Filler content with films

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #52 as the first part of feature on books focused on horror films:-


STANLEY KUBRICK’S THE SHINING: STUDIES IN THE HORROR FILM (Centipede Press pb, 752pp, $35) has the distinction of being the largest book I’ve read in years, a huge doorstop of a thing that tells you everything you wanted to know about Kubrick’s film of the King novel and yet at the end paradoxically leaves the reader thinking that this is only the iceberg tip of what’s to be learnt. An obvious labour of love on the part of editor Danel Olson, ten years in the making, the book is lavishly illustrated with stills from the film, on set photographs of the cast and crew, and more quirky items such as make-up artist Tom Smith’s evocative line drawings of Kubrick, Nicholson, Duvall, and other luminaries, plus reproductions of pages from the script and notes made by Kubrick and others.

Filmmaker Lee Unkrich provides an introduction, his words encapsulating our feelings about the film and why it continues to be a source of fascination some thirty five years after its release, after which we get into the book proper. Editor Olson organises the material into three main sections, the first of which consists of a series of eleven essays on various aspects of the production, each written by an expert in the field, and each carefully annotated with details of the sources and suggestions for further reading. Olson seems to have approached the project with the eye of an anthologist, reprinting the best of past criticism, sometimes revised especially for this book, along with a selection of new and previously unpublished works.

John Baxter opens proceedings with ‘Kubrick in Hell’, providing a context for much of what follows, detailing the director’s personal situation at the time in the wake of the commercial failure of Barry Lyndon, the factors that led Kubrick to decide on the adaptation of a popular horror novel as his next project, and an overview of the making of the film itself. In ‘The Overlook Hotel’ Paul Mayersberg looks briefly at some of the ideas and themes in the film, and examines the techniques used in expressing them. ‘Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Adaptation: The Shining’ by Greg Jenkins details author Stephen King’s dissatisfaction with the film, his feeling that it strayed too far from his intentions in writing the book, before going on to compare book and film, categorising the differences in fact and emphasis, and arguing strongly that the film should be judged on its own merits and flaws, not simply for its faithfulness to the source text. Dennis Bingham gives us ‘The Displaced Auteur: A Reception History of The Shining’, examining auteur theory in film criticism and how Kubrick fit the template, the legend that had sprung up around the director and the expectations it gave rise to, and how these conflicted with the commercial aspirations of a studio needing a bottom line predicated on bums on seats and a public simply wanting to be entertained. Tony Magistrale in ‘Sutured Time: History and Kubrick’s The Shining’ returns to the subject of King’s dissatisfaction with the film, being somewhat less charitable to the author’s point of view than Jenkins was, before moving on to the gist of his thesis, that the film’s protagonist Jack Torrance is a man who becomes unstuck in time, moving into the 1920s, the era of the hotel’s ghosts, and that it is nostalgia for these simpler times that is his Achilles’ Heel, that his existence in such a milieu is far more appealing to Torrance’s ego than making a go of it with his family in the modern world.

In ‘Midnight, the Stars, and You’ Christine Gengaro gives her own overview of the film and its reception, before moving on to a detailed examination of the soundtrack, detailing the reasoning behind certain choices and showing how the tonal landscape was carefully shaped to complement the mood and imagery of the film. Bernice M. Murphy in ‘”You Mean They Ate Each Other Up?” The Shining as Windigo Story’ seizes on a reference to the Donner Party in the film and other references to cannibalism to argue at length her “contention that Jack Torrance’s descent into murderous insanity dramatizes one of the most powerful fears in Native American folk lore: the terror of ‘Going Windigo’”. Joseph Bruchac has a similar reading in ‘Frozen Hearts: An Indigenous View of The Shining’ using an aside about the Overlook being built on an Indian burial ground as the starting point for an examination of the way Native Americans have been robbed by the white man, widening his net to also take in King’s other work Pet Sematary in which the theme is more overtly presented. One of the more challenging pieces, as its title might suggest, ‘Archaeologies of Hauntings: Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis in The Shining’ sees Dylan Trigg take an intriguing look at the way in which time is used in the film and the elements of ambiguity this introduces. King expert Bev Vincent gives us one of the most fascinating essays with ‘The Genius Fallacy: The Shining’s Hidden Meanings’, looking at what, for want of a better term, I shall call the Room 237 phenomenon (Room 237 is a 2012 documentary film by Rodney Ascher that claimed to find a wealth of hidden meanings in Kubrick’s film). Vincent amiably punctures most of these conspiracy theorist ponderings, showing how often there are very simple explanations behind stuff that gets inflated into the work of the illuminati or similar groups. Finally editor Olson gets in on the act with an essay discussing the influence of The Shining and Kubrick on the oeuvre of another film maker specialising in the fantastic, Guillermo del Toro.

After a visual intermission, a selection of full page reproductions of movie posters from around the world, hinting at how the film was marketed globally, we move into the second half of the book, and two sections of interviews with cast and crew members. As with the essays, some of the interviews have been published previously, while others are appearing for the first time, with Olson, Justin Bozung, and Catriona McAvoy doing the interrogatory honours, and as well as being interviewed by Bozung, second unit director Greg McGillivray contributes an essay titled ‘Stanley Kubrick Remembered’, a very personal reminiscence.

The cast interviews are comprehensive, with even Lia Beldam who appeared briefly as the ghost of Room 237 getting to provide her input. Only Danny Lloyd who took the role of the child Danny Torrance is conspicuous by his absence, with all the other players contributing their thoughts on Kubrick and the film, how they got involved and what was required of them by the director. I might even quibble that there’s a bit of overkill here – Lisa and Louise Burns as the Grady twins might have provided one of the film’s iconic images, but fascinating as their reminiscences are I’m not sure that we needed to have them interviewed twice.

Again, with the crew the interviews range far and wide, touching on the search for a suitable location, writing the script, lighting, special effects, pioneering use of a Steadicam, the sound mix, and just about every other aspect of a film’s production that you can think of (but, at this particular moment, I can’t). One thing that struck me in particular was that a not especially complimentary picture of Kubrick emerges reading between the lines of some of these interviews. While most praise the director for his devotion to his craft, and willingness to take on board the ideas of others, and admit that he was somebody they enjoyed working with and learned a lot from, there are a few dissenting voices, though in the main from those who got on the director’s bad side, with talk of his penny pinching, occasional vindictiveness, and generally autocratic manner. In particular, though she herself appears to have had no complaint, or at least doesn’t express herself forcefully on the subject, his treatment of actress Shelley Duvall, as reported by others, which involved breaking her down psychologically to get the required performance, struck me as borderline misogyny. Contrarily, Diane Johnson who worked with Kubrick on the script appears to have had no problems with him at all, while the Burns twins, who were children at the time, recall that the director was especially solicitous of their wellbeing while on set. In the circumstances it’s hard to say if such behaviour was typical of Kubrick or just an isolated incident as regards Duvall, but either way it taints the man’s reputation.

In summing up, if you’ve any interest in Kubrick at all, or in The Shining, then this beautifully produced book is essential reading and offers some remarkable insights into one of the major works of horror cinema.

Director George A. Romero probably doesn’t merit auteur status, but to those of us who love horror films and the zombie subgenre in particular he will always have a special place in our hearts. His 1968 release Night of the Living Dead was one of the genre’s seminal films and put zombies at the very centre of horror cinema where they have remained ever since, slouching round shopping malls and munching on bones, calling for brains and moaning like wannabe punk rockers.

Night was the first film in a trilogy, and it’s with the third offering that Lee Karr concerns himself in THE MAKING OF GEORGE A. ROMERO’S DAY OF THE DEAD (Plexus pb, 224pp, £16.99), a volume that, if not quite as comprehensive as the Olson book discussed above, and with a somewhat different slant, imparts a wealth of information about Romero’s work. Again, it’s a beautifully produced book, with a treasure trove of colour and black & white photographs accompanying the text, the outsize format making presentation of the visual aspects of the work all the more effective. In addition to portraits of the principles, stills from the film, pictures of zombie make-up being applied and other special effects, and more than enough full on zombie photos to warm the heart of the most omnivorous of gore hounds, there are reproduction posters and examples of memorabilia. Perhaps the most intriguing and original item is Tommy, Dearest, a ten page “comic created by Pat Tantalo and Derek Devoe about the pre-production make-up effects process under Tom Savini”, here reproduced in its entirety.

The book opens with a brief introduction by multiple award winning sfx maestro and Walking Dead executive producer Greg Nicotero, whose own career in the industry began when he lucked into a job on Day of the Dead working under Tom Savini. Then we get a preface by writer Lee Karr detailing his own history with the film, a love for the work bordering on obsession that eventually led him to write this book and how, in turn, that effected and enriched his life, helping him through troubled times. While the Olson has an academic and critical slant, Karr’s mission statement is “to write a book that I, myself, as a fan, would want to read about the making of this film”, and that’s certainly an aim he succeeds in splendidly.

The two opening chapters detail the background to the making of the film, the history of the trilogy, the commercial and critical success of the previous films, how the financing for the third entry was raised, details of scouting for locations and assembling cast and crew. After that we get the long third chapter, longer than all the others put together in fact, that forms the spine of the book, “a diary of each day of shooting for the production”. Reading this it’s possible to discover what took place on each day of the fifty six day shoot, what was filmed and when, what other stuff was going on with the cast and crew. For anyone interested in learning how a film is made, the pure mechanics of filmmaking when all the other vital elements have been slotted into place, this is a document of consuming interest. And then we get two short chapters dealing with the editing of the film and its eventual release, the popular and critical reception afforded Romero’s latest work. Karr closes the book with a chapter reflecting on what’s happened since, the abiding appeal of the film and its critical rehabilitation, the popularity of the cast on the convention circuit and some of the more troubling financial aspects.

It is, first and foremost, a fanboy work. While Karr might have some quibbles over certain individuals, and certainly doesn’t gloss over the frictions that arose during the making of the film, he comes to praise Dawn not to bury it, and his attitude to Romero borders on worship. One thing that emerges is that the actual film, regardless of how successful we feel it to be, was just a shadow of the monumental work Romero planned and then had to cut back on thanks to budget restraints. As regards the latter, David Ball was brought in as co-producer with responsibility for ensuring that the creatives didn’t overspend, and recalls how, from being the bad guy (Mr. Asshole, he refers to himself as), he won the grudging respect of the crew and they came to appreciate that, in its own way, controlling the business side of things is every bit as much a talent as all the other aspects of filmmaking (it’s an interesting perspective and one that often doesn’t get taken into consideration as we place the blame on studio pen pushers and bean counters for putting their bottom line ahead of everything else). Ball states of Romero “‘he wouldn’t know how much a trolley full of supermarket shopping would cost’”. Fortunately Ball was there with the corporate credit card to itemise all the purchases and clip the coupons. Karr also seems to have got on well with the members of the cast he spoke to, with a surfeit of anecdotes on offer, along with thoughts on their various roles, and how they could perform them well. Inevitably there were one or two who thought that acting in a horror film was beneath them, and it’s interesting to see how this sort of prejudice was reconciled with the need to do the best they could with the material.

Reading the book it becomes apparent that this was a shoot on which the old adage about working hard and playing hard was never more true. Several people speak about the rigorous demands of the shoot, both physical and mental, with the former exacerbated by working in the hot house environs of the Wampum Mine. For much of the book the focus is on the special effects team, whose members specialise in pulling irons out of fires and catering to the exigencies of the director’s latest good idea. It comes across as very much a “by the skin of their teeth” exercise in creative problem solving. Against this, the effects team under the leadership of clown prince Tom Savini seem to have taken the lead in boosting morale primarily through the means of practical jokes, at their own expense and that of the other teams making the film. Karr records several stunts that come across as highly amusing, and in at least one case extremely hazardous. The camaraderie and esprit de corps of these people is never in doubt, whatever the problems they have with each other on occasion.

This is a very different book to the Olson volume, but in its way every bit as rewarding. To paraphrase what I said above, if you’re at all interested in zombie cinema or the work of one of the most inspirational directors in the horror genre, or even if you simply want to get an insider’s view of what takes place when making a horror film, this eminently accessible book should prove an invaluable resource.


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2 Responses to Filler content with films

  1. Pingback: More filler content with films | Trumpetville

  2. Pingback: On Arrival | Bev Vincent

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