Here’s To 35 Years of People Ripping Off “The Shining”
I dreamed that I – that I killed you and Danny.
But I didn’t just kill you.
I cut you up into little pieces.” — Jack Torrance
Happy 35th Halloween, “The Shining.”
Every genre has its seminal films, those ones that created an equation for all the rest, built plot points and visual cues so overdone by this point that it’s hard to forget that such seminal films were the first and how groundbreaking they in turn are.
In horror, there are few films as influential as “The Shining.” And as movie houses all over the world celebrate its 35th year with screenings, I figured it was time to look into a couple of the themes and conventions “The Shining” introduced.
The Era of the Haunting/Possession Story
Let’s start off by looking at the simple fact that the horror genre has become pretty stale. Especially in America, where seemingly every horror movie is either a supernatural tale of ghosts in a creepy house that possess somebody, a maniacal slasher film, or its cousin, the gore porn epic, which of the three is probably experiencing the greatest influx of creativity (you seen “Anarchy Parlor” yet?).
But the genre is dominated by the first kind, and sadly the films being put out, from “The Conjuring” to “Haunting in Connecticut” to “Annabelle” to the “Insidious” series, “The Possession,” the “Paranormal Activity” series, and the list could go on and on, have become staler than the Hillary emails discussion. In fact, the most frightening horror to come out this year is the prospect of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
But perhaps as a reaction to our belief as Americans that we can control everything in this world, we’re most fascinated by the idea supernatural creatures that we can’t control, hell, often cannot even see, at least until we do….
Unfortunately, this premise, while viscerally effective (I’ll admit, slasher films are no longer even that scary for me; I find them campy release because I feel like I could survive most of them just by grabbing a good weapon, not stopping until I’d confirmed the attacker was dead, and never running upstairs; supernatural flicks, on the other hand, will always give me chills)(let me add that I’m pretty sure my 3 last homes were haunted), has led to a rash of these films that all hew so closely to the same equation I have trouble telling them apart, can’t remember which film was which as I think back over them. It’s because they all share the exact same devices, often executed in the exact same way (the exception being “Paranormal Activity” which is distinguishable because of its found-footage framing, even if that’s just a ripoff of “Blair Witch”).
If we look at these hackneyed tropes, we soon find that many of them, and hell, even the modern ghost/possession subgenre’s pervasiveness in general, have their roots in the widespread popularity of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”
Shine On, Danny
We should start off by talking about what “The Shining” doesn’t have. Namely, the endorsement of the writer of the novel it’s based on. That is, Stephen King hates this fucking movie.
King will rant to whomever listens to him about how Kubrick’s movie is a lurid piece of crap, how Kubrick missed all the heart King laced the novel with and the inner conflict Jack Torrance has and how Wendy was supposed to be stronger and Scatman was supposed to live. On the other hand, King’s solution to “It” was having a bunch of 12-year-olds engage in a gang bang in a cave and while he’s a brilliant creator of characters and crafter of stories, I have to admit to sometimes being let down with his conclusions. Not to mention the fact that by now a good percentage of the adaptations of his work, none of which has he called out as vehemently as “The Shining,” look like poorly-lit movies of the week with bad makeup jobs and acting almost as stiff as the Standing Rock Sioux’s resolve.
Even more, Kubrick’s “The Shining” stands on its own as a work of art, which is what all artists strive for. Unfortunately, it stood on its own so well and for so long that today you can’t watch a horror flick without seeing shining prints all over it.
To the point that it almost makes Kubrick’s masterpiece annoying, just like Pearl Jam after everybody copied their sound circa 1992. And the lazy reliance on elements stolen from “The Shining” has turned today’s horror genre into a parade of predictability. Here’s a list of just some of the tropes Kubrick’s Shinola either invented or popularized:
This was an invention of King’s, of course, the whole shining ability to see ghosts thing. But after “The Shining” in 1980 we had “Poltergeist” in 1982, then fast-forward to “The 6th Sense,” “The Ring,” and now it’s basically a rule that in a ghost movie, the child is the first one to have the ability to see the ghosts and is therefore the most in danger from them. In fact, to a certain extent “The Shining” introduced children as the key to truly frightening stories.
There’s something so horrifying about children in general. They’re little humans with weird speech patterns and off-kilter explanations of the world, awkward gait and blunted mannerisms, an innocent view of existence but that means you can’t tell if it’s their imagination or their misunderstood powers of deception or something more real when they say “Daddy, there was a bad man walking down the stairs but I shot him with my gun.” On top of that, if they’re your kids you’d endure any horror, pain and suffering to protect them which is just as frightening of an idea as the belief that they can simply see the ghosts that surround you.
And the thought of a child dying a grisly untimely death is the kind of next-level horrific that would leave behind ghostly traces. And so ghost children — the immortally young, haunting the corridors, who have become victims of the very evil that they’ve now lived with for so long that they have picked up traces of the evil themselves — lurks in all of our deepest fears. And there are few ghost children as haunting or memorable as the twin girls from “The Shining,” especially when Danny flashes between them inviting him to play with them forever and their poor little bodies as bloody heaps of jagged flesh strewn down the hallway.
But there’s one thing that can always solve all your problems — a healthy, and extremely timely, helping of negro wisdoms.
In “Annabelle,” the old black woman who lives upstairs helps the couple fight the demon living in the doll. Sister Abigail, a black nun, reveals the truths about Esther in “The Orphan.” Seemingly in all these movies, at some point a person, usually a black woman with stories based in a childhood full of ghost or supernatural witch interactions or somesuch, gives a piece of advice and may even intervene using her (or his) magical abilities her granny taught her since all black children of course grow up with a family witch doctor and between shucking and jiving they have a requisite lesson in the supernatural. Often the main family is white and as such the black person is scary, maybe even blind (“Haunting In Connecticut 2”) with those white rheumy eyes that are so damn scary becaause they speak to being old and collapsing so their ability to ingratiate themselves to the white folk by fighting demons using their negro wisdoms is considered a big victory for all. Magic Negro is up there with the BBF (black best friend) and a few others for the racist boiling down of a whole race into a support role.
Dick Halloran was really the first and possibly the most memorable because Scatman Crothers fucking kills it. Halloran is really King’s invention (King, of course, is master of the super-duper-negro)(in fact Halloran even makes a cameo in “It”). But Crothers and Kubrick created an indelible character and really the only person to be admired out of the whole damn cast of characters. I guess the supernatural negro is better than the other horror trope, the token black who gets killed early on. Though Crothers is the only good guy who gets killed in “The Shining” (though I think that’s more a nod to the fact that, again, he’s the only good, strong character in the whole damn thing)(but still…). So I guess it’s not really that different. Though I guess at the time of “The Shining” the stereotype was at least unique. No, actually to think about it, it’s not a horror theme worthy of much honor despite the fact that it’s made its way into every other supernatural horror flick.
White man’s burden my man, white man’s burden.” — Jack Torrance
The suffering father and the milksop wife, the supernatural depiction of addiction problems in families (with the seclusion and the violence and the debilitating fear)(and then there’s the whole thing about a man who’s claiming he was prevented from living up to his potential and responsibilities by his wife instead of by his own weakness)(and a lot could be said about Wendy’s depiction of the evolution from the “I do my husband’s bidding” housewife of the 50s to the empowered woman of the 70s, though her performance could also be called a misogynist depiction of a weak woman) is played to a perfect caricature T by Jack Nicholson. That’s become a staple of modern ghost films too, the beloved family member who gets possessed and turned into a very tool of terror.
Even more, this was the movie where the staid Nicholson from “Easy Rider” and the affable scoundrel from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” turned into the psychotic with just enough wits to be amusing before that leaves him completely. This would become his trademark, and influence a whole generation of actors who all dreamed they could become Jack Nicholson.
On the other hand, despite all the criticism heaped on Duvall’s shrieking, hysterical subhuman wife (who seemingly invented the “running from the killer by trapping yourself upstairs” thing), she also set another precedent that has become a symbol of female power in cinema —
The Final Girl
That’s right. Shelley Duvall braves all odds and survives the crazed killer, saving maybe the little child. Possibly the coolest element of slasher films, the final girl is the clueless young chick who becomes the toughest, most badass survivor (though often adhering to sexist roles of female propriety and chastity, especially in the early slashers) who bests the seemingly unbeatable beast. Final girls are awesome.
While arguably the first final girl was in 1974’s “Black Christmas,” nobody remembers that movie. It was Duvall who fought off the demon and escaped for the first time, even if she’s about the weakest of the final girls (to the point where she’s not included in many listings of final girls).
Of course there are plenty of other themes that have been around forever and from “The Shining” gained a modern revamping still echoing today (empty ornate house full of ghosts born of all the violent debaucheries performed by the richest, most connected among us)(ghosts living in a cemetery even after it was bulldozed)(how the most frightening thing is to be lost in a mazelike building, or even an actual maze, with certain death chasing you from unknown corners).
And there is one final trope, one which Herschel Gordon Lewis really pioneered but “The Shining” drove home.
When All Else Fails, Bring On the Blood
That’s one of the most famous scenes from “The Shining,” second only to the face in the door, the elevator that opens and pours out blood. There’s a lot of blood coming out of Halloran too, of course, but the real nod is that an elevator full of blood, buckets and buckets of the roovy red, will always make an awesome scene.
“The Shining” — A Ghost Whose Presence Still Haunts
“The Shining” has of late become a polarizing flick. There are complaints that it’s sexist, it’s racist, it’s lurid, it’s over-the-top, it’s a begrudging flick from a director who actually wanted to mock the genre.
But the truth is, “The Shining” is one of the most influential films of modern cinema if only based on its influence on nearly every film in its genre. A ghost story serving as analogy for the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of addiction and the undue resentment born of imagined white man’s burden, “The Shining” reached a metaphysical plane that few films of any genre aspire towards anymore. And whether the archetypal themes it strings its banner from are what make the film so strong or whether it’s the brilliant execution by one of the greatest helmers of the modern era that have made those themes immortal, there’s one indisputable fact — “The Shining” will forever be a keystone in film history.
And after 35 years of being ripped off, a night spent with the lights off watching “The Shining” is just as damn terrifying as ever.
Happy Halloween. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for my winter caretaking gig in the nearby national park. While we’ll be snowbound for the next few months, no doubt I’ll get plenty of great writing done and my family will be just fine trapped under a sea of impassable snow.