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Saturday 17 March 2018

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr Kubrick

Paul Whitington

Do you enjoy being scared out of your wits when the lights go down? Then the Irish Film Institute's annual Horrorthon is just for you. Kicking off next Thursday, the five-day orgy of blood and guts will include some of the most interesting new films from this endlessly inventive genre, as well as some timeless classics.

The programme boasts everything from slasher films and ghost stories to horror comedies and contemporary fairytales, but the screening that really caught my eye is a documentary about one of the most perplexing and divisive horror films of them all.

Rodney Ascher's debut documentary Room 237 is a kind of exploration of the meaning of Stanley Kubrick's epic 1980 horror film The Shining.

Ascher started the project thinking it would make an interesting short film, or perhaps just something to post on YouTube. But he was soon overwhelmed by just how many mad theories have been concocted about Kubrick's film.

In Room 237, various academics and film writers hold forth on The Shining's hidden themes.

A history professor tell us it's all about Kubrick's terror of the Holocaust; a journalist says the film is inspired by American guilt about the Native American genocides; and a man called Jay Weidner claims the whole thing is a coded reference to the NASA moon landings that Kubrick helped fake.

The release of Room 237 happily coincides with a cinematic re-release of The Shining in a new, extended cut. This so-called 'American cut' includes 25 minutes of extra footage that Kubrick himself removed from the version released in Europe, and adds scenes that if anything only add to the speculation about what the film is all about.

But it gives cinephiles a chance to enjoy Kubrick's visually stunning chiller on the big screen. And if the re-release and Room 237 prove anything, it's The Shining's enduring relevance.

These days the movie is taken very seriously indeed, and is considered by some to be one of the greatest horror films ever made, but it bewildered critics when it first came out, and was dismissed as pretentious and impenetrable by many.

Even Stephen King hated it: the film was inspired by his novel, but the writer always felt his story had been subverted by Kubrick's meddling and Jack Nicholson's histrionic performance.

"A great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside," was how King described the movie, and he was not the only one traumatised by the experience of working with Kubrick.

Kubrick was first attracted to adapting King's evocative ghost story because of its commercial potential. His last film, Barry Lyndon, had cost a small fortune to make but fared poorly at the box office, and the director badly needed a box office hit.

He'd been impressed by the dark themes and gothic mood of Brian De Palma's 1976 adaptation of King's novel Carrie, and felt The Shining had even more visual potential. But Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist, and before the shoot had even begun he'd started tinkering with King's original story.

That story concerned a recovering alcoholic and struggling writer called Jack Torrance, who gets a job maintaining a rambling Rocky Mountain hotel called the Overlook in the off-season. He brings his wife Wendy, and small, clairvoyant son Danny, and hopes the isolation will allow him to complete his first novel.

But during the long winter Jack loses the plot entirely. He begins seeing ghosts that may or may not be real, and is impelled towards unspeakable violence.

In King's novel it's made clear that the Overlook is built on an old Indian burial ground, and has a long history of violence. But Jack's battle with alcoholism leaves one guessing as to whether or not the ghosts he sees are real.

King believed that the casting of Jack Torrance was vital to the film's success, and was horrified when Kubrick suggested the larger-than-life Nicholson. The writer wanted either Michael Moriarty or Jon Voight, two normal-looking men whose descent into madness would consequently carry weight.

But Kubrick insisted on Nicholson, and Warner Brothers backed him.

The Shining's shoot, which was scheduled to last a few months, dragged on for almost a year. Kubrick, a notoriously exacting director at the best of times, insisted on endless re-takes, and a simple scene involving a conversation between Danny and the hotel's cook, Halloran, was shot 148 times.

As the film developed, Kubrick began meddling with every aspect of the story, so much so that Nicholson threw away his original script and learnt new lines day by day as he went along.

Shooting days were so long and arduous that Nicholson's then-girlfriend, Anjelica Huston, remembers him coming home in the evening and literally collapsing into his bed. But at least Nicholson got on with Kubrick: his co-star, Shelley Duvall, was not so lucky.

She became so overwrought by Kubrick's constant nit-picking that her hair began to fall out. She later claimed the famous 'Here's Johnny!' scene took three days to shoot, and involved the use of 60 doors.

Filming was complicated by the fact that Kubrick refused to travel to America, so the entire interior of the Overlook was constructed at London's Elstree Studios.

The Shining's shoot went on so long it delayed the start of Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Nicholson later remembered the entire crew spending days on end throwing a tennis ball against a wall so that it would bounce into the lens of a waiting camera.

No one who worked with Kubrick ever lightly considered doing so again, and the exhausted actors and crew on The Shining must have been doubly devastated when the critics went to town on it. But though few realised it at the time, old Stanley had created something very special.

King might not have been happy with Kubrick's cavalier treatment of his novel, but the director took the bones of that story and turned it into something else entirely -- a poetic and profoundly disturbing visual nightmare.

Kubrick's grand themes -- madness, abuse, the supernatural, man's crippling fear of death -- were matched time and again through the film by bravura moments of filmmaking.

The river of blood emerging from the Overlook's elevator may be the film's most famous scene, but it's not the most accomplished. That would be the brilliant Steadiman sequence in which a camera follows Danny as he pedals his tricycle through the garish corridors of the hotel on his way to a first encounter with the ghosts of murdered twin girls.

There was something uniquely unsettling about Kubrick's film, and perhaps it was partly because he broke with time-honoured horror tradition by shooting in bright florescent light. There was, therefore, no doubting what you saw, especially when Jack Torrance goes into Room 237, and has a terrifying encounter with a beautiful woman who turns into a rotting old crone.

Jack Nicholson's performance has always been problematic for some, and is so over-the-top that critics like Pauline Kael argued that it turned a horror film into a farce.

He does ham it up, and even improvises his own lines now and again. But I believe that he and Kubrick found an instinctive common wavelength. Nicholson's performance is almost operatically wild, but for me fits perfectly into Kubrick's gruesome nightmare.

As to what it all means, I really couldn't care less. Somehow, The Shining manages to tap into our deepest primal fears, and every time I watch it I feel like going to sleep with the light on.

'The Shining' is re-released in cinemas on November 2. 'Room 237' will screen at the IFI Temple Bar from next Friday, October 26. And for more information on the Horrorthon, visit www.ifi.ie


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