Monday, May 25, 2009

The Shining (special concussion edition of Creature Cast)

We are, of course, referring to the Stanley Kubrick movie, not the anemic made-for-TV film from the 90s.

That Stanley Kubrick's film is a classic of the genre is beyond question. It's successfully scared the crap out of me for years, and each time I return to it I find something new to be frightened of. Instead, I want to talk about a few subjects that come up around the film, specifically the characterization of Wendy Torrance, Jack Nicholson's iconic performance, and the notion that there isn't anything supernatural going on in the Overlook Hotel.

1) The characterization of Wendy Torrance.

There are a whole lotta people who can't stand Wendy Torrance. She's funny looking, she acts like a doormat, and she keeps doing completely illogical things as the situation worsens. She comes off, frankly, as an apologetic wimp, trying to reconcile with her deranged husband as he keeps shelling out abuse on her.

All that stuff made her interesting.

First off, if she was truly a strong woman, she probably would have gotten the fuck out of the relationship ages ago and then we wouldn't have had a story. Second, there's a weird apologetic need horror types have around including the Strong Female Protagonist.

One of the criticisms that swirled around Quarantine was the fact that lead character Angela Vidal wasn't particularly tough or capable. Given that the actress portraying her was also the hard-boiled cop from Dexter, a lot of people were upset that she played the character as weak and confused. But that's precisely how I'd be if I were trapped in an apartment building full of screeching plague victims. I think people's natural reaction to horror is to be horrified, but the standard for female horror protagonists has become characters who treat the supernatural with a mix of terror and annoyance and who are infinitely capable of fighting back.

The re-characterization of Wendy Torrance was one of the big problems I had with the made-for-TV version of The Shining. As played by Rebecca De Mornay, Wendy is too strong, too capable, and would probably have ditched her husband long before he ever set foot in the Overlook. Then again, the TV series also completely removed culpability from Jack Torrance, making him a total slave of the house. Maybe he was a nicer guy in that world, who knows?

In Kubrick's version, Wendy Torrance is an abuse victim to the core. Her self-esteem has been completely eroded, she rationalizes her crazy husband's behavior, and she is high-strung and close to the edge of sanity. It's a painful portrayal to watch, and there are a lot of people who have some weird pathological need to hate that kind of weakness and pass judgment on her, but she was a great character and one of my all-time favorite final girls.

2) Jack Nicholson's performance...

ain't my favorite.

Okay, once he goes full-tilt nutso on Wendy, he gives one of the most iconic performances in history. By that point in the film he's become a cauldron of rage, spousal abuse personified. He's a lot less likable than the Jack Torrance from the novel, who really was a victim of the house's influence. He's pretty much a prick throughout the movie, long before the Overlook gets its claws in him.

Final Girl stated it better than I will, but when Jack begins his descent into madness there's no subtlety to it. We never see him question the visions he's seeing or resist the house's call to murder his family. He goes bug eyed, he licks his lips like the Joker, and he acts like your generic homeless nutjob. The performance is completely over-the-top, which works better late in the movie than in the earlier, quieter scenes.

I could probably make some pointed comparisons to his work in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest but I've got a concussion.

3) What if nothing supernatural is going on in the Overlook?

I don't remember where I first heard this theory, maybe in John McCarty's Movie Psychos and Madmen, but people have occasionally made the argument that nothing supernatural is going on at the Overlook, that the isolation and pre-existing neurosis of the family is creating all the occult occurrences. No one witnesses the same haunting the same way, every character in the hotel undergoes some sort of mental collapse, and all the events that occur come from within the characters.

If there was ever a place to have a complete break from reality, it would be the isolation of the Overlook Hotel. You can imagine the place brimming with life during the tourist season, where there are people filling its vast halls, taking in the breathtaking vistas that Kubrick shows us. It's actually quite a beautiful place. Isolation brings a real sense of menace to all that enclosed space. I've given myself the creeps going through long, luxurious hotel hallways late at night. There's something about the light, the patterns on the floor, and all those silent doors, stretching out into near-infinity that just creeps me right the fuck out. It's not impossible that environments like this would drive a family over the edge.

Obviously, this theory falls apart on close inspection. Both Hallorann and Danny Torrance clearly have some psychic bond, someone had to let Jack out of the pantry after Wendy locks him in there, and Jack Torrance appears in the old group photo at the movie's end. But it doesn't take much effort to shoehorn this particular interpretation of the movie, and I think the story is all the richer for it.

Anyway, that's what I got for you today. Now, cleanse the palette with the best Simpsons parody evah!

Also, please don't drink and drive. You might hit a blogger who NEEDS his brain to work properly.


Brian said...

Hey Joe,

Great review as always.

I hope you are feeling better soon.

Creature said...

Thanks, Brian.

It's a process. The drugs knock me out for hours, so I live in a fugue state. That's bad. I need my wits.

C'est la vie.

Penh said...

First off, sorry to hear about your brutal automotive pummeling at the hands of a drunken maniac. Recover, I insist upon it!

The possibility that nothing truly bad was happening, supernatural-wise, was one of the things I liked about Kubrick's version. It was entirely possible that there was nothing going on in the Overlook apart from sensitive people seeing shadows from the past, which is more or less what Halloran thought was the case (though he clearly feared it could be worse). Even Danny's mauling at the hands of the bathtub lady could have been self-inflicted. It stayed possible until Grady physically unlocked the pantry to let Jack out. If I recall correctly (and I may not), the throwing back of the bolt was built up to in a very "will it or won't it" way, marking a distinct point from which you just knew things were going to get bad very quickly.

The TV version, on the other hand, had a mysterious self-lighting fireplace right at the very beginning, saying "Ooooooh, look! It's haunted! Boo!" Feh.

As for Nicholso's performance, Stephen King said his book was about a normal guy going crazy, while the movie was about a crazy guy going even crazier.

Creature said...

Hey Penh.

The quote you have from Stephen King hits the issue dead on the head for me. Jack Torrance is too much a victim in the made-for-tv movie. He's got a couple missteps in his life, but he's responsible, sensible, and loving. In other words, he's not much of a threat. The house is fully responsible for what happens, and that's boring. Nicholson was already an ass and the house taps into that, which is an element I really appreciate. I've said this a hundred times and I'll probably say it a hundred times more; haunted house stories work best when their victims are equally as haunted. It taps something in the characters weaknesses and that makes them more chilling.