ByJames M. Tate, writer at Creators.co
Top Shark Cinema Writer at CultFilmFreaks.com and Now a Movie Pilot Remora...
James M. Tate

Thanks to the DVD artwork showing our favorite grimacing madman, it seems THE SHINING, a Stephen King novel turned into a suspenseful horror masterpiece by director Stanley Kubrick, would be nothing more than a fiendish Jack Nicholson running around with an axe. The sinister “Here’s Johnny!” line is as over-quoted as the TAXI DRIVER “you talkin’ to me?” scene… Yet there’s more to THE SHINING than a crazy antagonist…

It's sad that audiences, whether older fans returning to the film or youngsters wanting to be scared, are mislead into a deliberately slow-paced cerebral/surreal journey that takes time to encompass the film’s true villain, The Overlook Hotel...

We learn of the Hotel's backstory from the expository-driven interview scene with Barry Nelson’s Stuart Ullman, leading to the interior tour that ends with Scatman Crothers' Mr. Hallorann and his personal conversation with Jack’s son, Danny…

Through this extensive set-up, making up an entire first act, we're brought into this sinister place where Jack Torrance is merely a pawn… Stephen King didn’t like the usually offbeat Nicholson for the lead role… But Kubrick saw fit to hire the man he had possibly slated to play Napoleon in a biopic that never took flight...

Instead, following A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the eclectic auteur directed another time period epic, BARRY LYNDON, faring well with Kubrick fanatics but the long run time and unsympathetic title character confused mainstream audiences… Even the once-adoring art house critics were perplexed… Thus THE SHINING, which remains Kubrick’s most commercial venture, was a perfect choice for the man to step into a more conventional spotlight…

Back to Stephen King’s anti-Nicholson stance: he felt that Jack Torrance, a would-be novelist/teacher hired to take care of the immense Hotel during an isolated winter, needed a progressive changeling... Wherein Nicholson seemed crazy right off the bat (ironically, author Ken Kesey said, during a private phone call in the mid-90's, he was against Jack's casting in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, although he claimed to have never seen the film)...

A Michael Moriarty or Jon Voight would have been more subtle for the lead role, in Stephen King’s eyes… He does have a point... But let’s look into a theory that maybe Jack Torrance was never quite crazy enough…

Even hardcore Nicholson and/or SHINING fanatics have felt that Jack goes sporadically over the top in the role… When he speaks to Joe Turkel’s Lloyd the Bartender, or any of his famous triads against Wendy, the put-upon wife played by Shelley Duvall… These moments are often viewed as hammy, or, as Kubrick’s friend Steven Spielberg stated, something out of Kabuki Theater...

But here’s a theory to consider… The Hotel ghosts overseeing Jack's violent task, something former caretaker Delbert Grady pulled off (most likely) with ease, might have realized they picked the wrong man for the job...

“Mr. Torrance, I see you can hardly have taken care of the business we discussed,” Grady’s voice speaks through the storage room door, where Wendy locked Jack inside following his stair-climbing tirade… A failed attempt halted by a swinging baseball bat. “I and others have come to believe that your heart is not in this…”

That particular dialogue is very telling… And Jack’s over-the-top performance might not be an intense actor playing a lunatic – but rather a character trying desperately to be crazy enough to muster the energy to do such a horrendous thing... "Your heart is not in this," Grady had said. Thus Jack Torrance, not Jack Nicholson, is seeking the right motivation to get into the part of a cold-blooded killer...

If you view Jack Torrance as a failed madman rather than the poster-child for a trademark horror film heavy, certain aspects become clearer and Nicholson’s performance is that much more intriguing… Also keep in mind that Delbert Grady – played by a mesmerizing Philip Stone, the other three-time Kubrick actor besides Joe Turkel – probably didn’t have a child with the ability to “Shine” through the ominous location… At least not successfully...

In the role of Danny Torrance, young Danny Lloyd possesses a natural childlike finesse that keeps the entire movie in check… Whether riding his Big Wheel through the semi-carpeted hallways, being mentally tackled by nightmare visions of a bloody elevator lobby or two ghost girls perfectly suited for a demonic doll house, THE SHINING is his special power... Or curse...

Another Stephen King gripe was that his peripheral hero, Mr. Hallorann, winds up being killed… And so much post-tour time is spent with the likable side-character, from lying on his bed in Florida… to traveling on a plane… to driving down long snowy Colorado roads… resulting in such a quick and bloody demise… Does a character with so much buildup and importance deserve this sudden fate?

Well in a suspense-driven movie finally harboring a fully-realized axe-wielding killer, especially when played by an unshaved, goblin-jawed Jack Nicholson, there needs to be at least one slaughter! Torrance might have been a failure, ultimately… but he had to get something accomplished… After all, there’s a bloodthirsty horror-genre audience to consider.

And so, there are a handful of other topics to be discussed in future posts about THE SHINING, but this particular essay merely centers on the mental state of Jack Torrance, and the possibility he wasn't loony enough, thus making for a vicarious psycho trying desperately to find his path... So the next time you watch this iconic 1980 Kubrick classic, keep in mind that perhaps Mr. Torrance may be battling those demons more than heeding their call... Makes for a much more interesting ride.

By James M. Tate

www.cultfilmfreaks.com

Jack Nicholson and Philip Stone
Jack Nicholson and Philip Stone

Latest from our Creators