Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Shining

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Jake Lloyd, Scatman Crothers
Written By: Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Year: 1980

Rating: * * * * 1/2 Stars   +    (Fan Bonus 1/2)  Total: * * * * * 

Stanley Kubrick's masterful film is not only an offering to the horror movie genre, it elevates it.

Based off the Stephen King novel of the same name, the story revolves around Jack Torrance who moves his wife and son to an isolated hotel in the Colorado mountains to be the hotel's caretakers for the winter season. Isolated, the Father Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is tormented by an evil presence, slowly driving him to madness. The son Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd), who has psychic abilities, is plagued with apparitions and visions of horrifying events of the past and future. The Mother Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) must deal with the fact that her family is losing its grip on reality.

Part ghost story, part psychological thriller, Kubrick saturates this movie with ambiguity, making it one of the strengths of this film. This allows the viewer to formulate his or her own conclusions. The motivation of the entity is unclear. Why is it urging Jack to kill his family? How much is it influencing him? How much is this all in his head? The title, The Shining, refers to the psychic ability that young Danny, Jack and Wendy's 7 year old son, possesses. The full nature of this ability is again ambiguous, as it's not clearly defined. However we learn from Mr. Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), the hotel's head cook, that there are other people, and even other places, who have Danny's ability, himself included. We see this ability as having precognitive and post-cognitive abilities, as well as telepathy. So the question remains, are the visions Danny sees ghostly apparitions, or memories of the hotel itself. A sort of interactive view of past events?

Danny, being 7 years old, has had this ability for some time, and his young mind processes this into an imaginary friend named Tony, who he describes as "the little boy who lives in my mouth." Kubrick's masterful hand is again at work as he coaches Danny Lloyd throughout this film. He's able to get this young actor to facially express complex emotions the character is going thru. One scene that immediately comes to mind is Mr. Hallorann taking Wendy and Danny on a tour of the kitchen where he realizes that Mr. Hallorann has the same ability. While he's going over the inventory with Wendy, he turns to Danny and you hear his disembodied voice ask "how would you like some ice cream, Doc?" Was this a telepathic message, or a precognitive message, as Mr. Hallorann asks him that very question a few minutes later. Again, the ambiguity at work. Regardless, Danny's expression is one of fascinated horror. This certainly unsettles him, but his curiosity is peaked.  Does Mr. Hallorann understand me? Am I not the only one? The shot of Danny starring back is just fantastic.

Yet Danny isn't the only one seeing strange things in the hotel. Jack begins seeing things too, including a bartender (remember, Jack is a recovering alcoholic), a woman in the tub, and an entire banquet room where a roaring 20's party is in full swing. Again, is he seeing ghosts, or is this in his head? Or, does Jack also have the shining? An ability he may never knew he had or an understanding of. Again, more ambiguity. But the toll it takes on Jack's psyche is central to the movies narrative. That as time goes on, Jack becomes more and more loyal to the hotel. Even to the point where he feels his wife and child are hindering his responsibilities to care for the hotel. Jack is one part victim. he is being tormented. The Entity is isolating him from his family and slowly influencing him emotionally. Jack becomes more protective of it than his own family. However, he is also one part perpetrator. Ultimately he makes the conscious choices. He chooses his responsibility of the hotel over the responsibility of his family. He chooses to have a drink, knowing how his drinking hurt his family in the past. He chooses to embrace the naked woman in the tub, thus abandoning any sense of faithfulness to his wife. So we both sympathize and despise his character.

What also makes this film great is how it goes against the grain of traditional horror films of this type. There are no scenes set in pitch darkness. No characters fumbling around in darkened rooms, searching for the door. No creaking floorboards, scratching sounds, or sudden flashes of lightning and thunder. In the Shining, the horrifying events happen in broad daylight, in fully lit rooms and hallways. Yet the menace remains unseen. The tone of the film is one of unrelenting oppression. Some directors may include scenes of light comedy or romantic moments to briefly lighten the tension of their film. Kubrick does not. The characters are stuck in their situation, and emotionally, you're going along for the long ride with them.

Stanley's use of music is also well crafted. A Slow, eerie piece sets the mood from the opening shot. And as the movie rolls on, the music, especially in scenes involving Jack, have less and less harmony and becomes more discorded. It's more a series of disjointed sounds and beats than rhythmic melody. This mirrors Jack's psyche as his grip on reality becomes more and more fractured.

Over 31 years later, this film is still among the top films of all time, let alone just horror. There is little shock value, gore, or blood (save for the elevator scene). But this film is the gold standard of how to build tension and dread from beginning to end. The fact that audiences won't fully understand the motive and nature of the evil that lies within the Overlook is a factor that plays into this films atmosphere. As people, we instinctually fear what we don't understand. And for the narrative to not fully disclose this to the audience, makes the audience less the observer, and more a participant in the horror. In the final analysis, this film warrants multiple viewings as subtle concepts and ideas become apparent. It's also a great film to discuss among peers.

Sadly I could not give this a full star fan bonus when rating this film. While I am a fan of horror, and most horror fans agree that the Shining is a landmark film, hardcore Stephen King fans disliked this film as Stanley Kubrick did not remain faithful to King's novel. Gone were the more over-the-top elements found in King's version, such as hedge animals that come to life, patterns on the carpet that change, or the idea that "Tony" is really Danny from the future sending messages to himself back in time. As a result, a made for tv movie remake was done in 1997. And while King loyalists praise this version for sticking closer to the novel, it fails in every other aspect. 31 years later, Kubrick's the Shining remains a classic, while the 1997 version has faded from memory, appearing occasionally in bargain bins across America.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Last House On The Left

Starring: Sandra Peabody, Lucy Grantham, David Hess, Fred J. Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Martin Kove
Written by: Wes Craven
Directed by: Wes Craven
Year: 1972

Rating: * 1/2 Stars   +    (Fan Bonus 1/2)  Total:  * *

Wes Craven, best known for his Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream franchises, makes his directorial debut with The Last House On The Left.

This extreme low budget horror film effectively showcases the raw, naked ugliness of violence. Unfortunately, sloppy editing and amateur storytelling mar what should stand along side other cult horror classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead.

The plot revolves around two teenage girls, one celebrating her 17th birthday. On the way to a rock concert, these rural teenagers stop in the big city to score some marijuana. There, they run into a group of deranged, escaped convicts where they are tortured, kidnapped, raped, and murdered. The twist in the story is where the convicts, needing shelter for the night, come across a house owned by a doctor and his wife who take them in for the night. By coincidence, they are the parents of the murdered teenager, and exact revenge upon them.

On paper, the plot sounds solid, and is actually a tweaking on Wes Craven's part to Igmar Bergman's Virgin Spring. Sadly, this film fails for a number of reasons, notably for its radical shifts in establishing atmosphere. Enter the Sheriff and his Deputy. While the convicts and their victims abandon their car and march off into the woods, the law officers stop by the car thinking someone has broken down. Without investigating, they assume the owner is off to a local station and they continue on. Later, having learned of the escaped convicts and what car they were last seen in, they race back to that spot on the road near the forest. From this point the audience is treated to one sick and cruel act after another visited upon these poor girls by the four kidnappers. The cops, which should offer some semblance of hope for the audience that they might get there in time, do not. Instead, the Sheriff and Deputy become comedic relief as they treat us to one slapstick scene after another. They run out of gas, start walking, get punked out by a group of teenagers, and fall off the roof of a truck carrying chickens. And while we're treated to one grotesque scene after another, they get offset by these two pulling off a Skipper and Gilligan routine. While some directors insert moments of comedy in their films to lighten the tension, this approach fails because the severity of the drama is insulted by the retarded nature of the "would be heroes."

The film also takes a few leaps of faith in connecting its dots. Consider for example the scene where the Mother, in the middle of the night, grows suspicious of their guests and peeks in their suitcase. She sees an article of clothing with blood on it. Suddenly the next thing we see is her and her husband racing into the woods to the very spot where their daughters body lays beside the pond. Wait, is this the same daughter that was shot 3 times and drowned in the middle of the pond? When and how did she get on the shore? Why are her clothes clean from all the muck and sludge of the pond? How did the parents know exactly where to find her in the woods in the middle of the night? And did you notice when they ran out of the house onto the street, the house is actually the last on the right?

The dynamic of the Mother and Father is interesting. Two very open minded people, they display a kindness and openness that you rarely see today. The fact that they open their homes to strangers without question is how Wes illustrates their altruistic nature. So consider the dramatic fall from grace they take on a personal level to take a murderous revenge on those who brutally assaulted their daughter. Where this dynamic fails is the absurd and calculating way the father goes about setting booby traps while his wife performs oral sex on one of the assailants. Granted, what she did at the end was hardcore, but realistically, wouldn't any parent having seen their daughter in this condition, just go upstairs and kill them in a blind rage while they slept?

In 2009, a remake was made and it certainly fixed these nagging problems. I dare say this was one of those remakes that improves upon the original in every way possible. Still, the original is Wes Craven's accidental hit. If you've never seen the film, your hands will be over your face. Partially for the shock value, partially cause you're embarrassed.

SEE THE TRAILER: The Last House On The Left