Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE SHINING


"She thought she could abide the place for a season with no great difficulty."

SPOILER ALERT, it's "murder" spelled backwards.

For novel number three, Stephen King wanted to switch things up. Whatever the plot, it would not unfold in small-town Maine, as Carrie and Salem's Lot had. In October 1974, King and his wife traveled to Estes Park, CO and checked into the Stanley Hotel. The place was on the verge of shutting down for the winter, and the Kings were its sole guests. By the end of the first night, Stephen had a location and a story.

The Torrance family--Jack, Wendy and their five-year-old son Danny--have moved cross country to Colorado. Jack lost his teaching gig (rather scandalously) but with an assist from a friend, he's scored a gig as the winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, a "scenic pleasure palace" with a rich, glamorous history. The manager is a grade-A prick who tells Jack about another former winter caretaker, Delbert Grady, who lost his mind and murdered his family.

The manager gives Torrance and his family a guided tour the last day before shutdown. Of primo concern is the boiler in the basement, an antiquated heat-beast that requires frequent attention lest it go ka-blooey and take the building with it.

The kitchen is a much more pleasant place, with chef Dick Hallorann delighting in showing the Torrances the overflowing pantry shelves. He takes an interest in little Danny after discovering they share "the shining"--Dick's terse term for telepathic and cognitive super-abilities. He reassures the boy that the hotel is essentially harmless; however, Room 217 is to be avoided.

Danny was scared even before speaking with Dick. His imaginary friend, Tony, warned him about the Overlook. Tony's not really much of a friend, though. He's always popping up and crooking a finger, beckoning Danny ad noctem, until the little boy either begs for mercy or loses consciousness. Lately he's been showing Danny a weird word. What to make of it all? Danny seeks solace by intruding on his parents' thoughts. He's not thinking of drinking, she's not thinking of divorce--so everything must be fine.

Initially, the Overlook does the Torrance bunch well. The writers block that kept Jack from finishing his dream play begins to melt away. Not so much for the snow, which in less than two weeks piles over twenty-four inches high--and that's just Phase One. The ghosts of the hotel begin to prey on Danny's gifts, and the little boy's spine-freezing visions increase, but he's a tough nut to crack.

The hotel shifts its focus to Jack. His play, which he'd been so excited about that not even the possibility of commercial failure could deter his efforts, suddenly sucks. The topiary animals outside are moving. Oh, and a dead guy's voice is coming over the CB airwaves, ordering him to kill his wife and son.

After a terrifying visit to Room 217 leaves Danny with fresh bruises and stale eyes, Wendy pushes for the boy to visit a doctor. Craving the sweet, selfish kiss of firewater, Jack retreats to the hotel ballroom--empty, save for a bartender who doesn't have to introduce himself as Lloyd. After knocking back a few, he investigates Room 217 for himself--and, like his son, barely escapes.

Emotionally battered and spiritually bruised, Jack can't stay away from the bar for long. Jack meets a butler named Grady, who pooh-poohs assumptions about his identity with the insistence, "You're the caretaker, sir. You've always been the caretaker." Grady also tells Jack he could also be quite the big player at the Overlook, if he'd simply act like the head of his family. 

Jack understands. He attacks his wife, only to be thwarted by an empty wine bottle. Wendy and Danny drag Jack to the pantry, where he stays for several hours until Grady pops by to set him free. Roque mallet in hand, he stalks off to remind his wife and child who's really in charge.

Wendy's no pushover, though. Even after taking a massive beating, she pulls out a carving knife and plunges it square in her husband's back. Jack seems invincible, driven by the hotel itself to commit the worst crimes man is capable of--until he hears a snowmobile and leaves to investigate.

It's Dick Hallorann to the rescue! Danny had summoned the old chef psychically, and although it took a few days, he's at the Overlook, unsure of what he'll find, certain it will be horrific.

Turns out that Danny, with Tony's help, saves himself. Danny explains to his father how the hotel has subjugated the older man's mind. Jack responds by turning the mallet on himself. Danny endures the sickening sight, because he has to. He has remembered something that his father forgot. The one thing that the winter caretaker could not afford to forget.

As Jack rushes to the basement (and his destiny), Danny joins his mother and Dick in the hotel's lobby. The three make it out just as the first blasts shake the structure. Happy ending? In the final chapter, Wendy announces her intentions to move with Danny to Maryland. How much happier an ending you want, anyway?

The metaphors aren't complex. Merriam-Webster will rarely be consulted. The Shining is a classic, regardless. In even his lesser "horror" works, Stephen King never fails to locate the humanity. Any man could be Jack. Any woman could be Wendy. Real people, in real places. They aren't aliens. They aren't unimaginable.

Director-Stanley Kubrick
Writer-Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson

You know how certain movies just come together like a 1000-piece puzzle of a human torso mid-autopsy?

Writer/neutered boozehound Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is looking forward to his new job: caretaker for the luxurious Overlook Hotel, located in the Rocky Mountains. Sure, a white winter would make travel nigh on impossible. Sure, a previous caretaker snapped and whacked his loved ones. See, Jack's a writer, and five months of quiet and peace to work at his craft is just what the duck quacked.

He won't be there alone, of course. There's wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and seven-year-old Danny (Danny Lloyd). On the surface, unremarkable. Danny has an imaginary buddy named Tony, but what's abnormal about that? Sure, Danny "speaks" for Tony in a voice reminiscent of a fingernails-on-porcelain symphony, and his index finger is the worst ventriloquist's dummy I've ever seen, but hey--kids are weird.

The clairvoyance and visions of blood waves and creepazoid twin girls in matching blue dresses? Bit odd, I'll admit.

Once at the Overlook, Danny at least has a name for his gift: "the shining." Least that's the what the hotel's Florida-bound chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) calls it. He has it, too. He reassures the boy that while there are indeed ghosts of varying temperament haunting the corridors and even a few of the room, the place on the whole doesn't present any danger. Just stay away from Room 237. Gnarly business happened in Room 237.

A month in, Jack's writing is going nowhere. Danny keeps hallucinating crazy crap. Wendy can't do thing one right. A snowstorm the likes of which the area hasn't seen in decades strikes like an A-bomb.

The Torrances probably would have been better off with the bomb.

Danny sees the door to Room 237 is open. He knows, knows, entering is a bad idea. But he's a kid. Downstairs, his father is asleep at his typewriter, screaming his way through a nightmare of killing his family. Wendy wakes him and somehow resists the urge to run to the kitchen for a sharp object when he tells her what he dreamt. Different story when Danny approaches them, shaken and mute, marks all over his throat.

Years ago, Jack--while under the influence--accidentally broke Danny's arm. Wendy instantly concludes he's to blame. Jack stalks off to the hotel's "Gold Room," where he bitches to Lloyd the bartender. He's vindicated, somewhat, when Danny reveals his attacker as some "crazy woman" in Room 237. Jack checks the place out for himself and sees a young, lithe woman emerge from the bathtub. Naked and wet and boy howdy, turns out if you massage her tongue, she becomes the undead!

Jack Torrance needs a drink.

He finds more than he bargained in the Gold Room. Dozens of guests have gathered for a costume ball. He crashes into a butler named Grady. The homicidal caretaker? No. Jack is the caretaker. Hear Grady tell it, Jack's always been the caretaker at the Overlook. Currently a bit derelict in his duties, mind. He could really go places, accomplish much more, if he'd man up.

Grady has a point; no obedient wife would dare sneak a peek at her husband's manuscript. Truly, Jack must lay the law out and down. Turns out Dante Bichette wasn't the first Silver Slugger for the state of Colorado, after all.

Crazy guy in the pantry, everything's fine, everything's fine. Time to sleep. Time to be awakened by your son in a trance state, fully possessed by Tony and repeating a single word: REDRUM. Wendy, bless her splintered heart, is a little slow. Thank God for mirrors!

And ghosts! Freed, armed with an axe, Jack staggers upstairs, swinging his way to his wife and son. Danny manages to escape, but Wendy is powerless to do anything but wait for death. Salvation arrives in the form of Dick Hallorann on a snowmobile. Jack isn't surprised; Grady the butler had warned him earlier that the "nigger cook" would try and put the kibosh on Jack's ascension.

Dick walked right into an unfair fight, sadly.

Too desperate to worry about being underdressed, Danny runs out of the hotel. Jack follows. Fortunately, he's far too delirious to think of much else than brutal homicide, which allows the very young boy to trick him into his (eventual) death.

The shot of Jack going above and beyond for a Klondike bar is jarring, absolutely. Iconic, even. What follows, though, is the stuff separating goodness from greatness.

Back in the hotel, the camera zooms in on a black and white photo hanging in a hallway. A room full of revelers are gathered for a celebration. Finally, the shot settles on a man near the bottom of the shot, decked out in a tux. Closer, closer…Wait. That man looks like John Torrance.

The photo was also dated for posterity: July 4th, 1921.


Aw hell, I'll require additional headers here!

SK VS. SK (round one)
Jack Torrance is basically Stephen King, or rather, Stephen King as he was when he wrote The Shining: a paranoid drug addict who fears that his rage at his own (probably exaggerated) impotence as a provider for his wife and children will boil over and scald those closest to him. The Shining is a confession, of sorts; better, an exorcism.

King has never hid his displeasure with how that tea-lover Kubrick treated his book. The end credits refer to King's work as "a masterpiece of modern horror." Something, assumedly, any screenwriter wouldn't want to mess much with. Yet Kubrick basically took it upon himself to reinvent the recipe for meatloaf. Turned out tasty (master chef, after all) but rare is the writer who'd not feel sincere consternation at seeing their work disrespected so cavalierly.

King's Shining is heat (emotion), while Kubrick's Shining is chill (logic). The workmanlike writer of books, the meticulous maker of films. A building that could spring to life and devour those trapped inside. A spirit that has fallen into decay.

Christ, ask me to choose between parents, why don't'cha.

Actually, don't.

Reacting To Acting
Neither Jack Nicholson or Shelley Duvall were blond(e), which turned out to be the least of the differences between the book Torrances and their cinematic counterparts.

There's zero intimacy or chemistry between the couple on screen. No glances laden with meaning, no tender touches. Contrast that with the novel, which shows a pair that are playful, at times even naughty. They have a healthy sex life. They love their only child, even as they struggle to understand him. They are ultimately likable, which makes what transpires even more unfortunate.

Book Jack was an average guy who gradually went very ape (not very nice). Within five seconds, you know that movie Jack is just barely holding it together, and it won't take much to send him screaming over the edge. (And Nicholson, once gone crazy, is twice baked ham. On pineapple. On pizza. On drugs. This works well when axing a wooden door to smithereens, less so when ranting at his wife.)

Ah, the wife. As portrayed by Shelley Duvall, Wendy Torrance is a pale, brittle beanstalk. I want to feel for her, to root for her unreservedly, especially when Jack brings the full court press, but jeez. Duvall herself is not to blame. The buck teeth, the saucer eyes, the physique that prevents her from every truly wearing "form-fitting" clothing--forget all that. It's in the writing. Mrs. Torrance on the page is solicitous and self-reliant; on the screen, she's meek and malleable, to both her detriment and mine. Stephen King himself called Wendy Torrance "one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film," and I don't disagree. If you left me and her alone in a room for five minutes, you would return to find her unconscious and me still slapping her.

Danny, despite his catalyst status, is the blandest character in either version. The cool thing about casting a child who can't act: their dearth of ability can pass as emotional devastation.

Dead Can't Dance, Sure Can Sing
The soundtrack is legitimately deranged. (Plastic utensils only, please.) Original pieces by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind sound alongside Bartok, Ligeti and Penderecki. Instruments crest and crash against white rock, meld with the moans of dark red air, and the only words I could make out were, "Smile! It's your last known photo!"

SK VS SK (round two)
King wrote a little more than he needed to; par for the course. Kubrick simply didn't do throwaway scenes, or lines. So many indelible scenes were not taken from the book. (Nor was the most famous line of dialogue.) Replacing a mallet with an axe means less gore, amazingly, and frankly just looks scarier. Not to mention the blood elevator of bloody blood, bleeding like a stuck most things. Horrible vision to have, but also kinda cool, no? I'd rather see that than corpses.

The side plot involving the sordid scrapbook Jack finds in the basement could and should have been included in the movie. It's another example of how the hotel manipulates him and preys on his vulnerabilities.

Make Up Your Mind, Bitch
The edge goes to the book, for the same reason that the edge typically goes to the book. I love me some good-ass background. The extra height and heft provided by backstory will ideally enrich and entertain, and so it is in The Shining. We learn more about Jack's battle with the bottle, get the details on how he lost his teaching position, and are privy to glimpses at his bitter, brutal upbringing. Despite odds, Jack's a good guy. He's trying to gather his shit into a single pile so he can make a better life for himself and the family he loves.

Absolutely the decision was not an easy one, and plenty of people would put the movie over the novel. A huge plus for the film is the added ambiguity courtesy of that photograph. Of all the theories, I've always cottoned to the one positing Jack Torrance as the perpetual reincarnation of a homicidal hotel guest, brought forth to reign murderous hell by energies run amok. This year, in an interview for Entertainment Weekly, co-writer Diane Johnson basically confirmed this as the case while acknowledging the absurdity of the whole twist. The hotel absorbs negativity--be it in the form of a thought or action--and sends it back out as a uniquely sentient malevolence. It cannot be fully explained; yet it is, regardless. The events of The Shining are, in a word, magic.

The Shining is, at core, a cautionary tale about families fractured by itty-bitty fears that mutate into huge ones.

In a film rife with "Ayo the fuck?" moments, Wendy catching sight of a man in a dog costume kneeling at the foot of the bed, preparing to service another man, sticks out. This scene is a reference to an affair between the hotel's former owner and his (male) lover. Danny sees the dog-man in a corridor, moving around on all fours, barking, and demanding to see his little boy wee-wee.

At a moment of peak terror, no less.

Kubrick's on-set perfectionism is legendary, and the making of The Shining took to a level some have said was too high (or too low). His demands on Scatman Crothers and, especially, Shelley Duvall nearly beggar belief. 127 takes for Jack and Wendy on the stairs? 60 takes for a zoom-in?

Can anyone give me a good reason for the hedge maze to have internal lights? A reason not associated with the making of a motion picture?

In the book, Danny owns a Snoopy nightlight. In the movie, the walls of his bedroom are covered with several stickers of cartoon characters, including Snoopy.

Imagine The Shining directed by Stephen Spielberg. Boy-snaps-Dad-back-to-reality would have stayed, followed by a tearful embrace. The last scene would be a flash-forward to a springtime picnic. A whimsical John Williams score skips around the edges of a blanket upon which the Torrance family sits, their faces aglow and their mouths agape.

Mention of post-coital "seed" at the beginning and end of the same chapter. Yeesh, Steve.

I forgive him, though. Don't I? It's thanks to Stephen King that I still cannot wake up at some ungodly hour of night and cover the distance to the bathroom in any speed other than "dash."

I wonder if a stutterer on the debate team inspired the writers of Hill Street Blues to invent a narcoleptic comic named Vic Hitler.

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