The Shining

If you, like me, are writing a haunted-house movie, it’s a worthwhile exercise to compare the structures of Stanley Kubrick’s hypnotic masterpiece The Shining with Steven Spielberg’s thrilling, personable Poltergeist. Both are movies about families trapped in haunted houses, but The Shining is grand, quiet, still and stately, while Poltergeist is small, noisy, casual and antic. The Shining is, unquestionably, the greater of the two, but I would argue that Poltergeist comes up with more ingenious solutions to the haunted-house-movie problem than The Shining does. Where Poltergeist can’t wait to throw all kinds of wild ghost stuff at you, The Shining hoards its secrets extremely carefully, keeping us waiting over an hour before the first ghost shows up, and two hours before we’re absolutely sure the ghosts are real.

(Much later, Spielberg tried, again, to make a definitive haunted-house movie, The Haunting, a movie that turned out so poorly he took his name off it.)

The plot of The Shining, for those recently born, goes like this: Jack, Wendy and little Danny move into a hotel that’s closing down for the winter. The hotel, we’re told, does not have a sterling history. Jack, a frustrated writer, starts to act testy with his family while Danny starts seeing ghosts. Then Jack starts seeing ghosts, only to him they’re not so scary. Wendy remains clueless pretty much throughout. The ghosts pressure Jack to murder his family and Jack finally gives in and tries to do so.

What does it do with a running time of 140 minutes?

Well, it spends thirty-five minutes (Act I) showing us around the hotel, then it spends another thirty-five minutes (Act II) showing Jack getting seduced by the dark side (even though it doesn’t tell us exactly how that’s happening). It spends another forty minutes (Act III) showing us Wendy and Danny’s response to Jack going crazy, then it has a fourth act where the brakes come off, the ghosts intervene and Jack is given free reign to pursue his destiny.

The pace of The Shining fascinates me. It shouldn’t work — it’s too slow, plodding even, long takes of actors speaking exposition extremely slowly. A hotel manager explains how the hotel works, a cook talks about the hotel’s past, long lists of consumables are recited, unremarkable rooms are shown in solemn procession. None of it should work — we should lose patience quickly with what appears to be a pretentious, overly-serious genre exercise — but strangely, it does work, these scenes suck us in, convince us that something serious, something important, even cosmic is going on.

With no ghosts for an hour, how does the movie stay scary? Well, I’m going to come right out and say it cheats. It gives us Stephen King’s favorite crutch, the Psychic Kid, and teams him up with one of cinema’s hoariest conventions, the Magic Negro. These days, of course, psychic kids wander in and out of narratives with the regularity of Swiss manufacturing, but the idea of combining scary-movie concepts (Psychic Kid in Haunted House, Ghosts and The Devil, Vampires in Space) was still exciting back in the po-mo eighties. When it can’t wring scares from its Psychic Kid, it manufactures tension from music cues, camera movement and absurd, pointless title cards (I will never forget hearing audiences scream at the word “TUESDAY”).

For its third act, the ghosts remain firmly in the realm of the ambiguous — are they in Jack’s mind? Did Jack try to kill Danny? Is Jack crazy? Is Danny crazy? Will the Magic Negro help save the day? Only at the end of Act III, when the ghosts actually let Jack out of his prison to go kill his family, does the movie actually take a stand and say that there are actually ghosts in the hotel. Then the movie turns into a chase thriller for twenty minutes.

My viewing companion for this evening, who had not seen The Shining since its initial release, marveled at Shelley Duvall’s performance — not so much because it’s good, although it is, but the fact that it exists. Imagine The Shining made today with an actor as good as Jack Nicholson — Russell Crowe, say — and now imagine a director, any director, matching that actor with Shelley Duvall. Wouldn’t happen. It’d be Jennifer Connelly or Gretchen Mol.

The kid playing Danny is great. Nicholson’s performance I go back and forth on every time I watch the movie but the kid’s only gets better and better with every viewing. And then you watch the “making of” documentary and you see that Kubrick seems to have treated the kid absolutely no different from the other actors (“More scared!” “Now run! Faster!”) and you have to wonder what the kid thought he was doing, especially in the scene where he has to sit in Nicholson’s lap for the least encouraging father-and-son chat in movie history.

When I made the change from Movie Fan to Movie Maker, I watched all my favorite movies again and mercilessly analyzed them, killing all the magic they held for me but revealing all their secrets. When I sat down to trace the structure of The Shining, I found I had a hard time identifying the protagonist. Jack is certainly the main character, and almost an antihero, but he does not set the plot into motion and his actions, like the actions of most of the characters, are reactive. Danny is not the protagonist, or if he is he’s not a very active protagonist. “Staying Alive,” I’ve learned, is not an adequate motivation for a strong protagonist. Wendy, as I’ve noted, remains utterly clueless throughout the narrative — the movie has less than zero interest in what she wants out of any of this. Then I realized that the protagonist of the movie is the hotel. The hotel sets the plot into motion — it torments Danny, it seduces Jack, it drives them both crazy, and finally, when Jack proves incapable of doing his duty, it intervenes. The Shining is about how the hotel tries, and ultimately fails, to get Jack to kill his family. I was thinking about this tonight when the Woman In The Tub tries to strangle Danny. I thought — well, right there, we can see that the ghosts can manipulate things — if they want Danny dead, why don’t they just kill him? They could just pick up an axe and kill him themselves, why are they making Jack do it? And I realized, well, the point is not that Danny gets killed, the point is that Jack, who has “always been the caretaker,” fulfills his destiny, kills his family and himself, and returns to the hotel forever. In a way the hotel is simply asking its wayward son to come home. And that’s why the movie spends a half-hour showing us around the place, they want us to see the building as a character in and of itself, to get to know it, feel it embracing these characters, suffocating them, driving them crazy.

A QUESTION: Where does Halloran The Magic Negro go when the Overlook closes for the winter? He’s an 80-year-old man, but he lives in a garish bachelor pad with foxy naked-chick paintings on the wall, a wet bar, and hunting trophies. Whose place is this? Not his, certainly. Is he staying in his nephew’s place, that crazy kid who’s outdoorsy and likes his ladies retro and very naked? And what’s the deal with his briefcase? Why does Halloran have a briefcase? He’s a cook, what need does he have for a briefcase? It’s prominently displayed on his wet bar in his swanky pad in Miami, and then he even hauls it to Denver when he goes to rescue Danny. Why does he take his briefcase to Denver? Even if he had some “cook business” he could address in Colorado, the entire state is under ten feet of snow, nobody’s going to be doing business that week. What the hell?

FUN FACTS: Jack types his experimental novel on an Adler, one not dissimilar to this one. In the “making of” documentary that accompanies The Shining on DVD, we see that Kubrick also types on an Adler, although his is a sporty, yellow model more like this one.

The drink Grady The Waiter spills on Jack is Advocaat, a “rich, creamy liqueur made from eggs, sugar and brandy.” Rest assured, I have never seen Advocaat outside of The Shining.

Even though the Overlook Hotel is in Colorado, most of the folks in the hotel, both living and dead, including the bartender, the desk clerk, the waiters and many of the guests, are all English (as is Danny’s doctor in Boulder). To make things more mysterious, there is a bidet in the bathroom of Room 237, something I’ve seen in no bathroom in the US, much less Colorado. This strange disparity is left unexplained.

For those interested in staying in the Overlook Hotel, you’ll have to make two trips. The outside of the hotel is the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon, the interiors are in Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel. Both hotels were built after the date of 1921 shown in the final image.

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It’s hard to imagine, 25 years later, how fresh and peculiar Poltergeist felt in 1982. Before Poltergeist, haunted house movies usually went basically like this:

ACT I: Some people move into a haunted house. Maybe on a dare, maybe out of necessity, maybe in a spirit of inquiry. We are told the house is haunted and so we wait for something scary to happen. And the filmmakers drag out every trick they can think of to produce "fake scares," things that have nothing to do with actual paranormal activity.

ACT II: Scary things happen, but they are explained away by one thing or another. Factions are drawn among the members of the people in the house. One person sees ghosts, the others don’t. Maybe it’s all a trick being played by unscrupulous real-estate developers. Maybe it’s all in the mind of one of the people in the house.

ACT III: The people are now trapped in the house and cannot escape, and it is revealed that there are, indeed, ghosts. And many scary things happen as the people desperately try to figure out how to get out of the house. And someone, usually the last person you’d suspect, has the key to get out of the house, or the solution that will appease the ghosts. And maybe it turns out it’s actually unscrupulous real-estate developers after all.

Poltergeist does none of this. Spielberg has so much he wants to tell you about ghosts, you can feel the giddy excitement in the narrative as he unpacks every box of ghost research he’s got. In this way, Poltergeist is almost a sequel to Close Encounters — it’s not enough that Spielberg entertain you — he wants to make you a believer.

Clear your mind — it knows what scares you. (spoilers)