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Thursday, October 9, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 9: THE SHINING (1980)

Okay, I'm about to commit what amounts to horror movie fan heresy, so I'd better stop pussying around and just come right out with it.

I don't like THE SHINING.

Well, actually, if I'm being fully honest here, it's not as simple as a case of cut-and-dried dislike. THE SHINING confuses my feeling about it like few other films, and it's not for lack of me trying to "get" why it's considered such a big deal. I love a large number of Stephen King's novels, especially those from his first decade of output (THE SHINING was King's third published novel and first hardcover best-seller), and I also enjoy the majority of films by Stanley Kubrick, so one would think that Kubrick's adaptation of one of King's most well-regarded early works would yield an embarrassment of riches for me. Instead, what I got was too much of Kubrick and not enough of what made King's novel such an indelible work.

The story deals with the dire events that transpire when the Torrence family takes up residence at the remote Overlook hotel during the off-season, so recovering abusive alcoholic patriarch Jack (Jack Nicholson) can serve as paid caretaker while getting some writing done. With wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and psychic son Danny (Danny Lloyd) along for the months-long seclusion, things gradually build to a slow, supernatural boil as the dark spirits that infest the Overlook become visible to young Danny and work an insidious influence upon Jack. Before things turn grim, Jack is told of Grady, a previous caretaker who went stir crazy while snowbound in the hotel and horribly axe-murdered his wife and daughters before committing suicide, and young Danny is given some serious warnings about the Overlook by Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), the hotel's cook, who is himself psychic/telepathic and lets Danny know that there are others like them in the world, people who possess a gift called "the Shine." However, once everyone else clears out, it's just the Torrences and a hotel full of evil and disturbing spooks. Couple those elements with Jack's increasing instability and anger, plus his periodic trips back in time to a lavish party held in the hotel back in 1921 where he is steered by the spectre of Grady (Phillip Stone) down an inexorable path toward homicide.

Just two of the spirits that haunt the Overlook.

As experienced on the written page, THE SHINING may not really be filmable in a way that would preserve the book's palpable eeriness. It's a major work of unsettling mood, a good deal of which Kubrick manages to capture, but there's a certain undefinable...something to it that got lost in the translation to the big screen. Part of the problem may also be in Kubrick's patented approach, which stresses visual aesthetics over emotion that allows the audience to connect with the characters, and in the case of THE SHINING damned near all of the characters tend to come of as bland ciphers. Either that, or they're simply buried beneath Jack Nicholson's slow-building eventual full-tilt into madness. Up to this point in his career, Nicholson proved himself a compelling and believable screen presence who managed a finely-tuned balancing act that walked the tightrope between the everyman and the barking lunatic, and it was with THE SHINING that his madman tropes were carved in stone for all time. Once Torrence loses his mind, Nicholson's performance becomes a study in waaaaay over-the-top cartoonish insanity that goes so overboard that it comes back around to being creepily realistic. However, once the movie is over and the performance is given time to be fully considered and absorbed, what is terrifying in the moment morphs into burlesque caricature. More than three decades after the fact, Nicholson's "Here's Johnny" and other histrionics as Jack Torrence have entered the popular lexicon as punchlines or half-baked, annoying imitations hauled out by hack comedians or one's drunk uncle at a family get-together. It's fucking legendary, but no longer for the reasons that it should be considered as such. Jack Torrence might be where Nicholson stopped really bothering to act and from there on pretty much rehashed that character for most of the rest of his career, no matter how inappropriate such an approach may be.

Nicholson as Jack Torrence. 

But allow me to say some positive things about this film. It is undeniably high on the creep factor, with the silence of the empty hotel bordering on deafening, and the snowbound location's desolation and the havoc it can wreak lending weight to what can be read as a study of a marriage's disintegration, spurred by a husband's alcohol-fueled anger and the diabolical influence of the haints that infest the Overlook. And whatever else one may have to say about THE SHINING, there's no denying its visual beauty. Its signature Kubrickian sterility, that pristineness of aesthetic that marks nearly all of the director's work, is in full force, and its innovative Steadicam sequences help place the audience deep within its simultaneously spacious and claustrophobic cinematic nightmare-scape.

THE SHINING is a classic of the horror genre that divides audiences like few others, with some hailing it as "the greatest horror film ever made" while others, myself among them, consider it somewhat overlong, soulless, and dull, with the majority of the performances seeming like they're coming from animatronic manikins, but at least the story goes somewhere. Individual mileage may vary, but it's a film that definitely should be seen by all serious horror fans at least once, if for no reason other than to consider the craftsmanship that went into it and to be able to join the discussion from an informed point of view.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

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