Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Overlook Hotel Pulls Them In

This week's horror/thriller review is the final one. I started with the mindgames and masculinity issues of Vertigo, then the mystery of Mulholland Drive, then the link to our time in the retro horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Let's send the month of right.

Halloween is this very week. As the nights get longer and air crisper, the scary movies start screening in my home. My wife loves horror films as do I. Old black and whites as well as newer films make an appearance on our television. An all time favorite is "The Shining". It legitimately creeps me out. I wrote about the obsessive individuals who make up the narrators in the documentary Room 237. They see some wacky things in the movie. Like any piece of art, it hits everyone differently. It is all up for interpretation, but really what is this specific horror story about? Stephen King did not like what Kubrick did with his material, and when you look at the horrible King books turned movies that King had creative veto power over compared to the Shining, you have to wonder if he did not like it because Kubrick told a better story. This is not about King's book as it has explanations, more back story and a different ending than Kubrick's reinvention of The Shining. What is the story and what does it tell us? Let's take a ride with Kubrick.

A man takes his family to a hotel, working as the caretaker in the off-season. He and his son start seeing ghosts of sorts in what turns out to be a maliciously haunted. The ghosts then make physical contact with them, seduce dad, threaten son, expose themselves to mom. The spirits eventually claim dad as he dies while son and mom flee, leaving the hotel standing victorious. The nutty folks in Room 237 have crazy interpretations of the film's message, but there are some nuggets of viability in each one (except the moon landing one). One they overlooked is the simple crisis of post-scarcity, post-sexual liberation masculinity. Jack is jobless. He has a schleppy wife. He bums around with odd jobs to take up the caretaker role that he doesn't really perform. He explicitly yells at Wendy about her messing up this opportunity and sending him back to crummy jobs like she has ruined his life. He is a writer. Of course it was Stephen King's avatar (right down to lame wife, drinking problem + one kid at the time). What does he need to do though in society? We have an overabundance of everything? He wants the party life, s3x with a desirable woman and freedom. He does not want responsibility. "All work and no play". Wendy and Danny move along fine without him. Wendy ends up doing the caretaker work. Can we even nail down when Jack grabbed Danny and hurt his shoulder? Wendy and Jack refer to that moment as happening at a different spot in time (jack when talking to the bartender, Wendy when talking to the doctor). Are either of them trustworthy? Does Wendy care? When Jack came back from Room 237 and said he found no one so Danny must've done it to himself (a lie but still she can't verify), Wendy automatically sides with her kid who has some weird tendencies, not Jack. In the very end, Wendy and Danny do not even look back abandoning the husband and father who has gone crazy. They do not flinch.

What exactly is going on? How come the hotel even bothers with Jack and Danny? One could argue that it is purely cabin fever and in Jack and Danny's head as just about every ghost interaction is suggested to Jack beforehand, and Danny might just be a psychopath. The idea of a party as well as the Grady episode was implanted by the manager to Jack. A dead young hiker is on the news before Jack's interaction with the woman in room 237. Wendy never gets blood on her despite a river of blood rolling towards her out of the elevator. I will stop. The ghosts are real. We know from the cook (Dick Halloran) that the ghosts are legit. The cook confirms that Danny is not just a kid who faints and sees things. The cook explains that the hotel knows about people who shine because he's scared of Room 237. The cook has a good reveal that Grady confirms later. The cook and his gramma both could shine. Grady's daughter tried to burn the hotel down, and Grady was in communication with the hotel. There is a genetic, inherited component to shining. The hotel does not mess with every caretaker or guest, only the ones who can shine. If a caretaker comes with family, odds are they have a kid who may catch some of those Overlook shine radio waves.

Why does the Overlook scare the kids off while pulling in the adults? Danny and the Grady daughter both get the bad juju or heebie jeebie vibes while their fathers do not. The hotel starts with little girl images and a ball rolled towards Danny, and then grows darker. The hotel says, "Come on, you belong here, it'll be a blast, you've always belonged here". It doesn't work on kids who are new to the world. That message is a strong one to middle aged men taking an off-season caretaker position that by definition is not permanent. That position is not the normal caretaker. Who would that job attract? Oddballs, guys between jobs, and with all that space, a guy with a family. A guy with a family taking odd jobs is probably hitting that mid-life crisis and lacks a steady career. Just look at how the woman in Room 237 approaches Jack vs. Danny. She attacks Danny, while approaching Jack with sex first. Is it the same ghost? We do not know. We know Danny went into the room just as Jack went into the room. The hotel can seduce easy with the mirages. Kids aren't going to be seduced by July galas and naked women in bath tubs. They are kids. They have their life ahead of them. These men need that feeling of belonging. They need to feel that they matter. Now this is completely ridiculous when they have taken a job that obviously needs their attention. The job itself is a duty, but they are seduced by the hedonism and air of the hotel. They are selfish. All of Jack's escapades are for him alone. He talks to the bartender, he walks through the gala, and he alone enjoys these things. He is the caretaker, but he never does any job duties while in fantasy land.

Playing on the idea that Jack and Danny both have the shine, and are affected in similar manners, note Jack's behavior as Wendy runs to get him about the woman who attacked Danny. She is running, wailing and panting towards Jack through an empty hotel. She is running towards a man who is facing a mirror, so he could see her coming. He doesn't. He could hear her. He doesn't.  Watch when she gets to Jack. She practically wakes him up when she gets to him. He didn't turn around anticipating her arrival. The Overlook was casting its spell on him, and similar to Danny's blackout moments, Jack was dazed as he spoke to Lloyd the bartender. Jack and Danny are experiencing the Overlook with the same illusions, but reacting differently. Jack wants to stay, while Danny wants out. Jack is told his son has a gift by Grady, and rather than talking to him about it and trying to solve the mystery, Jack just wants to eliminate the obstacle to him enjoying the Overlook. "You and I both have this gift, so why aren't you digging this? Why are you ruining this for me???" or even "I'm not going to tell mom about Room 237, but I saw the woman there, Danny. What did she look like to you?". He cannot be bothered to talk to his son about this, yet he has plenty of time to do so and no one else who knows about this to talk to.

There is something to Kubrick's Shining's interpretation that makes the horror so great. There is the horror of the external, the hotel, the world around them and there is the horror within themselves. The hotel, the very spot they are trapped in, is a beautiful yet terrifying place with a dark history. It will proactively meddle with humans. It engages people rather than the visitors entering and disrupting the environment with horrific consequences (see all slasher, monster, and ghost films). This horror is compounded by the horror of the personal. Jack and Danny are gifted with the shine, but they make choices with how to react. Danny never discusses the girls. He chooses to go into room 237. Jack, at any point, could walk away. He could choose his family over the hotel. Jack and Danny could discuss the hotel's quirks and bug out. The terrible screaming in Jack's sleep and frightened attitude when he wakes up is a conscious admission that to give in to the hotel's seduction is wrong. He still does it anyway despite crying to his wife that he does not want to do so. While the hotel's seduction works, it works because he was a willing and open target conflicted by the choice.

This horror of the external and the personal is critical in amplifying the tension of the movie. The audience gets more invested. The protagonists actually mattering is something all filmmakers and screenwriters understand except M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan just sets up a weird situation and maybe the leads matter to solving the problem or maybe they do not. However well written their story arc is outside the main situation is what will pull you in. Signs and The Village are horrible alien and monster movies that could've been awesome in the post-9/11 fear of the unknown era, but Shyamalan wastes the idea. Kubrick makes it clear Jack and Danny trigger the Overlook. Jack and Danny matter, and Jack and Danny have a choice. Giving in involves some horrific acts. Acts that one would never do or claim to never want to do. Jack will tell Lloyd the bartender that he would not hurt a hair on his kid's head, but by the end of the film, he's chasing him through the snowstorm with an axe in hand to kill him. Danny may resist the horrible hotel, but dad may come to get him.

Besides the story, the Room 237 narrators all look for the visual clues to their interpretations. They are comical in some respects but entertaining. American Indian genocide, the Holocaust, the Moon landing and minotaurs all sound a bit goofy. They look for clues in tiny little things like typewriters, cans of food or posters on walls. I too enjoyed the visuals of the film. The vast space of the sets for the hotel added to the "all alone" creepiness. The Overlook itself is a character. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf spends several pages describing the process of nature taking back the summer house. It is the personification of the house itself into a character in the book, not just a setting. The fools Wikipedia editors must not have read the actual book. The Overlook is a character that you can buy because Kubrick painstakingly worked the visuals. Those empty hallways were just begging for Danny to turn a corner and bump into something scary, which is accentuated by the decision to use a "big wheel" camera angle. Set design was important for this film because Kubrick had to nail the personification of a hotel that conjures ghosts out of thin air and is malicious. The hotel has to be a living thing and should look appropriate. A viewer is not going to buy ghosts popping out of the walls of a standard issue hotel. A pre-fab Holiday Inn from 1980 doesn't look the part of a hotel that could be considered enchanted and seductive. If the walls are going to talk, they better be interesting walls. That is part of the seduction of the place. Rooms are large with huge bathrooms (room 237). There are interesting Indian patterns and design. Gigantic rooms for all sorts of parties are there at the Overlook. The hotel itself, barring some room color choices, is a bit out of time compared to the 1980 production date. This adds to the setting of illusions.

Kubrick is an interesting film maker, and he reworks King's The Shining well. Bad things happen at the Overlook causing it to shine per Dick Halloran, but is he ignorant of the Overlook's construction? He might be. If he is, he's missing the first mover: the hotel is built on an Indian burial ground. Stephen King loved that cliche. Must have been the rural Mainer in him. I grew up hearing tales of the Saco River Curse (3 whites will die each year in the river), and King, growing up in the forest in Durham, Maine, probably heard a tale or two about stepping onto sacred Indian spots. Now it is easy to slip that into the interpretation that this is about American Indian massacres. Is it? Is it more about the primary, foundational conflict here. Putting a swanky hotel on top of an Indian burial ground is an alien group forcing civilization and a place used for leisure on top of the natives' most sacred spot. It is a massive trespassing for those who believe in anything holy. That crime will be punished by the spiritual side, and those who can see, those who tap into that world, those who "shine" will be witness. If drawn in deep enough, participate.


ichbinmusik said...

Robert Ager of Collative Learning has some interesting things to say on Kubrick's Shining. Kubrick is by far Ager's favorite filmmaker and so he has spent an extraordinary amount of time devoted to dissecting and reinterpreting Kubrick's films. I find his interpretations more compelling than Room 237s. For example; Ager notices a bear theme running throughout the movie and claims that Jack has a pedophilac relationship with Danny. This would explain the bear man and the man in the suit. It certainly makes more sense than the hotel trying to seduce Jack and frighten Danny. Jack has a "gift", Danny has a "gift" which he "doesn't want to talk about anymore". In one scene Jack is reading playgirl magazine, in another before Jack has his fatherly love moment with Danny the film being shown is about an affair of a younger man with an older woman. This is some creepy pondering but it makes sense to me.

Anonymous said...

Good commentary on Kubrick's use of spacial impossibilities to provoke dread here:

One horror movie I need to check out again is 'The Wicker Man' (the one with The Equalizer, not Nick Cage of ciuse).

Son of Brock Landers said...

Thanks for comments.

The molestation idea I can see but dont buy. There is something off of the abuse in general as Wendy and Jack cite two different dates for the abuse and one of the dates coincides with their move to Colorado.

Original Wicker Man is very good and dark. It's set in a 20thC England already gone.

Robert What? said...

because Kubrick told a better story

I think so. The only Stephen King movie I liked was the one he didn't like: The Shining.