Written by: Daniel McDonald
It’s probably when I began a love affair with TRAILERS, no not my “home on wheels” from 1960-67, I’m talking about the Cinema studio’s Promotional and Marketing process where edited portions from a film (some that actually don’t end up in the finished product) are used to gain an audience’s interest in buying a ticket for upcoming releases.
Being a filmgoer far longer than many of you have been alive (not boasting, just a fact) doesn’t make me any type of expert (really just makes me…in need of dusting). I have had the experience of watching the process of trailers change over the years. In my early 1960s film going, there were usually one or sometimes two trailers that ran between short documentary type films or cartoons and prompts to sell refreshments (such a crucial part of a cinema…excuse me, MOVIE THEAYTER/MOVIE HOUSE or just MOOOVIES – as in “going to the….” refreshment sales are so important to financial success, if anything even more so in today’s competitive market).
Movie (Oh how I fondly remember paying 75 cents to see a double bill of the – now Iconic – COOL HAND LUKE and BONNIE & CLYDE in 1967) campaigns and trailers were not as specific or focused as they are today. The practice of trailers being somehow thematically linked to the film you were seeing, and the actual content being much more…uhh honest? No, that seems harsh, much less…deceptive ?….Ahhh hell my readers know of my disdain for the “DECEPTION FOR DOLLARS” aspect of the current marketing process. My ongoing TRAILER love affair is definitely “on the rocks.” The horribly deceptive marketing and promotional campaigns of films like IT FOLLOWS, THE WITCH and products as current as A24’s IT COMES AT NIGHT which literally has audiences expecting a film so incredibly different from the actual product, that (I kid you not) people are walking out, demanding their money back or actually BOO-ING at the final credit roll. Back “in the day” arrival in time to see everything before the feature film wasn’t as “crucial” as it is (at least for me) in today’s cinematic world. However, if this current nonsense and deception being perpetrated by the studios continues, to avoid the undeniable urge to call “BULLSHIT” I may show up only in time for the feature, saying farewell to pop tune refreshment ads, tv and entertainment featurettes and my ACCESS HOLLYWOOD gal pal, Maria Menonous.
Hang on folks, the “history lesson” is almost finished and it does connect to our featured topic, STANLEY KUBRICK’S THE SHINING. Back in 1977, my circle of horror freak fan, NYC college friends were all reading or had read Stephan King’s MEGA successful book THE SHINING. We were an obsessive, highly critically (emphasis on “high” – hey, it was ’77) bunch of know it all cinephiles, so when it was announced that Mr. Kubrick would not only be directing but also co-adapting Mr. King’s book that we had been dissecting for months, the reaction was near delirium from almost everyone in the crew. I had seen and enjoyed several of Kubrick’s films – LOLITA, DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001 A SPACE ODDESSY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but ever since 1973’s SISTERS my filmmaking champion was (and I guess always will be) Brian De Palma, and the previous year’s one two punch of his masterpiece CARRIE – another King book my gang all loved, and then the (in my humble opinion) VASTLY underrated 1978 horror/sci-fi/spy film THE FURY, made me a bit numb to the Kubrick announcement.
Okay, thanks for sticking with me thus far, hopefully it will have been a journey worth taking. I will never forget December 9th, 1979. As a treat for my 23rd birthday back home here in Baltimore, my HOMETOWN horror/sci-fi gang took me to see the opening night of Robert Wise’s highly anticipated (again, emphasis on the high, but dudes and dudettes, it was my birthday!) first ever STAR TREK film. By this time getting to the cinema in time to catch the trailers had become de riguer (mainly due to the NYC college crew.) Sitting there in the darkened theater (my church), a Warner Brothers logo flashed on the screen. Then an eerily disturbing sound of low level instrumentation mixed with what sounded like angry hornets began under a still frame shot of two elevator doors in what appeared to be some type of lobby. The design had an American Indian feel in the color choices and patterns, a distinct use of the letter T in the set design, (the lead character in the book was named Jack T.orrance) and what looked like a pair of eyes, one over each set of the side by side elevator doors, giving me the feeling that the lobby was staring back at me, and that it was holding “something” within.
For a single set shot to have that much visual information it grabbed my attention (yes GRABBED, not caught) and I was immediately ill at ease. The completely simplistic, yet intentionally designed to a T (bad pun intended) lobby had a growing, undeniable sense of something hidden that was coming, like the beating heart in the floor in The Tell Tail Heart…this image was far from done with us.
Then a slow, very stark, simple credit crawl (the very plain letters forming the sentences were one of my favorite colors, Peacock Blue, but that color against the brick red major set color choice and unsettling American Indian feel of the lobby simply felt …wrong in an “uh- oh” way). The very methodical roll of basic credit information gave an added sense of impatience, a feeling that this promo was in charge, it would give me the necessary information as it wanted to, not as how I expected that it should. As the credit roll finished, a slow motion small but ever increasing wave of very convincing looking blood began to shoot out of the UNOPENED elevator doors, left side first quickly joined by the right, so the two sides crashed into each other and began sloshing violently around the room, shooting onto walls actually pushing the lobby furniture around toward the camera as the powerful wave doused the lens, giving the audience a blood red view of disruption. For some reason, I had the immediate sensation that something had gotten out of, or was expectorated from this place. Then the same Peacock Blue simple letters THE SHINING appeared as the waves of…whatever began to settle.
I was breathless, at first even speechless – I turned to my 3 friends seated on my right, and they were all slowly shaking their heads no, with looks of honest fear on their faces. The sold-out theater immediately began to buzz with nervous giggles and quiet comments. I think I sorta gasped out “dude that’s not even in the book…” which none of them had read – damn I needed my bat-shit crazy NYC buds there, I KNEW they’d be dying!
When I got back to New York and my collage cine-club, to redeem myself a bit, the only way I could get off of the “duuuude, how dare you see the trailer first” train, was to let them know sitting through STAR TREK was about as enjoyable as a dental appointment (poor Robert Wise, how the MIGHTY had fallen – this is the man who gave us WEST SIDE STORY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE HAUNTING and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL). Yeppers, that trailer was far and away the only enjoyable cinematic experience that evening. Seeing the STAR TREK film felt (for me) as long as watching every episode of the television series back to back…Happy Fucking Birthday Daniel.
Which brings me to the true focus of this article (aside from the fact that my editor is savvy enough to know there are so many films in this genre that haven’t been touched upon and honestly should be. Hence the creation of the VINTAGE version of TVFTTP.) THE SHINING was one of the first batch of “event” horror films, joining the likes of JAWS, THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN, ALIEN and XANADU (sorry folks a little 1980 RAZZIES humor there) which were considered “must see” for the social and cultural significance, as much as their Artistic value.
Upon a recent revisit – I had not seen it since it’s opening day release on June 13, 1980. Several issues came to mind, and I’m going to be, perhaps a bit embarrassingly honest with you my friends. I truly hope you’ll understand where my 58-year point of view is coming from – and continue to read TVFTTP, remembering discussing elements of any Art form is a very, very subjective thing.
First of all, the opening section of the score of THE SHINING (by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind) is seriously some of the most atmospheric, mood establishing, genuinely scary music I’ve ever heard in a film. It’s one of the things I remembered from seeing the film on opening day in 1980. Accompanied with John Alcott’s (the miracle worker who that same year made a fairly low budget, but very good Jamie Lee Curtis one set horror film, TERROR TRAIN look magnificent) completely mind f*****g cinematography (airplane? helicopter?) I dunno, but the way it thrusts the opening visuals “at you, not for you” but does it so smoothly you’re completely unsettled by something that, filmed and scored differently, would be “lovely” and you’re not sure why, makes for a great opening sequence. The tracking of a vehicle traveling on mountain roads is shot from angels that make it, and therefore it’s human content, look as insignificant as an insect – the fact that the vehicle turns out to be a VW Bug, was not lost on me.
Which brings me to an important point. This film has had such a galvanizing divisive effect on Cine-buffs for so long, it’s been analyzed, theorized, tracking shots low and high, tunnels and mazes and dissected and put back together that researching it got to the point where I thought “**** this, I’m gonna talk about the film’s experience for me. No need for mysteriously moving light switches, camera angles, perspective shots and set structure done in a way that in reality couldn’t work, the use of the letter T in design so often it’s a bit over the top, once you realize it’s there. One of my caveats is (unlike, say Chris Stuckmann, the Paul Rudd look alike critic I really enjoy who takes a very “film school technical” look at films) I go to and then discuss with you a Cine-fan’s enjoyments, disappointments and how much more rather than “HOW” films affect me. I love imagery, visual storytelling, symbolic and metaphoric movies, I have favorite directors, but try to go to each film with an open mind and heart, ready to “take the ride.” Otherwise save your ten bucks for Arby’s, I don’t need some arms folded slumped in the seat moron saying “go ahead just try and entertain me, I dare ya!”
Nowadays young film goers are so technically informed and advanced, they seem to require information, technically knowledgeable, non-theorized, literal, narrative information. Knowing which starship contained what equipment is not nearly as important to me as the visuals of said starship’s internal or external movements, the lighting and creation of the space it’s floating in, etc. With films like PROMETHEUS or ALIEN COVENANT verses say ALIEN 1 & 2, I find the former more like a science class where information and the latter cinematic entertainment.
THE SHINING was so at odds with itself in this area. Kubrick’s well known continuity and technical switcheroos, done for his need to keep filmgoers completely challenged and looking for signature mind****s, don’t interest me in anyway near the effect of a solid script, layered motivated characters, visual storytelling (not psychological mess with you for no real reason smoke and mirrors) all of which Kubrick’s signature elements kept getting in the way of my having a fully enjoyable cinematic experience.
The fact that Nicholson seemed to be (over) playing a man half mad from the start, instead of giving us a character slowly revealing damage enough to go where and when (I feel) Jack Torrance ends up, makes for some almost nonsensical scenery chewing. Shelley Duvall whose natural add energies has her Wendy coming off as an unfocused wisp who is desperately looking for a character and motivation (is the fact that she’s so incredibly vapid the only reason she’s staying with this “not playing with a full deck” joker? (yeah, I said it).
By the time this 2:20 plus confusion of style verses substance is over, we have had such an incredible amounts of pan in to full screen mugging from each of the four central characters, I think if cut together in succession, they would be a hoot.
Not to say the film doesn’t have its interesting and some very effective moments. Three performances were for the most part, quite good. Phillip Stone as an entity of former evils at the hotel, completely steals a key scene in a blood red bathroom away from Nicholson by doing everything right that at his worst Nicholson is doing wrong. Scatman Crothers playing a fellow Shine-er who connects with Nicholson and Duval’s son Danny, brings charm and subtlety (something this film is sadly short on, as well as many legitimate scares) to his sacrificial lamb role of Halloran. Then there’s Danny Lloyd as Danny – the young boy with the ability to see past and future images through an invisible friend Tony, who he says lives in his mouth, but hides in his stomach. I remember reading about the extensive nationwide search to find an actor to take on this incredibly challenging role. Whatever it took, it was more than worth it. Mr. Lloyd is a fascinating screen presence with delivery, technical and especially phenomenal reactionary skills. In my opinion he finds the true simplifying thread of horror (slender as it may be) that weaves this “could’ve/should’ve” been the classic so many people feel that it is. I. J. S.