Today’s double slice of Netflix horror goodness runs the gamut from scary killer clowns to…well, scary killer grandmas. I never said it was a particularly wide gamut, did I? On we go.
So, back in 2010, cheeky monkey movie-writing-and-directing dudes Jon Watts and Christopher D. Ford made a fake trailer for a fake horror movie called Clown, which to the surprise of no one, was a poignant, tasteful, and poetic tribute to the grim determination of the men and women who survived the Great Depression.
Just kidding, it was about a child-eating clown demon.
Anyway, these two scamps had the large brass cojones to put, “From the Master of Horror, Eli Roth” right there in the credits of their trailer, even though Eli Roth had absolutely never heard of these miscreants in his entire life. But there is a lesson here, folks: Namely, that sometimes if you’re ballsy and sneaky enough, you can sometimes get what you want, whether you really deserve to or not. Point being, this little stunt they pulled got back to the actual Eli Roth, who was amused by their brazenness and intrigued by the concept of the fake movie, so when Watts and Ford decided to make Clown for real, Eli Roth agreed to be one of the producers.
The 2014 film has a fairly straightforward premise: Main character Kent McCoy (Andy Powers) is a realtor as well as a lovable husband and dad, and he has booked a clown for his clown-loving son Jack’s (Christian Destefano) birthday party. Unfortunately, there is a mix-up at the clown-renting establishment, and the party clown can’t come. Kent (very fortuitously) stumbles across a clown suit in the property he’s been fixing up for sale, and he slaps that bitch on and entertains all the kids at his son’s party, Dadding like a boss. His wife Meg (Laura Allen) is so pleased with him that she even gives him a little clown lovin’ later that evening, which is frankly a sentence I thought I’d never type, but here we are.
The problem arises on the following morning, as Kent slowly begins to discover that the clown costume refuses to come off. The rainbow wig has grown into actual hair, the clown white cannot be scrubbed away, and the bulbous red nose takes most of his actual nose with it when Meg yanks it off with one of her dental tools. Kent has also developed an unbelievable appetite, and his stomach makes disgusting gurgling noises as if he’s still hungry even after he’s eaten everything in the house (and left a giant mess in the kitchen for his poor wife to clean up, I might add. MEN, amirite?).
Kent’s condition begins to deteriorate rapidly, and when he eventually tracks down the brother of the previous (deceased) owner of the suit, a man named Herbert Karlsson (Peter Stormare), he discovers that, obviously, the suit is not a costume at all, but the skin and hair of an ancient child-eating demon called a clöyne. Herbert has a scary hand-drawn book about the critter, as you would, and he informs Kent that the only way to get rid of the demon is to behead the person wearing the suit, which in this case would be Kent. Kent is shockingly not down with the beheading, and fights his way out of Herbert’s shop, but he soon begins to realize that the demon is quickly taking over and that he suddenly has an insatiable desire to eat children. Don’t we all? (No.)
In order to protect his family, he goes into hiding at one of his more down-market properties, but the hunger is beginning to gnaw away at him (heh), and at some stage he decides he’s going to have to kill himself. As grim as that sounds, it’s actually pretty hilarious watching clown-Kent trying unsuccessfully to blow his brains out with a pistol and getting nothing but a gaudy spray of rainbow-colored blood on the wall for his efforts, and then rigging up a super-elaborate rotating-saw contraption to try to lop his own head off (which unfortunately only succeeds in breaking the saw blade, which flies off and kills a nearby child, which Kent then eats).
Oh, and I forgot to mention that apparently, the clown curse can be broken if Kent eats five kids. Meg figures this out by discovering that Herbert had once worn the suit and turned into the demon himself, but had reverted back to normal after his cancer-doctor brother fed him five terminally ill kiddoes. The Make-A-Wish Foundation, this ain’t.
At the climax of the film, clown-Kent goes on a bloody child-munching spree in a Chuck E. Cheese’s, of all places, and his devoted wife Meg, who still believes that Kent can be saved, actually kidnaps a young girl she sort of knows with the intent of her being the fifth sacrifice that will bring Kent back to normal. But Kent has other plans, and wants his own son Jack to be the fifth kid, which of course Meg is not on board with, leading to the final showdown between mallet-wielding Meg and kiddie-snacking clown-Kent.
As a movie, Clown is obviously not a grand artistic statement or anything, and yeah, killer clowns are kinda played, but I actually thought this flick was a lot of fun. The premise is amusingly ridiculous, the clown transformation is well-handled and delightfully squicky, and you have to give props to a movie with the stones to kill and mutilate children with such wicked glee. As body horror goes, I’ve seen way grosser, but the gore here is nicely done and should satisfy fans of blood and guts.
The humor is also rather subdued, which I liked a lot, as I think it made the movie funnier than it would have been if they’d gone over the top with it (I swear, I laughed for five minutes at that rainbow blood when Kent shot himself in the head, and also at that framed black and white photo of the kid that had been picking on Jack…as the God of Hellfire pointed out, “Look, it’s his bully portrait”). Besides all that, the main character of Kent remained believable and even sympathetic up until the end. Like I said, not a deep metaphorical horror story or anything, just a big, dumb, fun flick to watch with your friends while cramming popcorn, peanuts, cotton candy, and delicious children into your mouth-hole.
Next up, a movie from Blumhouse that somehow kinda flew under everyone’s radar, even though its pedigree would have suggested a much wider release and much more hoopla. Mercy, which was dumped straight to VOD in 2014, is based on Stephen King’s short story “Gramma” (from 1985’s Skeleton Crew collection) and stars Chandler “Carl Grimes” Riggs from The Walking Dead.
Obviously, the movie takes some liberties with the source material, as “Gramma” was a fairly compact, simple tale about an eleven-year-old boy who gets left alone to look after his terrifying grandmother, and after she “dies,” discovers that she might be housing a demon. While Mercy keeps this general outline for the final portion of the film, a whole bunch of characters and plot intricacies are added in to flesh out the story, and not all of these additions were completely necessary, in my opinion.
One thing I did like about Mercy was that the titular grandmother (Shirley Knight) was actually portrayed at first as a sympathetic character, if somewhat witchy, and that her grandson George (Chandler Riggs) was shown as being best friends with her. It is only as the movie progresses, as Mercy gets older and has to go to a home after having a stroke, that Mercy’s demon possession becomes more pronounced and she turns into a monster.
In brief, George, his mom Rebecca (Frances O’Connor) and older brother Buddy (Joel Courtney) have to move back to Gramma’s house in the country to take care of her after she becomes bedridden and the nursing home can’t handle her bizarre outbursts anymore. George is excited to see his beloved Gramma, since he hasn’t seen her in a year, but he is disappointed to find out that his Gramma is a lot different than he remembered.
Over the course of the film, we discover that Gramma Mercy actually sold her soul to a demon named Hastur when she was young, because she was infertile and desperately wanted children. Indeed, she soon got the children she wanted, but the cost was that her goodness slowly began to erode away, and it got to the point where her husband couldn’t take it anymore and committed suicide (by splitting his own face in half with an ax, no less, which is quite a feat if you’ve never tried it).
George (and his mom, to a lesser extent) wants to believe that the good Gramma is still in there somewhere, but the local priest and George’s drunken uncle Lanning (Mark Duplass of the previously-discussed Creep, in easily the film’s most entertaining performance) believe that the evil has completely taken over, and maybe even that Mercy was always evil. After George is convinced to water down Gramma’s meds with saline solution, thinking the meds are what is making her batshit, she starts acting up in all kinds of crazy ways, doing creepy Satanic chants and killing Lanning (and a few others) stone dead.
The final act of the film follows Stephen King’s story pretty closely, as George’s brother Buddy gets wounded and Mom has to take him to the hospital, leaving George alone with his now completely possessed Gramma, who dies on his watch before various other demonic shenanigans ensue. Much like the original story, we’re not entirely sure whether the demon actually succeeds in getting passed on to George, or whether he ultimately defeats it, though it’s suggested that the latter scenario is the case.
This movie…I admit I’m kind of ambivalent about it. It looked fantastic, and I love witch/demon stories, especially ones with a bit of a Lovecraftian flair like this one has. The general cinematography was gorgeous and evocative, the “weeping book” imagery was cool and a rad addition to the story, the performances were pretty strong throughout (except Chandler Riggs, who is not bad, but just Chandler Riggs-y, y’know, and hey, don’t hate, I love The Walking Dead). I just thought that the story could have been simplified and streamlined more, which I guess is a pretty weird thing to say about a movie that was only 78 minutes long, but in a way, the fact that it was so short meant that maybe they should have expanded more on a few ideas instead of just giving short shrift to all the extra concepts and unnecessary characters they had rattling around in there.
Like, for instance, as much as I love Dylan McDermott, who was his character exactly in relation to the main family, and why did he need to be in this, and what was the point of the flirtation between him and George’s mom that never came to anything? What was with his character’s apparently Satan-worshipping wife with the scary demonic paintings? What was with the creepy black dog/hellhound deal? Why the crazy aunt escaping from the asylum only to get killed instantly? And was she the one who sent the verbena? And why was it necessary that George have a ghost/imaginary friend? (I mean, I guess I understand that the girl was supposed to be his Gramma’s pure soul before she got possessed or whatever, it just seemed a strange way to get that across).
See what I’m saying? A lot goes on in this thing, and because there are so many characters and plot threads in what is essentially a pretty straightforward demon-possession story, a lot of the tendrils are just kinda left hanging and underdeveloped. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie…it’s definitely not. Hell, it’s not even a bad Stephen King adaptation, and Lord knows there are shit-tons of those. It’s enjoyable enough, and creepy and entertaining as this type of thing goes, but I didn’t feel like it was anything particularly special. Just fair-to-middlin’, as my own (non-evil) Gramma used to say.
That’s all for this installment, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
Our brand spanking new podcast is now going to be a regular weekly show on the Project iRadio network of podcasts, thanks to Armand Rosamilia and Jess Roberts. Please check out our first episode over there and listen to some of their other awesome shows too! Also, don’t forget to check us out on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our YouTube channel.
If you ever wanted to listen to the God of Hellfire and I blathering away about various topics of interest to weirdos everywhere, you, my friends, are in luck. We have started a podcast called 13 O’Clock, which will feature subjects ranging from supposedly real paranormal cases to unsolved historical mysteries to bizarre religious cults to creepy serial killers to horror movies and everything in between. Some of the episodes will be just us, some of them will have awesome guests like parapsychologists, writers, musicians of a darker nature, and so forth.
On our inaugural episode, we discuss the tragic case of Doris Bither, whose alleged poltergeist attacks were the basis of the 1982 film The Entity; and on the second half, we delve into one of our favorite topics, conspiracy theories and hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining.
I can’t believe it’s been a week since my last post! Sorry about that. I really do try to keep up with this thing, but sometimes I get busy with all my other endeavors (writing, book promotion, graphic design work) and run out of hours in the day. When it finally came time to do a new post, I was scrabbling for a subject, so I just decided to do something fairly pedestrian by discussing my ten best horror films based on novels. I’m not dropping my nuts here and proclaiming that these are the BEST ADAPTATIONS EVAR, but they’re certainly my favorites, and before anyone argues, YES, I know there are lots of other great horror films that were based on books, but I wanted to showcase great movies that were made from novels that were themselves fantastic and familiar to me (for example, while John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favorite horror movies of all time, I’ve never read the book it was based on, and as far as The Exorcist goes, I actually thought the movie was light years better than the novel). So now that we’ve got all that out of the way, allons-y.
10. The Girl Next Door (2007)
Based on Jack Ketchum’s horrific, you’ll-need-a-shower-afterwards novel (made all the more squicky by the fact that it was based on a true story), this 2007 adaptation mostly doesn’t shy away from the more terrible aspects of the book, and is all the more powerful for it. While I admit I found the novel a great deal more disturbing, the film is a worthy addition to the evil-that-humans-do canon. Some of it is a little too aw-shucks, fifties-stereotypical, but Blanche Baker is chilling as Aunt Ruth, and the mostly young actors are great, particularly 21-year-old Blythe Auffarth as the doomed Meg.
9. Hellraiser (1987)
Adaptations of Clive Barker’s infernal works are generally hit or miss, but I think we can all agree that this is the best by a mile (though I have to say that Candyman is also in the running). Based on his 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart, and directed by Barker himself, Hellraiser is filled to the brim with sadomasochism, buckets of gore, that genius puzzle box conceit, and one of the most recognizable horror baddies of all time. While the sequels couldn’t begin to approach the original classic, it’s easy to see how the detailed world Barker created in his short work demanded much more screen time. Jesus wept, indeed.
8. Ghost Story (1981)
As much as I adored the spooky, low-key adaptation of Peter Straub’s 1975 novel Julia (known as The Haunting of Julia in the US and Full Circle in the UK; you can find my analysis here), I find that Ghost Story, based on his 1979 book of the same name, just barely edges it out. The novel is so rich, complex, and over the top that the film couldn’t help but streamline the thing and leave several plot tendrils out, but I love it anyway, and I think director John Irvin was wise to focus solely on the central conflict of the book, that of the men of the Chowder Society battling the shapeshifting she-demon known by different names through the years. Some fantastically eerie scenes, and it was nice to see a band of dignified old codgers playing the heroes.
7. Stir of Echoes (1999)
I’ve talked about this criminally underrated film before, but I try to pimp it at every opportunity, because it’s so great and I’m still pretty bummed that it sorta got lost in the shuffle due to its simultaneous release with The Sixth Sense. Somewhat based on Richard Matheson’s short 1958 novel A Stir of Echoes, the film takes the basic plot of the book and builds an intensely frightening tale of hypnosis, psychic visions, and murder upon it. I’m not scared easily, but seeing this film in theaters gave me the heebie-jeebies big time, and it holds up remarkably well. Props also for the very Lynchian sound design, which ramps up the scare factor considerably.
6. The Innocents (1961)
Directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr as governess Miss Giddens, The Innocents is one of those rare films that wrings the scares from subtle atmosphere. Based on Henry James’s classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, with a screenplay co-written by Truman Capote, the movie is chock full of spooky children, secrets, ghosts, and eerie goings-on, amplified into skin-crawling terror by the use of music, lighting, and ambiguity.
5. The Other (1972)
Based on former actor Thomas Tryon’s 1971 debut novel (and if you’d like to read a rundown of the lackluster adaptation of another of his fabulous novels, Harvest Home, I’ve got you covered), this Robert Mulligan-directed film is one of the best examples of the good/evil twin trope. Set in 1935 and starring Chris and Martin Udvarnoky as the conflicted Holland twins, the movie is a golden-drenched slab of uncanny mystery and horror, painted in hues of perverse nostalgia. Tryon, who wrote the screenplay, was reportedly not happy with the adaptation, but for my money the film more than did the novel justice.
4. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Another Richard Matheson adaptation (this time of his 1971 novel Hell House), this one takes obvious cues from The Haunting, but goes in a splashier direction with much effectiveness. Directed by John Hough and featuring great performances from Roddy McDowall and the impossibly adorable Pamela Franklin, the story takes the standard horror-movie plot of a group of ghostbusters investigating a scary house and does all kinds of weird shit with it. Baroque, overwrought, and lots of creepy fun.
3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Capturing the sly, blackly comic edge of Ira Levin’s 1967 book while maintaining a sense of slowly building tension and paranoia, there’s a reason this Roman Polanski-directed classic ends up on so many “best horror films” lists. I absolutely love Ruth Gordon as the lovably terrifying Minnie Castavet, and Mia Farrow is perfect as the fragile, waifish Rosemary, a protagonist you can’t help but sympathize with and be afraid for as everyone in her life seems to turn against her. If you’re a fan of Polanski’s films, check out my previous writeup on his deliciously creepy 1976 movie The Tenant.
2. The Shining (1981)
What can I say about this masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? (Well, I said this and this, but y’know.) Taking what is arguably Stephen King’s best novel and using it as a springboard to explore universal themes, myths, and existential terror, Stanley Kubrick created a timeless, iconic piece of art that still has the capacity to enthrall and horrify, more than three decades later. Easily one of the five best horror films ever made.
1. The Haunting (1963)
You just knew this was gonna be my number one, didn’t you? I admit I talk about this book and film a lot (such as here and here, for example), but that’s only because I am in awe of the subtle dread and psychological depths this story plumbs in both mediums. Based, of course, on the hands-down best haunted house novel ever penned, 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the casting in Robert Wise’s masterful adaptation is spot-on, and he deftly drenches the film in chills and atmosphere while essentially showing nothing, an astounding feat and one that is right in line with the source material. I really can’t recommend book or film enough, in case you hadn’t noticed. Oh, and I mentioned this before, but skip the lame-ass remake.
And just because I can, here are twenty more that were eliminated for the sake of brevity:
The Exorcist (1973, based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty)
The Hunger (1983, based on the 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber)
The Birds (1963, based on the 1952 short story by Daphne du Maurier)
Nosferatu (1922, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897)
Frankenstein (1931, based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925, based on the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945, based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel)
House of Usher (1960, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” 1839)
Duel (1971, based on Richard Matheson’s 1971 short story)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, based on Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel)
The Entity (1981, based on the 1978 novel by Frank De Felitta)
Village of the Damned (1960, based on John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, 1957)
Masque of the Red Death (1964, loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, 1842)
Re-Animator (1985, based on the H.P. Lovecraft novella Herbert West—Reanimator, 1922)
Cemetery Man (1994, based on the 1991 novel Dellamorte Dellamore by Tiziano Sclavi)
Misery (1990, based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel)
Carrie (1976, based on Stephen King’s 1974 novel)
The Prestige (2006, based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest)
The Lair of the White Worm (1988, loosely based on Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel)
Horns (2014, based on Joe Hill’s 2010 novel)
Keep it creepy, my friends, and until next time, Goddess out.
In my previous post comparing Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining with Stephen King’s vastly inferior TV miniseries, I offhandedly mentioned the staggering variety of “conspiracy theories” surrounding Kubrick’s film without going into particular detail about any of them. I didn’t think it was necessary to exhaustively catalogue all the crazy interpretations that have appeared over the years, not only because there are endless sites already doing just that (hell, Shining conspiracy theories even have their own wiki, and just last year a documentary called Room 237 outlined the most common ones), but also because I think the great majority of them are utter, overreaching horseshit. No, I do not believe that Kubrick was trying to send us secret messages about faking the moon landing, or about CIA mind control, or about the Holocaust, or about the impending Mayan apocalypse.
Artists, particularly ones of Kubrick’s caliber, absolutely do put hidden meanings and subtexts into their work, and it would be silly to argue that they don’t. This doesn’t mean that they’re trying to impart some kind of secret knowledge about the universe’s inner workings or anything; it’s just that they’re trying to make their films or books or whatever a richer experience for their audience by adding “clues” to underlying themes for the viewers to puzzle out on their own. It’s hard to deny that Kubrick’s The Shining is loaded with this stuff, and obviously a great deal of it was deliberate, because that’s what artists, at least good ones, try to do.
After my recent rewatch of the TV miniseries, I spent several hours poring over different people’s interpretations of Kubrick’s film, and then decided to rewatch his 1980 adaptation with the various “conspiracies” in mind. After the film, the God of Hellfire and I were discussing it yet again (and yes, I can totally see why this movie has spawned so much obsessive speculation since it came out, thank you for asking), and suddenly, the GoH had something of a revelation (and this will be kinda funny later, I promise).*
Here’s the deal. Several of the so-called conspiracy theories out there (and I hesitate to call them that; I prefer to call them subtexts or motifs) have hit upon different facets of Kubrick’s overarching theme. But the GoH’s post-film epiphany (and all credit to him, as it was his excited discourse that inspired me to wade into the fray and write this post) seemed to tie together many of the more reasonable theories put forth by others into one coherent whole. I slogged through several pages of Google searches to see if anyone else had come up with this particular angle before, and while I found it hinted at in several places, I found no one who had laid the entire thing out in a clear framework the way the GoH did. If after reading this post you can find someone who has hit upon this exact slant, then kindly point me in that direction, but for now, I’m going give tentative props and kudos to my sexy male counterpart for coming up with what seems to be a pretty original take on Kubrick’s masterpiece. So let me see if I can break this all down.
Exhibit One: Native American Genocide
By far the most common and obvious subtext attributed to The Shining has to do with the slaughter of the Native Americans. Near the beginning of the film, as he is giving the Torrance family a tour of the Overlook, manager Stuart Ullman tells them point blank that the hotel was built over a Native American burial ground, and further, that a few “Indian attacks” had to be “repelled” while the Overlook was under construction in the early 20th century. In addition, the hotel itself is decorated in a Native American theme (Navajo and Apache, according to Ullman), there are several conspicuous placements of cans of Calumet baking powder (Calumet uses a Native American in a warrior’s headdress as its logo, and the word “calumet” means “peace pipe”), and many of Wendy Torrance’s fashion choices bear Native American-style motifs. There is also Jack’s twice-repeated use of the phrase “white man’s burden” to Lloyd the bartender as he is downing his bourbon (with alcohol being yet another purported tool of the natives’ subjugation by whitey).
Other interpreters of this particular thematic element have stated that Kubrick was making a not-so-subtle indictment of the Native American genocide, and it’s easy to see how they come to that conclusion. In this scenario, Jack represents the “white man” who subjugates his wife and son the way the Europeans subjugated the native population. But according to the GoH’s reading of it, this is only tangentially correct. I will go into more detail about this after I’ve laid out all the tendrils, so just be patient.
Exhibit Two: The Minotaur’s Maze
Another fairly obvious touchstone in Kubrick’s film is the repeated reference to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The director significantly changed King’s hedge animals to a hedge maze, and Wendy even compares the hotel itself to a maze as Halloran is showing her around the kitchen. In addition, the carpet patterns in much of the hotel’s decor are decidedly mazelike. Further, there is one scene that shows an increasingly bullish-appearing Jack lurking menacingly over a model of the maze, staring down at it as tiny simulacrums of his wife and son navigate their way through the real labyrinth outside. And at the climax, of course, Jack chases Danny through the maze, his speech becoming more and more animalistic as the chase progresses. Danny even finds his way out of the maze by following his father’s footprints in the snow, just as Theseus followed the golden thread (it’s also significant in this context that the main ballroom of the Overlook is called “The Gold Room”).
Exhibit Three: The Faust Connection
Right here is where we’re getting close to hitting upon the underlying framework that ties the disparate elements together. It is significant that the phrase Jack utters just before the first appearance of Lloyd the bartender is, “I’d give my soul for a drink.” Seconds after this pronouncement, Lloyd is standing before him and immediately indulges his wish, and it is from here that Jack’s true downward spiral begins. So in this sense, Jack has just made a Faustian bargain with the Devil, or in this case the “spirit” of the Overlook hotel, represented by Lloyd. Further evidence of this particular theme comes in the very final moments of the film, when we see a closeup of the black-and-white photo from 1921 on the wall of the Overlook. Jack is standing before a crowd of jazz-age partygoers, with his right hand raised, palm facing toward us, and his left hand by his side, pointing toward the floor. This strange pose subtly recollects the Tarot figure of Baphomet, aka, Satan, y’all.
Sure, Goddess, I hear you saying, but all of those theories have been put forth many times, so what the hell is so compellingly new that you felt you had to blather on and on about it? Well, hear me out now. How can these three seemingly different themes be all of one piece? The GoH thinks he knows how, and it can be summed up in two words: Black. Magic. Or perhaps more specifically, ancient pagan religion, fostered through blood sacrifice and ritual.
I admit it sounds sort of crackpotty at first blush, but consider the following:
1. During his first interview at the Overlook, Jack wonders why the hotel is closed during the winter months, since it seems that the skiing up there would be fantastic. Ullman tells him that it would not be cost-effective to keep the 25-mile road leading up to the Overlook open, and then significantly adds that at the time the hotel was built, its clientele were not interested in winter sports as much as they were the “seclusion” of the Overlook’s location, and its beautiful natural view.
2. As Ullman is showing the Torrances around the hotel’s interior, he mentions that scads of movie stars, presidents, and other prominent folks (including well-known gangsters, though he doesn’t explicitly mention that) have graced the Overlook’s hallowed halls. “Royalty?” Wendy asks. “All the best people,” answers Ullman.
3. Near the end of the film, as Wendy is frantically running around the hotel looking for Danny, she briefly sees an apparition of a clearly Very Important Dude in a tux getting blown by a man in a bear costume. While this is going on, and at several points subsequently as Jack chases Danny through the maze, the soundtrack of the film treats us to background “music” that sounds an awful lot like ritualistic chanting.
So what do these three details mean in relation to the well-worn theories I outlined above? Well, in the GoH’s perceptive scenario, the Overlook itself can be seen as a sort of temple of black magic, or perhaps more concisely, a place of ancient pagan worship much like the sacrificial temples of the Mayans, the Happy Hunting Grounds of the Native Americans, or the Valhalla of the Vikings. It was created, either deliberately or accidentally, to act as a place that “shined,” that used the power of sacrifice — either through blood or the psychic energy of people with the “shining” — as a consecration to create a vortex of eternal debauchery akin to a type of hell (or perhaps a heaven, depending on your perspective).
Think about it. The Overlook was built as a playground for the wealthy elite. Said elite were keen to make sure that the location was “secluded.” Not only was the hotel slapped right on top of an Indian burial ground, but Native Americans were “repelled” (i.e. killed, sacrificed) during its construction. Further, the hotel was then festooned with Native American symbology. The Colorado Lounge in particular, with its tall stained glass windows, high ceilings, and Jack’s writing desk in place of an altar, looks like nothing so much as a sort of pagan cathedral.
Not only was this made to be perhaps a sort of mockery or inversion of the Native Americans’ spiritual beliefs (in much the same way the Satanic Black Mass can be seen as an inversion of Christianity), but also as a type of co-option or embracing of the primal qualities of those that were sacrificed. Why would the wealthy elite who patronized the hotel want it to be so secluded, after all, unless they were planning on using it as a place to indulge their “baser” natures and embrace the primal, the primitive, the savage, the animalistic? Murder, crime, debauchery, decadence, endless partying, wild sex: these were the “rituals” in this new “industrial” tribe of rich white elites. (Incidentally, this may be why Halloran was able to work at the Overlook for so long without being assimilated, because by being black, he was of the wrong “tribe.”) They didn’t just want to plow under the “pagans,” you see, they also wanted to become them, or at least become like their own perception of the “savages” as man close to a state of nature. By indulging in their “primitive” shenanigans and trying to overcome their own detachment from nature, they perhaps inadvertently created something that a tribe of “primitives” would have created on purpose: a cult of nature that was fed with blood and sex magic.
So they built a swanky pleasure palace on sacred ground, tamed the natural landscape into a regimented hedge maze, and then proceeded to out-savage the “savages.” Ullman’s demarcation of the Overlook’s clientele as “all the best people” was perhaps Kubrick slyly insinuating that the rich degenerates who stayed at the hotel were not the “best” people at all. Maybe they weren’t even the worst people. They were just people like any other, prone to brutality and primitivism just like anyone else, though afforded greater latitude in their pursuit of degeneracy because of their exalted status. This is why the “animal” theme recurs, not only in the Minotaur allusions (the child sacrifice theme is clearly pertinent in this myth, and what were the Greco-Romans known for if not pagan debauchery?) and the bear costume, but in subtle animal motifs that appear in Danny’s drawings, background posters, characters’ clothing, and other places around the hotel.
And this is why the odd chanting on the soundtrack recurs, as a sort of cue to the viewer that the temple is about to accept a new infusion of blood and energy. The Overlook indeed strikes a Faustian bargain with its chosen victims: make a sacrifice of blood (Grady’s daughters, Halloran, the attempted killing of Wendy and Danny) and for you and your sacrificial victims, the “party” will continue forever.
*One of the more out-there theories that I didn’t go into in this post concerns Kubrick’s supposed use of recurring numbers in the film. While there’s no doubt that certain numbers turn up more than you would expect by chance alone (42 and 12 most prominently), and there is probably some reason why Kubrick chose to do this (especially since he deliberately changed the number of the scariest room from 217 in the book to 237 in the film; as others have pointed out, 2+3+7=12 and 2x3x7=42), I’ve always been of the opinion that the various “numerological” theories put forth about The Shining mostly strain credulity.
But in light of the GoH’s reading of the Overlook as a sort of “Satanic temple” metaphor, I thought I’d toddle on over to some numerology websites and see if those numbers had any particular significance (and yes, since you ask, I am a little embarrassed that those sites are now in my Google cache). I’m not gonna say that there’s necessarily anything to these numerological interpretations, but interestingly, in the Bible, Revelation 13:5 states: “The Beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months.” The number 42, you guys. Douglas Adams was right!
So…The Shining and ancient magic: yay or nay? Please throw hosannas or brickbats as the case may be. And until next time, Goddess out.
It seems as though I start a lot of these blog posts with a half-assed apology for not sticking to my own arbitrary, self-imposed “rules” for the content I discuss, and I regret to inform you that this is going to be another one of those times. Yes, The Shining and the well-publicized blood feud between Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick has been the subject of nearly endless internet debate, but for some reason it’s a subject I’m obsessively fascinated by and often get into long, rambling conversations about, which means that you will now have to endure said ramblings in my patented type-diarrhea form. Sorry in advance. (Not really.)
I’m going to go in a slightly skewed direction with this, though; rather than discuss the drastic differences between King’s book and Kubrick’s film, and the subsequent 34-year hatefest between them, I’d like to delve more into the contrasts between Kubrick’s film and King’s 1997 mini-series adaptation. Yes, I will obviously have to talk about the book too, so readers may see this as a distinction without a difference, but hey, I’m trying to just carve out a semi-original niche for myself here, so cut me some slack.
Let me just take a few moments to talk about Stephen King as a writer. I would consider myself a fan, though I admit I haven’t read anything of his newer than Under the Dome, which I enjoyed but promptly forgot the second I finished it. I definitely feel as though the quality of his work has declined post-car-accident, and I know I am not alone in that opinion; his more recent work just doesn’t stick with you the way his earlier stuff does. I would never go so far as to call him a hack, as some have done; he’s a very good “popular” writer, and he’s written some absolutely GREAT books, The Shining among them. Is The Shining as great as, say, Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, which partly inspired it? Hell no, and only an idiot would argue otherwise. But The Shining scared the ever-loving bejesus out of me the first time I read it, and has held up very well over multiple re-reads over the years. When King is on, he’s really, really on.
Here’s what I find weird, though. I’ve mentioned a few times in previous posts how much I love Danse Macabre, King’s scattershot but surprisingly astute analysis of horror in entertainment. In fact, on this very blog, I have used paraphrases from that book to back up some of my own viewpoints about what works and doesn’t work in horror; namely, that ambiguity and perhaps even obfuscation are necessary for really effective scares. What is unknown and largely unexplained is always more terrifying than what is known. King seems to grasp this, and even singles out books and films that were effective for this very reason, but when he is given the reins of a film project, he never seems to take his own advice. He has never really appeared to understand that literature and film are two completely different (hedge) animals; in a novel, you can, to some degree, get away with huge chunks of exposition and meticulous description of detail, because you are creating an entire world in the reader’s head. In film, everything is paraded right in front of your eyes, which means you have to exercise some measure of restraint, both in what you show and what you keep hidden. This is something that King has never really been able to do, judging both by adaptations of his work that he’s had a hand in (like Maximum Overdrive, which was similar to pro-wrestling in the sense that it was big, loud, and stupid, but also sorta fun, though no one would call it a masterpiece of celluloid), and adaptations done by others that he claimed he enjoyed (Children of the Corn, The Mangler). King is a good writer, and to be frank, sometimes I wish that he would just be content enough with that, and not try to dabble in mediums that are obviously not suited to his (quite prodigious) talents.
All that said, let’s dissect the 1997 mini-series, shall we? I remember seeing it when it initially came out; since I had always been such a big fan of both the book and of Kubrick’s adaptation, and was well aware of King’s tendency to royally whiff any film project he touched, I went into the viewing with some trepidation. And I’m sad to say that most of my worst fears about King’s version duly came to pass, and I ended up not even finishing the series because I hated it so much.
Fast forward to 2014. The God of Hellfire (henceforth GoH) and I were discussing The Shining because of a radio program we’d been listening to about Kubrick’s use of symbolism. I think I happened to mention that I had really detested the 1997 mini-series that King had made, as it seemed like nothing more than a self-indulgent, jealousy-fueled, bitchy dismissal of Kubrick’s singular vision. The GoH said that he’d actually liked the mini-series, mainly because he felt it was closer to the spirit of the book and followed the plot more faithfully (though he still agrees that Kubrick’s version was better). I hadn’t seen the thing in a long time, and I was willing to entertain the idea that the mini-series might not have been quite as terrible as I remembered, so late one night we sat down with our cigarettes and chocolate milk and watched the entire six hours in one go.
I will say straight out that indeed, the mini-series was actually not the atrocity I’d remembered it as. It wasn’t great, by any means, and parts of it were pretty cringe-inducing, but at no point during its run time did I feel as though I wanted to scoop out my own eyeballs or drop-kick a puppy into a wood chipper or anything like that. So…not awful, but a mediocre misfire at best. The problem with the entire production, I think, is what I was alluding to earlier, about King not fully understanding the differing strengths and weaknesses of the film medium as opposed to the literature medium. King’s version of The Shining is certainly far more faithful to the source material than Kubrick’s, perhaps even slavishly so, but that, to me, is the exact reason why it doesn’t really work.
The main difference between the two adaptations is that King’s was literal while Kubrick’s was mythic. A stark illustration of this is the fact that King’s mini-series was filmed in and around the Stanley Hotel, the real location that the Overlook was based on, while Kubrick’s Overlook, built entirely as a set, had a more otherworldly, dreamlike, and hence mythical quality.
One of King’s main criticisms of Kubrick’s film was that in casting Jack Nicholson, Kubrick presents a man who is clearly a raging lunatic right from the get-go. King tried to rectify this by casting “Wings” star Steven Weber as Jack Torrance 2.0, but I have to say that both King’s criticism and his attempt to realign the character to more suit his tastes is not really fair or effective. Weber is a good enough actor, but it’s obvious he’s striving to play Jack as a fallen “good” guy, and his portrayal suffers from a veneer of forced joviality. This is a character, remember, who was even portrayed in the book as an abusive alcoholic who may have had some redemptive qualities at his core. Nicholson’s Jack, while certainly something of a departure from the novel character, was more effective on screen because he exuded the anger and desperation of a man teetering on the brink of insanity at all times. This made him almost unbearably menacing, and thus the film that much more frightening.
King’s most persistent gripe, though, was that Kubrick’s film was soulless, that the heart of King’s book was ripped out and stomped flat in service to Kubrick’s coldly logical exploration of pet themes. While I can see why King would see it that way, I feel that he’s kind of missing the point. Yes, Kubrick simply used the frame of King’s story to hang his own vision on, and along the way may have altered the original intent of King’s novel (though not as much as King thinks he did, in my opinion). But I don’t think Kubrick was so much concerned with the sentimental, pedestrian tragedy of Jack’s downward spiral as he was with creating an archetypal meditation on isolation, evil, and the fragility of our rational humanity.
So Kubrick’s film featured an elegant hedge maze (shades of Theseus and the minotaur!) in place of King’s roving hedge animals (which looked painfully ridiculous in the mini-series when they began walking around like green CGI Scooby-Doos). Kubrick’s film kept aspects of the hotel’s history ambiguous (the woman in the bathtub, the blow job furries) to mirror the confusion and dislocation of the characters, while King drops a pallet-load of exposition about all the horrible things that happened at the Overlook in pretty much the first ten minutes of his adaptation. Kubrick’s film had those creepy twins, King’s had a hose with CGI teeth. Kubrick’s film has Danny talking to the “imaginary” Tony using nothing but his own croaking voice and a bent finger, King’s shows Tony in all his nerdy, floating, special-effect-y glory. Kubrick’s film keeps apparitions to a minimum, making them super-effective and frighteningly real when they do appear. King, meanwhile, populates the Overlook with hundreds of partying guests who appear and disappear in tendrils of smoke, and some of whom are afflicted with tragically bad “ghost” makeup. Kubrick’s film ends with Jack simply freezing to death in the middle of the maze, and the Overlook enduring with Jack’s unredeemed spirit trapped there for eternity, a testament to the fact that evil never dies. King’s film ends with Jack fighting two laughably bumbling spirits for control of the boiler’s vent pipe (and oh, that trite “boiling over/letting off steam” metaphor is hurting me right in my literary gland), then letting the whole hotel blow up with him inside it in a silly, unnecessary “redemption.”
At every turn, King chose to portray in his film the story exactly as he had originally written it, and at every turn, this was shown to be a mistake of plodding literalism over filmic mythmaking. King’s only sop to the novel I actually kind of liked was the fact that, as in the book, Halloran didn’t get killed at the end. I actually understand (and even agree with) the reasons Kubrick chose to kill off Halloran immediately after he arrived at the Overlook; after all, it showed that even despite Halloran’s own supernatural gifts and his tireless race to rescue Danny and Wendy, the evil of the hotel was just too powerful for him. It was still kind of a bummer, though. So yay for Halloran not dying.
I will say that the acting was actually decent for this type of thing, by which I mean, it wasn’t awful, but it was okay in a TV-movie sort of way. I didn’t get the sense that these were real people the way I did in Kubrick’s version; say what you will about Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall (and I happened to think the casting was pretty spot-on), but they played those roles with conviction, son. The little boy who played Danny in King’s version had a very distracting mouth that he never seemed to be able to close and he always talked like he had a sinus infection, but I’m not gonna pick on a kid for shit he probably can’t help. He was fine, even though I didn’t believe him as a real character either, mostly because of his oddly stilted dialogue.
Which brings me to another of the film’s glaring weaknesses: THAT dialogue, because of course you knew I would come to that. King, even in his books, is actually fairly adept at writing relatable characters, but he does have a well-documented habit of putting weird regionalisms and repeated “catchphrases” into the mouths of his protagonists. I can forgive this in his novels, as it’s usually not frequent enough to be grating; even though I don’t know a single person who talks like a Stephen King character in real life, on the page it’s an acceptable aspect of the unique world King has created with his stories. Hearing these “cute” verbal touchstones spoken aloud many, many times over the course of a mere six hours, however, is quite another matter. I swear I thought I was going to strain something from wincing so hard in empathetic embarrassment with Steven Weber as he had to repeatedly refer to Danny as a “pup” and incessantly scream at him to “take his medicine.” Over and over and over again. And that whole “kissing/missing” thing was so egregious that I almost felt like King was trying with all his might to forcefully wedge a catchphrase into the public consciousness so he could sell it on T-shirts or something. In that way it was kind of like the “Bazinga!” of its day, if you catch my meaning.
And then there was that epilogue, which as far as I can remember did not appear in the novel (and please correct me if I’m wrong). Ten years later, Wendy and Halloran are watching Danny graduating from high school, and we can see that (surprise), the grown-up Danny is actually the previously floating but now sadly earthbound Tony. As Danny collects his diploma, he sees his father standing there, and Jack repeats that horrible “kissing/missing” line and then they blow a kiss to each other in what is probably the creepiest and most unrealistic father-son moment ever captured on film. Yeesh.
Look, I understand that The Shining was a very personal story for King, based as it was on many of his own struggles with alcoholism, and I can even see why, when he made the film after having been sober for so long, he’d want to add in that little “hooray for redemption” fillip at the end there, as if to say, “See, the alcohol made us both monsters but we came through it and made everything okay and we’re still good guys, even if it’s only in the Jedi afterlife like Jack here.” I get that. But keep it out of your movies, man (and your books, wherever possible). It’s self-indulgent, sappy, and frankly sort of tawdry, the kind of ending I’d expect to see in a Nicholas Sparks movie or one of those Lifetime disease-of-the-week deals. Don’t cheapen what was originally a great story with manipulative mawkishness, yo.
In summation, the reason Kubrick’s adaptation is widely adored and generally considered one of the top five scariest films ever made is precisely because he restrained his emotional impulse and chose to elevate its source material to make an artistic statement. He trusted the audience to fill in their own blanks. He took what was a good story about a decent man being tragically consumed by demons, and he added layers and layers of subtext and symbolism, universalizing the story far beyond its dysfunctional family roots and turning it into a terrifying, complex fable that can be (and has been) interpreted in myriad ways. King’s 1997 adaptation, by contrast, simply took what was on the page and slapped it on the screen in an ordinary way, more or less word-for-word, thereby draining the narrative of any vitality or visual impact. It left no room for the viewer; everything was painfully laid out in front of you and over-explained to the rafters. An argument could be made that it is theoretically possible to craft a more faithful adaptation of King’s novel that is still a fantastic film, but unfortunately, this mini-series isn’t it.