Posted in Movie Reviews

Kubrick’s “The Shining”

"Your money's no good here, Mr. Torrance"
“Your money’s no good here, Mr. Torrance”

I hadn’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” in several years, but two recent events made me return to it. One was a debate with my co-workers as to which was better—the movie or the Stephen King novel on which it’s based. The other was purely monetary: I hated to see my hard-earned Best Buy points go to waste. So my newly purchased Blu-ray edition became Sunday’s entertainment as I worked my way through a week’s worth of laundry.

As a huge fan of Stephen King’s novel, I was disappointed in Kubrick’s film when I first saw it in 1980. Like many readers, I expected the movie to be an adaptation, but Kubrick chose to use the novel as a springboard for his own ideas. The result is a clear instance of book and film markedly parting company.

Some flaws remain even when considering the movie without reference to its source. Jack Nicholson gives away far too much too soon. That cocked eyebrow and those glinting eyes signal crazy too early in the game; he becomes outrageous rather than horrific. Kubrick uses Shelley Duvall as little more than a doormat except at the end of the film, and Danny Lloyd, as Danny Torrance, seems like a little zombie who’s been forbidden to act like a child (This is truly a shame, because “The Making of ‘The Shining'” featurette reveals this kid to have been a real charmer with a great laugh).

It’s mentioned a number of times in the Blu-ray’s extras that Kubrick viewed “The Shining” as a tale of a man coming to hate his own family. However, the first time we see Jack, Wendy and Danny together as they drive up to the Overlook Hotel, Jack seems to be there already. He’s irritable and short with his wife and son, there’s no chemistry between Nicholson and Duvall, and by the time Jack tells Danny he loves him, we just don’t believe it. There’s no development, no sense of erosion of feeling. It’s as if Kubrick just flicks the switch on Jack Torrance from responsible family man to monster. A more minor quibble: why have Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) make that long trek from Miami to Denver, rent a Snow Cat and drive through a blizzard just to be axed the moment he steps foot in the Overlook lobby? If you’re going to kill him off, at least give him a fighting chance before the dispatch.

Despite all this, there’s so much I love about the movie. In no particular order:

The Overlook’s maze is a superb replacement for King’s topiary animals. The former is the type of visual good film thrives on; the latter device works best as psychological horror on the printed page (for proof watch the 1997 television remake of “The Shining” where those animals look ridiculous). The maze’s scale model also plays an important role—that shot with Jack looking down into the model as it morphs into an overhead view of Wendy and Danny navigating their way through the real thing is breathtaking.

The Overlook itself, which is really the main character in “The Shining.” The set decoration is stunning. It’s virtually timeless. Despite all the haunted goings-on, you feel a strong urge to be able to step right into that bar and the golden ballroom. One minor gripe: Oregon’s Timberline Lodge, built in 1937 and used for exterior shots of the Overlook, looks too modern for a hotel supposedly built in 1909.

"I co-rrrected her"
“I co-rrrected her”

Jack’s encounters with Lloyd the Bartender (Joe Turkel) and Delbert Grady (Philip Stone). His face lit from below, Lloyd comes across as a kindly Satan in a red jacket. Not so Grady, who counsels Jack in what can only be described as Hell’s Bathroom. Aside from relating that he “co-rrected” his wife and daughters, he’s the harbinger of the story’s end when he insists to Jack: “You have always been the caretaker.”

Despite being over-the-top, there’s a small thing Jack Nicholson does that makes me laugh every time I watch the film. It comes when Jack Torrance returns to the gold Colorado Lounge, now filled with party-goers dressed in 1920’s style. After Jack finishes his conversation with Lloyd at the bar, he gets up and, enjoying the sweet band music, tries out a few nimble dance steps before colliding with Grady. It’s totally unexpected. Speaking of the ballroom scene, the ghostly music that accompanies it (actual recordings of bands from that era) couldn’t be more evocative.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I’ve always gotten a bigger jolt from this than the scene in Room 237, and in fact, I think it comes in a close second to “REDRUM” as the most frightening bit in the movie. The detail is astonishing—pages and pages of Jack’s typing, some in narrative, some in verse form, others in script format (The Blu-ray extras reveal that Kubrick had his secretary typing for months to create what Wendy discovers).

Danny’s sliding escape out the bathroom window and the ensuing chase through the maze. It’s so eerily beautiful it almost erases the horror of a man trying to kill his own son. And we finally see Danny take some initiative in making those backward footprints in the snow to throw Jack off the trail.

The end, done in a way that film does best. I wonder if Mr. Ullman will be hiring another caretaker for next winter…and whether Jack Torrance will be there to greet him. Need we say more?

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Posted in Books

Doctor Sleep

Doctor_SleepStephen King’s “The Shining” is the scariest novel I’ve read to date. I can remember enjoying it one bright Saturday afternoon, feet up on the coffee table—that is, until young Danny Torrence disobeyed Dick Hallorann’s instructions to avoid Room 217 in the Overlook Hotel. After I put my eyeballs back in their sockets, I slowly put the book down, shakily got to my feet, put on my coat and left my apartment for the rest of the day. I needed a brain-wipe, pronto.

After fielding so many reader inquiries over the years as to young Danny’s fate (a question which also popped into his own head periodically), King has responded with “Doctor Sleep.” But if you’ve picked up a copy with the thought that it’s going to be “The Shining, Part Two,” you’ll be incredibly disappointed. It’s not really of that genre, nor I suspect did the author intend it to be. What we have here is a continuation, not a sequel, that spans about 20 years in the life of Danny (now Dan) Torrence, post-Overlook Hotel.

In “Doctor Sleep” the real horror is not supernatural but earthbound. The adult Dan is an alcoholic, and I’m sure King drew on his own experiences as a former substance abuser to produce the kind of hell he depicts for his hero. Nevertheless Dan still shines—his ability to read thoughts near and far has if anything increased over the years. He becomes a health care worker with the welcome talent of mentally soothing terminal hospice patients into eternal sleep. But he still drinks and because of it leads a somewhat rootless existence. After finally hitting rock bottom, he lands in a small New Hampshire town where some very astute individuals steer him to AA. When another person who shines—the infant girl Abra Stone—reaches out for him telepathically, the focus of his life changes drastically.

There’s a sense of other-worldliness in “Doctor Sleep” which makes it quite different from the white-knuckled ride of “The Shining.” Yes, there are some very bad creatures here—a clan called the True Knot, the members of which live on “steam,” the tortured breaths of children with a talent to shine whom they torment and kill (King displays his characteristic sneaky wit by disguising the Knot as redneck retirees who travel the country in an armada of RVs). However, the grue is kept to a minimum—we only see one such crime, most of which takes place off-stage, so to speak (and believe me, the little King tells us is quite enough). Abra, with her extraordinary abilities, is the object of their desire since her steam could provide them with eternal energy. When she and Dan join forces to combat Rose, leader of the True Knot, the tension becomes unbearable.

But what makes “Doctor Sleep” so memorable is Abra’s awe-inspiring power which she begins to display as a toddler. As Dan says at one point, she’s a veritable light-house—he’s only a flashlight by comparison. King’s gift for characterization makes her incredibly winning; she fairly leaps off the page. Her relationship with Dan is the engine that drives the novel, and their unorthodox method of communication evokes a sense of wonderment.

In its depiction of the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil, “Doctor Sleep” is ultimately a fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen variety. And it’s definitely worth the read to see Stephen King flex this type of muscle.