For the past year or so, a Shining parody trailer has been floating around the Web. "Meet Jack Torrance," a chirpy narrator intones as we watch Jack Nicholson skipping around the bright, empty halls of the Overlook Hotel. From there, Nicholson is painted not as a homicidal maniac possessed by spirits, but a lovable grump with a bad case of writer's block: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," he types over and over again, his eyes bulging with comic frustration. Cue Peter Gabriel's "Salisbury Hill," enter the adorable Danny Lloyd isn't it cute how he talks to himself! and The Shining suddenly becomes a heartwarming tale of one man's redemption by a cute little tyke. "Sometimes, what we need most is right around the corner," the narrator notes as Stanley Kubrick's restless camera whip-pans from Nicholson to Lloyd. Aww a movie even grandma could love.
The joke works precisely because we all know what the real thing is: one of the coldest, most clinical, most exacting portraits of psychological horror ever put on screen. You can harp on how the film altered the essential details of Stephen King's novel. You can call out Kubrick for being a heartless bastard with his characters, subjecting them to odd, unflattering close-ups and allowing Nicholson to dominate the picture. But what remains is a true classic, less a conventional horror film than a sadistic exercise in sensory deprivation: As Jack Torrance devolves into a drooling, blubbering manifestation of pure id, the director is determined to take the audience down with him, and at that he succeeds brilliantly. Is it cold and bloodless? Sure but that's the point. Getting frostbite never felt so good.
When it came out in the summer of 1980, The Shining was supposed to blow the lid off the whole genre. Brian DePalma had struck artistic and box-office gold with the first King adaptation, the 1976 teen-sex nightmare Carrie. Then in 1978 a little movie called Halloween came along, owing a great debt to the point-of-view shots pioneered by directors like Hitchcock and Kubrick. Always one to raise the bar, the technology-obsessed director fell in love with the invention of the Steadicam a system that allowed for constantly gliding, flowing camera moves and applied it to a stripped-down adaptation of King's popular tale of possession, telepathy and one hell of a creepy ghost bartender. Shooting it almost entirely on elaborate sets constructed in London, he famously proclaimed that it would be the scariest movie ever seen. But reviews were mixed and the audience receipts, while decent, were nothing to write home about (hell, even Popeye made more money that year).
But who was ready for a two-and-a-half hour horror opus in 1980, let alone one that indirectly addressed the post-Woodstock breakdown of the family unit? The argument has even been made that The Shining is an allegory for the horrific, post-traumatic suffering of men coming home after the Vietnam War. Maybe the movie cut too close to the bone; more likely, it was just too creepy and weird. From the opening helicopter shots that make Colorado look like outer space, we know we're in some sort of gorgeous, broad-daylight hell; call it Kubrickland. Who else could make innocent twin girls in matching, sky-blue party dresses look so sinister? And what's up with those tacky oil paintings of naked Pam Grier look-alikes that we see in Scatman Crothers' apartment? In every scene, something's seriously off, whether it's Danny's catatonic, cross-eyed stare or Shelley Duvall's cavernous mouth, rendered in freakish, too-close-for-comfort shots.
Ultimately, the reason the movie is more acclaimed now than it was then is that we weren't yet used to Nicholson in full-on freak-out mode. Sure, his yelling-at-the-waitress scene in Five Easy Pieces was the stuff of legend, but the actor was still a counterculture hero in 1980, the one sane patient at the Cuckoo's Nest, the stick-up-his-ass dude who loosened up in Easy Rider. It took The Shining to prove to us that he could be funny and frightening at the same time, and we never looked at him in the same way again. Despite the occasional high note, his career like so many other '70s legends devolved into self-parody in the '80s. In part, we have Kubrick to blame for allowing us into the actor's head so completely: As Nicholson wields his murderous ax at the end of the film, the director's camera moves back with every swing, until we feel it in our gut. Even the movie's most-aped line "Here's Johnny!" is a Nicholson original, improvised on the spot. It takes a couple of really sick bastards to permit something so joyously inappropriate in the middle of a massacre.
Showing at midnight on Friday, June 30, and Saturday, July 1, at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].