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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Two versions of The Shining

I recently had the mixed pleasure of viewing Mick Garris' 1997 television miniseries of Stephen King's The Shining. King was displeased by the liberties taken by Stanley Kubrick with the 1980 film adaptation of the 1979 novel, and guided Garris' version to be more accurate to the book.

I laud the miniseries for managing to remain compelling for three nights worth of entertainment. I am a fan of made-for-tv horror because the format forces the pacing to deliver thrills at specific intervals (right before commercial breaks). So every fifteen minutes or so, no matter what dull exposition may be underway, you're guarenteed a good jolt to bring you back to the story. I learned this from the 2000 tv movie Someone is Watching, which I loved, and got at Target for a buck.

Kubrick's Shining corners the market on creepy, but Garris' version may be scarier. Roger's wolf mask had me panicked in several scenes, and the scene in Room 217 packs a special punch. But the film left me longing for Kubrick's atmosphere. The Timberline Lodge is much creepier than the Stanley Hotel (which originally inspired King's story). The Timberline is enormous, and dwarfs the people inside, making it seem much more ominous and omnipresent. Also, the apparations in the 1980 film are much more detached from the action into which they intrude, making them appear much more bizarre than the 1997 ghosts, awash in green light before fading out of existence.

The apparitions that Kubrick deploys are much more haunting. My special favorite is the hotel guest in the bear mask preparing to service a man on a hotel bed. What in the hell is that all about? Not knowing what that signifies lends to the spookiness, and adding eroticism to the mix makes it seem all the more wrong. And it strikes me now that this may be paralleled by the fliratious roleplaying between Roger and Derwent in the Garris series, which may be fleshing out what Kubrick only hinted at.

What Kubrick's film shows is that his eye for horror rivals Stephen King's. When I read The Shining as a sophomore in high school, the scene in Room 217 scared me to death. I marked those pages carefully so that I would never inadvertently turn to them as I read the rest of the novel. That is the height of King's horror mastery, as far as I am concerned. But he also deployed those ridiculous topiary animals, which frankly do not work in any medium. Garris' film almost pulls it off by adding faces to the living lion bushes, but when the CG animation kicked in, they lost me. The snow being shaken off the animals isn't just clue that they are coming to life. It's an indication that animating moving snow is difficult/expensive.

I wish Kubrick had made more horror films, but maybe his not being a "horror director" is what allowed him to do what he did.

I want to share my experience of Room 217. When I read The Shining, I had up to that point only stayed in one kind of hotel room- the small, cheap kind. In these rooms, the door opens into the bedroom, and directly to the left is a coat area and the bathroom door. It is important to note that the bathroom door is only 5 feet from the front door. Inside the bathroom (poorly lit) is a sink, a toilet, and a grungy tub that accounts for exactly half of the space of the room. This is where the attack on Danny took place for me. As soon as that decaying woman stood up, she was on him, because there was no room to run. Sure, he can fall backwards, which literally clears him from the bathroom, but there's nowhere to go after that, because he's already at the door. And since the bathroom is its own room, as Danny scratches at the door, looking over his shoulder, there's the experience that makes hide and seek impossible for me: waiting for your inevitable, abrupt discovery. Waiting for her to attack is not the measured tension of watching her come through a large room, knowing how many paces she is from your position. This scene is just waiting for her to turn the corner. You know she will, but not when. This made Kubrick's scene in 237 (changed from 217 because the Timberline was afraid they wouldn't be able to rent that room ever again) disappointing for me. Garris' 217 was an improvement, by degrees, showing a smaller bathroom in a marginally smaller suite.

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