When shivers came from what you didn't see
Whatever happened to ghost stories? I don't mean bloody, overboiled horrors like "Dawn of the Dead" and "Carrie." I'm talking about the atmospheric chillers of old, where the shivers often came from what you didn'tm see. You know -- good, creepy fun. Not banal brutality.
The best of the classic fantasy films combined spooky effects with credible characters and believable situations. Violence was often held to a minimum, which made the mood all the more ominous. Some filmmakers still try this approach but can't seem to pull it off. John Carpenter wanted "The Fog" to work entirely by indirect means, but lost the rhythm of it, and started throwing in R-rated shocks to boost the impact of the tale.
For my money, the worst disappointment of the year is "The Shining." What a picture that could have been: a modern ghost yarn with an excellent cast, directed by master technician Stanley Kubrick. Yet the result is a bore, sometimes gratuitously violent, and lacking logic as well as chills. Other current thrillers, such as "Friday the 13th" and the widely praised "Dressed to Kill," have similar problems and are even more messed up in the taste department.
Has Hollywood -- and Kubrick, its leading expatriate -- simply lost the knack? It's worth taking a look at "The Shining," if only to find out how Kubrick, Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and $18 million could have struck out so resoundingly.
The basic story, borrowed from Stephen King's novel, is promising. A little boy can "shine" -- that is, read minds and discern distant events. The trouble, is he's only five years old, and he often doesn't understand the vibes picked up by his ESP antenna. What's more, his father has personality problems that are barely under control, while his mother is something of a cipher. To cap it off, this threesome is isolated in a vacant hotel that's haunted by a whole army of spooks.
In any good ghost story there's a simple basic secret. We have to care about the characters -- care so much that we go into a tizzy every time one of them wanders down a dark corridor. This is where Kubrick flunks out entirely. He cares about his lenses, his camera angles, and his tracking shots, which are brilliant, to be sure.
But the people in the story? They could be rats in a laboratory maze. In fact, Kubrick has added a maze to the tale, and he traps his characters there as if they were specimens whose quaint behavior could now be objectively studied.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Kubrick has always been an ice-cold filmmaker."2001: A Space Odyssey" is one of the greatest movies ever made, but it's also one of the most frozen. And nobody has ever accused "Dr. Strangelove, " "A Clockwork Orange," or even "Barry Lyndon" of warming hearts. In his science-fiction films, Kubrick gets away with this approach because the subjects themselves have a hard, metallic ring. But in "The Shining" he gives us a chilly chiller. And if he doesn't feel for his heroes, why should we?
Stephen King, author of the "Shining" novel agrees.
"Kubrick's direction is good," he told me recently, "but it's heartless. Technically the movie is flawless, and the acting is great, but it's not very scarey."
According to the story line, the Nicholson character is driven mad by the hotel, and starts menacing his wife and son. But says King, "he seems crazy from the beginning. I wanted to see an early scene where he takes the kid on his lap, gives him a kiss, a says, 'I love you, Danny.' Instead, the movie begins in a Volkswagen, where Nicholson regales the family with a story about cannibals. Kubrick has a very cold sensibility."
That sums it up. Coldness and heartlessness are undermining today's suspense movies. Like "The Shining," Brian De Palma's "Dressed to Kill" contains all kinds of cinematic virtuosity. But there's nothing substantial at the core, and the style is a disconnected hodgepodge.Two different times, De Palma leads us on with lurid scenes of sex or violence, and then tells us "it was all a dream." That gimmick was considered a cop-out decades ago, and De Palma trys it twice in one movie! These days, a thrill is a thrill, however cheap.
In the circumstances, it's encouraging to hear that King, for all his lapses into verbal violence and vulgarity, cares about the "morality" of his suspense stories. Though parts of his books have enough mayhem and four- letter language to ruin them for many readers, he claims his basic intentions are honorable. "I like to put characters in a difficult situation, and let them stand up to it," he says. "It's most interesting when the devil doesn'tm win out. . . . Updike once said he never killed a character lightly, and I feel the same way."
King also believes that "it's up to the writer to tell the whole story as he sees it, and if he keeps the right and wrong in the front of his mind, the reader will pick it up. It's immoral to do things just for effect; that's pandering." Paradoxically, King admits that his books are sometimes roughly violent, and he grants that violence can be "brutalizing" to audiences. "But I try to balance it off with a dose of nobility," he says, claiming that at heart his books are "Christian novels" that use terrifying situations as a vehicle for showing the basic triumph of right over wrong.
This is important, because for better or worse, King (a would-be filmmaker himself) is becoming a major influence in the movies. His book "The Stand" about an apocalyptic confrontation between armies of good and evil, will soon be filmed by George A. Romero, who also plans to direct a King screen play called "Creep Show." Another book of his -- about a telepath who foils an evil politician, "The Dead Zone" -- will be motion-picturized by Sidney Pollack, of "Electric Horseman" fame. And his latest, "Firestarter," has already been snapped up by a movie company. It remains to be seen whether a sense of morality and humanity will rise to the surface of these future films, or whether such considerations will be smothered in gore and cheap shock effects.