Thursday, October 27, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #8 - Jack Torrance

I'm probably more familiar with The Shining than any other movie. I've seen it at least 100 times, read multiple books about Stanley Kubrick and the film, watched Vivian Kubrick's Making "The Shining" at least 5 times, read every possible review and interpretation of the film I can get my hands on and had countless discussions and debates about the film's possible meanings and whether it's better than Stephen King's book. I got excited earlier this year when someone posted a British TV ad from 1980 that had an alternate take of the "Here's Johnny" scene. I seriously thought about calling out of work and driving 6 hours to Rochester, NY to see what was advertised as a screening of the movie including the original, deleted ending (before they corrected their advertising - it was the 142-minute U.S. cut). If I ever ended up in the colony from the ending of Fahrenheit 451, but a colony to recite films instead of books, I would be The Shining.

So I thought a great deal about the many things that are frightening and effective about The Shining before deciding which character would represent the film here before realizing it would have to be Jack Torrance himself. After all, the Grady twins, the woman in room 237, the "WTF?" guy in a bear costume and every other ghost that resides in the Overlook is arguably conjured by Jack's tortured psyche and his tense relationship with his wife Wendy and their son Danny. To say that Jack Nicholson overacts in the role, or that Jack Torrance is crazy to begin with, is to miss the point, which is that the true horror of the movie is watching Jack's already-fragile mind slowly unravel. It's the greatest example in cinema of the movie's location mirroring the interior life of its protagonist.

The creepiest scene in the entire movie is simply Jack, with Danny on his lap, telling his son how much he loves him and looking like he could snap the boy's neck at any moment. In Kubrick's Overlook, evil is not an external supernatural force - it's something we all have the capacity for, and the Overlook's ghosts are a reflection of Jack's capacity for malevolence. Consider how easily he accepts the presence of ghosts in the Gold Room, or how, when he's talking to Grady's ghost, Nicholson's eyeline indicates he is actually talking into a mirror (volumes could be and have been written about the film's uses of mirrors and doubles). And when he snaps - raging at Wendy about the meaning of a contract, smashing through a locked bathroom door like the big bad wolf he's become and gradually devolving into a murderous animal - Jack's transformation is as startling as Regan McNeil's, and without any special effects. By the end, he's become one with the hotel and its murderous past - Jack and the Overlook's ghosts are one and the same. He's not a victim of the hotel; he's the caretaker, and he always has been.

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