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Accidents Will Happen November 18, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
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The National Council of Teachers of English annual conference kicks off tomorrow, so I’m headed to Philadelphia for a few days.  That means two things: 1) Things will be slow (or absolutely silent) around here once I leave tomorrow afternoon until Sunday evening, and 2) I needed to write my weekly review of a Stephen King movie adaptation before I left.

*****

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) probably has the most impressive pedigree of any Stephen King adaptation.  Brian de Palma was still making his reputation when he gave us Carrie; David Cronenberg was (and, really, still is) a cult director at the time of The Dead Zone; ditto George A. Romero (Creepshow and The Dark Half); and Frank Darabont was primarily a screenwriter at the time he made his feature-film directorial debut with The Shawshank Redemption. The only adaptations comparable to Kubrick’s would probably be John Carpenter’s Christine, which came in the middle of a long run of early 80’s, post-Halloween hits (Escape from New York; The Thing; Starman), and Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Misery. (I know Reiner is also responsible for Stand by Me, but his two films previous to that – This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing – weren’t huge hits at the time.  Misery, on the other hand, was his William Goldman-penned follow-up to the enormously successful When Harry Met Sally…)

As much as I like Carpenter and Reiner, however, they’re no Kubrick.  When he directed The Shining, these were Kubrick’s previous four movies: Dr. Strangelove; 2001: A Space Odyssey; A Clockwork Orange; and Barry Lyndon. Holy shit, indeed.  No other director of one of Stephen King’s books has that track record, and it really is sort of curious that a director of Kubrick’s stature would take on an adaptation of a pop horror novel.

For those who don’t know the story, it’s actually one of the simplest in King’s canon.  In a nutshell: Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson in what might be his most memorable role) takes a job as caretaker of the remote Overlook Hotel during its closed winter season.  He brings his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall, who, to put it charitably, never quite finds her footing in this role), and young son, Danny, to spend the winter with him.  Madness and ax-murder ensues.

One of the benefits of this little adventure of mine is that I get to watch some movies that I haven’t actually sat all the way through in a long time.  The Shining is certainly one of those.  I’ve seen bits and pieces on television, but it’s been years since I’ve watched it in its entirety.  I’d forgotten, first of all, what a beautiful movie it is.  Those first, sweeping images of what’s supposed to be Colorado (but which is, in fact, Glacier National Park) are still breathtaking, but these opening shots are really just a prelude to Kubrick’s use of Steadicam in the Overlook Hotel, rolling us seamlessly through the hallways and stalking the characters as they move in and out of the hotel’s cavernous rooms.  Not just virtuosic from a technical standpoint, The Shining also contains a handful of iconic images that linger even after the movie is over: the twins in the hallway; the elevator pouring blood; the hedge maze; Danny tearing around the hallways on his Big Wheel; Jack sticking his head through the splintered bathroom door and uttering the line, “Here’s Johhny!”  Regardless of what you might think of the story (or of horror movies in general), it’s just a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

That said, the movie has some odd flaws.  Pacing is one.  It’s entirely possible that this was part of Kubrick’s grand design, but most of the conversations between the characters seem uncomfortable, stilted, wooden.  There are weird pauses and wonky reaction shots in the opening interview scene between Jack and the Overlook’s manager, and none of the scenes where we’re supposed to buy into Jack, Wendy, and Danny as a family really work.  Try as I might, I can’t see Nicholson as a family man, and this is only compounded by the off-putting scenes where I think he’s trying to convey fatherly love but actually seems more like a sarcastic SOB who’s just killing time with this family until he can clock out and head to the Playboy Mansion.  Nicholson’s descent into madness is one of the selling points of the movie; unfortunately, it’s only when he’s crazy that he’s actually believable.

But Shelly Duvall takes the Grand Prize for acting atrocities.  It’s a bizarre casting choice, to be sure, as there was nothing in her acting history to suggest she could play Wendy with any degree of credibility.  It’s a fairly demanding role – she fears for her son, watches her husband descend into madness, and has at least a couple confrontational scenes that a better-suited actress could have knocked out of the park.  Unfortunately, it looks for all intents and purposes like Duvall was already auditioning for the role of Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye. It’s a shrill, off-kilter performance that, amazingly, never hits one authentic note in the movie’s entire two hour and twenty minute running time.

Despite its flaws, the movie works.  It works because of the amazing visuals (and I’d be remiss not to at least mention cinematographer John Alcott), and the nearly-palpable sense of dread that infuses virtually every scene of the movie.  It’s far from perfect – and not nearly up to scratch with Kubrick’s earlier films – but when Nicholson’s performance finally jives with Kubrick’s direction and visual acuity, it’s a masterwork of tension.

*****

Current listening:

Marillion – Holidays in Eden (1991)

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Comments»

1. Amanda - November 19, 2009

This should make you smile. Actually, you may have been the one to show me this but just in case.


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