributable to her pitch-perfect performance. Perhaps I’m prejudiced, but I’ve liked Duvall in everything I’ve seen her in…especially her Oscar-worthy work in Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977).  
The casting of actress Shelley Duvall in the role of Wendy Torrance rates high on the list of controversial Kubrick choices. Even her co-star weighed in on the decision: 
“I said, ‘Shelley Duvall?! What’s the idea, Stanley?’ And he says, ‘Well, you gotta have somebody in that part that maybe the audience would also like to kill a little bit!’”
Interview with Jack Nicholson by Nev Pierce for Empire Magazine 
If critics didn't appreciate Duvall in The Shining, they more than made up for it with the raves she garnered later that year playing the part she was born to play: Olive Oyl in Robert Altman's Popeye (1980)  

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
  The Overlook Hotel as envisioned by Kubrick and his team is one creepily spectacular location for a horror film.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
As opposed to what I enjoy most about good horror films, The Shining never hits me where I live in terms of tapping into some deep-seated fear and giving it a face. The single scene that accomplishes this is the brilliant "All work and no play" reveal of Jack Torrance's insanity (which hit me with the same jolt  that the Scrabble anagram sequence in Rosemary's Baby did). What I think The Shining has that keeps me returning to it and what has caused it to consistently rise in my estimation, is that it's terribly smart and thoughtful in its construction. There are worse things you can say about a horror movie than that it is one of ideas. 
The Shining has perhaps more head than heart, but its predetermination has an intrigue and attraction all its own. Whether it feels like a treatise on the eternal nature of evil, a dramatization of domestic violence, or just a vision of a family going mad together, it makes me want to watch every corner of the frame, listen to every detail of dialog, literally scour the film from start to finish in hopes of uncovering the "key" to what it all signifies. In the end, The Shining may not have much to say about the many questions it proposes, but a movie that provokes thought, any kind of thought, is always a step in the right direction.
Promotional postcard for the truly atrocious 1997 TV miniseries -The Shining.
 The Stanley Kubrick film began to look a lot better in people's eyes after author Stephen King tried his hand at adapting his own novel. 


Copyright © Ken Anderson

6 comments:

  1. Much like Stanley Kubrick's most revered film, "2001: A Space Odyssey", I feel that "The Shining" gives itself very well to repeat viewings and multiple interpretations. I'm fortunate to have seen this several times at the cinema. It definitely becomes more intriguing with each viewing. If there's one thing that I love about "The Shining", "2001" and "A Clockwork Orange", it's the ultra-stylish interior design. Apart from Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, I think Philip Stone (he played Alex's dad in "A Clockwork Orange" and also appeared in "Barry Lyndon", thus making him the only person to act in three successive Stanley Kubrick films)is superb here as Delbert Grady. Delbert's chillingly-delivered pejorative for Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) is something I still find downright disturbing.

    I would also like to call attention to the excellent article by Michael Dare, entitled "Five Things You Probably Didn't Notice in The Shining". I especially love the second one, about the influence of television in modern society. It's well worth a read. Michael has obviously studied this film in tremendous detail.

    Speaking for myself, Jack isn't the funniest thing in the film--it's Danny talking to his finger in that croaky voice! Also, I think that Shelley Duvall is amazing here--you'd be hard pressed to imagine a better performance in the role of Wendy than what you get here.

    Lots of Kubrick trademarks here, such as the over-the-top "terrified face" that Danny pulls--Patrick Magee does the same thing when he hears Alex in the bath doing his rendition of "Singin' in The Rain" in "A Clockwork Orange". Also, Stanley seemed to be fond of those quick zooms long after they became a 1970s film cliche (he still favoured them in "Full Metal Jacket", his next film after "The Shining"). It's actually one of my favourite film techniques. Few people did it quite like Stanley, and it's a pity that you don't really see it much from more recent films.

    As Stanley progressed throughout his work in film, he made films less often. It was a quality-not-quantity approach. Cinema would be much better these days if numerous other filmmakers adopted this philosophy.

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    1. Hi Mark
      Thanks so much for sharing your comments on the film. It says a lot about the ultimate effectiveness of "The Shining" that so many people have their favorite sequences, performances, and impressions. Thanks for the tip on the article. I read it at your recommendation. Kubrick's films are wonderful looking on the big screen. And of course you get points for liking Duvall in the film!

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  2. For me, the most unsettling or otherwise effective scenes in "The Shining" are the ones where a simple action - riding a pedal car through a hallway, walking into a hotel bathroom, sitting down at a bar - is suddenly steeped in mystery.

    Danny pedaling that car was beautifully done; not only the actual filming, but the difference in sound as the car rolled over carpeting, over hardwood, again over carpeting...and all the while with the threat of some hidden menace. I love it when Danny realizes he's just gone past room 237, and he stops and looks back. Afraid, and curious. Me too.

    Jack walking into 237's bathroom later on (on the hunt for trouble), looking from some distance (it's a big bathroom) at the tub, and seeing the shower curtain slowly being pulled back - to me, that's definitely something of what all the hype for the movie promised. Just as we did with Danny looking at the door, we're now looking with Jack (hardly able to believe our eyes) at a woman, a beautiful statuesque woman, looking right back at him. She can't possibly be there, but there she is.

    Her unspoken exit from the tub, with the creepy music and the antiseptic look of the room and the lighting - I can play it in my head any time I want (I've never found any personal info anywhere regarding her, who she was, how she got the part), it's so completely absorbing. The fact that, in the midst of their kiss, she suddenly becomes old and horrible is really only jarring the first time or two you see it. The real power of that scene for me resides in Jack and us seeing the young woman not only leave the tub with the grace of a dancer, but to be actually sitting there in the first place!

    And I like those scenes in the ballroom with Jack and Lloyd - another intrusion of the unexpected that I've enjoyed so much in Stephen King's work. They aren't simply for the effect of dead one minute and full of life the next. They're instances where Jack opens up, the way you do at a bar, confiding in Lloyd who has a superior place in the relationship. They very much help tell the story.

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    1. Those are great examples you give. I think you're correct in detailing what "The Shining" does very well; that is, in creating a sense of unease around simple activities that have within them elements of the fantastic. The ghosts and apparitions in the film appear with the same matter-of-fact clarity as real events. So much so that a real tension is created. As you indicate, the mere fact that some of these things shouldn't be happening, yet are happening just the same, challenge our equilibrium. Thanks for the thoughtful observations!

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  3. Ken,
    I'd read "The Shining" before seeing the movie and was very disappointed in Kubrick's adaptation. I'm no Stephen King fan, but I did think he did a good job on "The Shining." Perhaps, because Kubrick directed, my expectations were too high. It seemed to me that Nicholson camped it up to the point of the ridiculous. And the casting of Shelley Duvall did little offset Nicholson's campiness. Also didn't care for the change Kubrick made to the story's climax. Interestingly, I was just recently talking to a friend about "Lolita," mostly about James Mason's mesmerizing and genius performance as Humbert Humbert. But I had to add that I thought Peter Sellers' unrelenting comedic insanity was too much and almost ruined the film.

    I haven't seen "The Shining" since it arrived on the scene, but you've piqued my curiosity - perhaps it's not as bad as I thought!?! Maybe I should take another look...

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    1. Hi Eve
      I only read "The Shining" after seeing the film, and, oddly enough, the book made me appreciate the film more.
      In some ways I would say that for me, a film adaptation of King's book has yet to be made (please avoid the TV movie!)and Kubrick's film is more enjoyable when seen as a wholly independent work. I agree with you about Nicholson's performance, which is self-indulgent and a mood-killer. But I adore Shelley Duvall here (no objectivity here, though, purely subjective affection).
      Had you asked me in 1980 if I liked "The Shining" I would have said no, but I swear the film just gets better for me as time goes by. Divorced from any expectation of it being faithful to King's book, it plays like a very good, stylish suspense thriller for me.

      I have a feeling you'd still feel the same about the film (your reasons for not liking it are so well-founded) but I would love to know if seeing it again would change any opinions. And yes, Peter Sellers, to me, is the thing that stands in the way from "Lolita" being the full-on classic James Masons performance makes it.
      My experience has been that I've always been better off reading a book after I've seen a film. It can be such a handicap seeing a film made from a beloved book and struggling to let go of expectations.
      Really enjoying hearing your thoughts on these films!

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