Carrie versus The Shining (movie edition)


The Shining (1980)

***Note: the following discussion contains spoilers for the movies Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980).

I recently reviewed Stephen King’s classic horror novel The Shining and in that discussion I take a closer look at Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version versus King’s book. I love the movie – always have – but I can also plainly see its flaws and where it becomes an entirely different story than the one King wrote. In many ways, The Shining is a brilliant film, but in many ways it fails as an adaptation.


Carrie (1976)

Today I want to look a little more closely at another famous King adaptation – Brian De Palma’s Carrie. But rather than compare it to King’s book, I want to see how it stacks up against Kubrick’s acclaimed cinema masterpiece. For a lot of film fanatics, critics and horror fans, Kubrick’s The Shining is the superior movie, a stylistic work of genius that fairly vibrates with terror and suffocates the viewer with its unsettling and provocative atmosphere. I’m here to convince you however, that based on three criteria, Carrie is actually the better film and by far my personal favorite.

1. Acting
Scene for scene Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie deliver brilliant performances that far surpass what the indomitable Jack Nicholson offers and his weird and wacky counterpart Shelley Duvall. Jack is Jack. Jack is always Jack. His performance in The Shining is not all that different from what audiences watched him do just a few years previous in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Enjoyable yes. Memorable certainly. Worth parodying always. Yet, paling in comparison.

Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek | Carrie (1976)

Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek | Carrie (1976)

Spacek and Laurie are practically Method in their approach to their roles — becoming Carrie and her religiously zealous mother. Nicholson on the other hand almost can’t stop himself from hamming it up and goofing around. His performance is so over the top in parts to merit laughter rather than awe or fear. Simply put, Spacek and Laurie become other people — Jack doesn’t ever stop being Jack (Nicholson that is) and in my mind, fails to ever become Jack Torrence.

2. Memorable Scenes
Both films have memorable scenes, or we wouldn’t still be watching them and talking about them this many years later. There’s no doubt that Kubrick was a cinematic genius and that he composed his shots like an artist. Every prop, every angle — everything meant something. Kubrick directs The Shining with an acute hyper-awareness where “the look” of the film is as important, if not more important, than what’s going on in the story and between the characters. It makes for a visually stunning experience, but it’s also a very technical and cold approach to the art of storytelling.

De Palma’s Carrie is the exact opposite. He is telling the story of a young girl who is tormented by bullies, relentlessly abused by her domineering, mentally unstable mother, and terrified of her psychic powers. It is an emotional story, told with great sensitivity. De Palma wants to shock us, and scare the crap out of us, but he also wants us to feel empathy and sorrow at the tragedy of Carrie White’s short life. There is no empathy or sorrow in The Shining — there is no sense of tragedy. While King’s novel is rife with it, Kubrick has other cinematic goals to achieve with his movie that excludes the emotional in favor of the visceral and cerebral.

Memorable scenes The Shining:
1. Danny cycling the Overlook’s maze-like hallways until he encounters the Grady twins.
2. Jack entering Room 237 – the old woman in the bathtub.
3. Wendy finds out that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
4. Heeeere’s Johnny! – axing through the bathroom door

Memorable scenes Carrie:
1. The opening shower scene – Plug it up! Plug it up! Plug it up!
2. Eve was weak!
3. The dropping of the bucket of pig’s blood
4. Carrie crucifies her mother with kitchen utensils.

All of these scenes are memorable, but for me the more memorable and satisfying are the scenes from Carrie because they are so emotionally loaded, not just scenes relying exclusively on primal shock and terror. I wasn’t just scared out of my mind by the end of Carrie, I was overwhelmed with sadness too.

shining frozen

Jack’s frozen corpse after a night  in the hedge maze.

carrie grave

Carrie’s bloody hand reaching up out of the grave.

3. Shock ending
Speaking of shock and terror, as shock endings go Carrie has The Shining beat here as well. Jack running around in the dark in the maze during a blizzard and then the quick shot of him the next morning frozen to death simply can’t compare to Sue Snell’s dreamy walk to Carrie’s graveside and as she places the flowers the bloody hand shooting up out of the ground to grab her by the arm. That’s an ending to make you scream.

According to Stephen King: “When that hand comes out of the grave… Man, I thought I was going to shit in my pants.” Even in his ending, Kubrick can’t resist going for the cerebral, ambiguous final shot of the portrait hanging in the Overlook dated 1921 with Jack smiling in a tux. What the hell? Whatever the itchy questions this raises, what it doesn’t do is stop your heart in stark, cold terror and make you sleep with the light on that night.

In an interview Stephen King goes on to further elaborate about seeing Carrie for the first time and that shock ending:

The first time I saw Carrie with an audience they previewed it about a week and a half before Halloween….The theatre was entirely full of black people. We looked like two little grains of salt in a pepper shaker, and we thought: This audience is just going to rate the hell out of this picture. What are they going to think about a skinny little white girl with her menstrual problems? And that’s the way it started, and then, little by little, they got on her side….These two guys were talking behind us, and we were listening to them, and at the end they’re putting on their coats and getting ready to leave. Suddenly this hand comes up, and these two big guys screamed along with everyone else, and one of them goes, “That’s it! That’s it! She ain’t never gonna be right!” And I knew it was going to be a hit.

Stephen King

Stephen King

He wasn’t wrong. Carrie was a hit and earned both Spacek and Laurie Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading and Supporting Role respectively. It’s been almost thirty years, and I can still watch this movie and be profoundly unsettled by it. Even after repeated viewings, it still has the power to scare me and I jump, no matter what, when that bloody hand comes shooting up out of the grave. Even though my mind is expecting it, my body is a slave to the involuntary startle reflex.

The Shining on the other hand, no longer has the power to really scare me. After repeated viewings, Nicholson’s  exaggerated performance doesn’t hold up. Now it’s as if he’s parodying himself. While I still enjoy it, I can no longer sit through The Shining and forget I’m watching a movie. I watch it for technique now, appreciating Kubrick’s rich cinematic canvas. The Shining is a technically perfect film, but it has no heart. I would argue that De Palma’s Carrie is all heart, an emotional experience that is only enhanced by the director’s imagination and empathy for his subject.

Some final thoughts:
Since my feelings for De Palma’s Carrie are so very strong, I have little to no interest in seeing the impending remake starring Julianne Moore as Mrs. White. When the original performances are that vivid and remarkable, any attempt to catch lightning in a bottle twice is bound to fail miserably. The risk of it coming across as a cheap imitation is too great. It may look more modern and slick, but that doesn’t mean it will be a better movie. So why remake it at all if you can’t improve upon the original? I would feel just as strongly if somebody tried to remake Spielberg’s JAWS. I’m not anti-remake, but I do believe there are certain films that need to be exempt, and Carrie is definitely one of those for me.


Revisiting one of King’s most memorable characters

Dolores Claiborne ★★★★★
Stephen King
Viking, 1992

Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to.
~Dolores Claiborne

DoloresClaiborneNovelMeet Dolores Claiborne — island woman, mother of three, murderess and overall high-riding bitch. And I love her! She is strength and smarts and dignity personified and in my opinion, one of the most vivid and memorable literary creations ever to walk the pages of any book. I don’t say that lightly. Yes I’m a fan, yes I’m gushing, but this is also a more tempered, critical evaluation after living with her existence these many years. She has stood the test of time and I have no doubt she will continue to do so long after her creator has passed.

Arguably one of Stephen King’s most underrated and dismissed works, Dolores Claiborne remains for me one of his best and most literary novels. The first-person narrative voice is brilliantly executed, the island dialect ringing true, the rhythm of the language making the sense of place so vibrant and tangible. The reading experience is only enhanced by the audio version (which I highly recommend).

Bringing nothing but his A-game, King delves into the life of a poor, uneducated, island woman, who marries young and gets to repent in leisure. I love this story so much because not only does it capture small town life and a woman’s place in it, but also the unshakeable bonds of friendship that can be forged like steel between women, and the ferocious love a mother feels for her children.

In her awesome review, Catie puts it this way:

This book is a powerful and naked look at mother-love, at how desperate, intense, and all-consuming it really is….But mainly this is the story of an unlikely alliance between two hard talkin’, high riding bitches; two women from very different walks of life who find that they have a similar core of bitter strength.

At its heart, this is a book about a desperate woman who is driven to a very desperate act. It is a crime novel built around a detailed confession that’s so urgent, so immediate, the story sucks you in like quicksand and does not want to let go. This is not a horror novel, but there are a few moments of unadulterated suspense and terror that had my heart jack-rabbiting in my chest. [When Dolores returns to the well and Joe has nearly succeeded in climbing out and grabs her ankle, I just about screamed and threw the book across the room! When you have to do such a dirty deed, you want it to happen as fast and clean as possible. It could not have turned out more ugly and terrifying for Dolores and is it any wonder she imagines Joe’s face grinning out at her from behind the wheels of Vera’s wheelchair on the day of Vera’s death? (hide spoiler)]

Dolores Claiborne is not the only high-riding bitch in this story, there is also Ms. Vera Donovan, her contrary, vitriolic employer who explains the facts of life thusly: “Husbands die every day Dolores. Why, one is probably dying right now while you’re sitting here weeping….An accident can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.” Dolores and Vera make an unlikely pair, but over the years they cleave to one another in an unexpected, unforgettable friendship that runs dark and deep.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Taking another look at The Shining

The Shining ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Stephen King
Doubleday, 1977

Jack Torrence thought: officious little prick

**Note: I chose not to put this review behind a spoiler tag. Below I discuss both the book and the movie assuming if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with both.

shiningEven though Stephen King’s primary reputation has been ‘America’s boogeyman’, I can count on one hand the number of pure horror novels I feel he’s published (and they all come early in his career) — ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, It, Misery and of course, The Shining. King is most famous as master of the macabre, but fans know he is also a keen observer of human behavior and emotions. He knows what makes us tick, and he’s just as likely to make us laugh and cry as he is to scream. These five books? These he wrote to make us scream – and shiver, and look over our shoulder, peek under our bed, bar the closet door, and leave the lights on. He wrote them – to put it bluntly – to scare the shit out of us.

His tale of the doomed Torrence family and the sinister Overlook Hotel is in many ways a classic ghost story with its roots firmly planted in Gothic literature, Anne Radcliffe, Henry James and Edgar Allen Poe. More than these however, King is clearly writing under the influence of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson’s Hell House. The notion of a malevolent house, seething from within with awareness and intent, was far from virgin territory by the time King came to it in the 1970’s. Yet, King brought his own distinct brand of terror to the table and the result has left an indelible mark on not just the genre, but on contemporary literature.

Is The Shining scary? You’re goddamn right it is. And I think I never really thought about how scary until I listened to the audiobook. Actor Campbell Scott does an outstanding job, and like all the best ghost stories going all the way back to caveman times, this one is meant to be told, you kennit? Not merely read – but listened to — surrounded by darkness, hunched around a dwindling fire. There are tropes and themes embedded in The Shining that penetrate to the very lizard part of our brain where fear and anxiety make their home.the-shining


Stephen King tackles time travel and the assassination of an American President

11/22/63 ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Stephen King
Simon & Schuster, 2011

The past is obdurate for the same reason a turtle’s shell is obdurate: because the living flesh inside is tender and defenseless. ~11/22/63

112263I may be a mad dog fan of Stephen King, but that doesn’t mean everything he writes gets me foaming at the mouth. Over the years there have been disappointments — but this book is not one of them. I would rank King’s foray into time travel and historical fiction as a rousing, emotional, unforgettable success for in it he is doing what King does when writing at his absolute best – create an epic, original story arc that grips the reader with a serious case of “the gottas” (as in, I gotta know what’s going to happen next) and people it with richly drawn characters with unique pasts and motivations that empower them to walk right off the page.

Kennedy’s assassination may not be THE shot heard round the world, but it definitely qualifies as one of them. For those Americans who lived through it (and other interested observers from afar) it became one of those watershed moments in history (where were you when it happened?) Not just because a President was murdered in cold blood (a rare event if there ever was one), but because he was the youngest President, a father of two small children with a beautiful wife, cut down in the prime of his life. Kennedy carried a mystique around him as a tall, handsome, capable man who was going to steer America into the horizon of a happy ending. He had his detractors (no doubt about that) and those who felt he robbed Nixon of the 1960 election, but his obvious charisma and charm garnered him an equal amount of support and admiration as well.

His death shocked millions and left a generation of supporters to wonder what if? What if Kennedy had lived? It’s easy to build someone into a hero and a saint after they have died too young. It happens all the time. When it happens to a man such as Kennedy? That myth-building starts immediately and never ceases. The “walk on water” Christ mythology that sprouted up around Kennedy since his assassination definitely exists. Baby boomers like to believe that had he lived he could have saved an entire generation, but that’s just wishful thinking. Kennedy was just a man. Not a saint or a miracle worker. He had his flaws and shortcomings like anyone else. Yet the temptation to believe an America where Kennedy had lived would be a better America persists to this day, and King, being the master storyteller that he is, taps into that long held dogma and runs with it as only he can.

At the heart of this story is the sexy question: if you could change history, would you? Should you? It’s nothing but hubris and complete folly to assume that the changes you wrought would guarantee something better. There are no guarantees in this life except for one: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. King is taking one of his country’s watershed moments – the Kennedy assassination – and sending an unassuming English teacher back in time carrying all the “good intentions” in the world. Jake Epping has a mission and his heart is filled with the certainty that what he is doing is the right thing. Such a man can be a fool, a hero, or very dangerous. At his most influential, such a man will be all three.


Stephen King, vampires and the American West

American Vampire, Vol. 1 ★★★★

by Scott Snyder

Formula for Success:
Stephen King +
Scary-ass, blood-thirsty vampires +
Bone-chilling, full-color graphic illustrations = Awesome

Steve Niles rocked my world with 30 Days of Night – those vampires kick ass. I was actually really pleased with the movie too. I love how Niles re-imagines the vampire, stealing it back from the trashy, paranormal bodice rippers! For far too long vampires have been distinguished aristocrats, Byronic heroes, or sexy-emo-pouting “bad boys” (don’t even american vampireget me started on the very existence of Edward Cullen). The vampires that descend on Barrow are ruthless, and everything vampires should be if you want to scare the heck out of someone — merciless, bloodthirsty villains with no conscience. Niles should be given a medal for his contribution to both the literary and vampire film canon. For far too long the debonair, smooth-talking vampire has ruled.

Stephen King thinks so too, which is why Scott Snyder did not have to twist his arm too hard to get him on board with this project. Snyder went fishing for an intro,  and what he got instead was a full-on, hard core collaboration. King is all over American Vampire, and the “wild west” themes found in his parts of the story have a lot of Dark Tower energy running through them. I really half-expected Roland to walk right into the story at some point. He may yet, who knows? And can I just give a shout out to the toe-tag? ::grin::

I’ve been drawn into the world, and the notion of a “new” kind of vampire that can walk in daylight at war with the ancient Euro-vampires is intriguing. I will definitely come back for more of this series.

In the dark with Stephen King

Full Dark No Stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
by Stephen King

full darkIs Full Dark, No Stars the best thing ever written? No. It certainly isn’t the best thing Stephen King has written. But lordy lordy, do these tales rip and roar, shimmy and jive. I had the best time reading them, probably more fun than anything I’ve read by the master in a long while.

The title really sets up the collection well — make no mistake, these are dark tales, in places gruesome and hard to read. All of these stories feature ordinary characters forced to make awful choices. What choices! And this is why I love King — he’ll find the horror — the real, true, white-knuckling, knee-buckling horror — in the most ordinary of places amongst the most ordinary of people. His scariest stories are often the ones you know could really happen.

In the Afterword, King writes:

I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal…if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion [only] when the tale has been told and the book set aside.

If that is his goal, he succeeds brilliantly here because when in the fierce, unrelenting grip of these stories you are not thinking, but feeling – terror and repulsion mostly. It’s a visceral experience all right. In places I was sucked into an almost fugue state where I forgot to breathe, because I was in the story, as if it were happening to me rather than as a third-party voyeur safely removed from the action.

These stories will haunt me, as will the choices contained therein.

1922: Beware the Conniving Man!!! This story has lots of gooshy parts and if you have a rat phobia, it may just put you in the nut house. What is it with King and abandoned wells? ::shiver:: So how far would you go to get your way? To maintain your life as you know it? When is someone worth more to you dead than alive? What I love most about this story is that it shows getting what you want often comes with too heavy a price tag – it’s the Monkey’s Paw conundrum.

Big Driver: This was my least favourite of the four, if only because of the subject matter – rape and vigilantism. It’s a fairly simple, straight-forward story, with a fairly predictable ending. Where the story’s strength lies is in King’s exploration of rape victim psychology. How Tess feels and reacts to what happens to her is how I imagine a lot of women think and feel in that situation. I hope I never have to find out.

Fair Extension: The shortest of the four, but wicked and horrible. It’s the classic Deal with the Devil scenario, but unlike you’ve ever seen it. What if all the things you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, suddenly befell them at your behest? I think the most shocking part of this story for me isn’t that Dave Streeter makes the deal, but that he becomes so gleefully accepting of the fallout as the years pass and the miseries heaped upon his best friend are so unrelenting. Not once is there a twinge of guilt, nor does he even have to turn away from the carnage. What does Streeter do? Pull up a front row seat and watch it all unfold up close and personal. Who is Elvid? He seems awfully familiar, and since the story is set in Derry, and at one point his teeth are pointed shards, I’m thinking he’s our favourite neighborhood clown, Pennywise. The kind of deals he’s driving though, made me think of Flagg too.

A Good Marriage: While Lisey’s Story will remain King’s final, beautiful, haunting word on marriage, this novella shares some worthy insights too, both soft and jagged. You can know someone, but you can never really know them. Is it possible to keep a secret from the one person who knows you and loves you best? You bet. This is my favourite of the four novellas, and I think the perfect choice to end the book. It’s archetypal horror – Pandora’s Box and Bluebeard are mentioned in its pages and with good reason. Is it better to know, or not to know? When presented with a secret, do we snoop or let sleeping dogs lie? When we snoop, and what we find is so horrific, what is our moral duty? Legal responsibility? To our children? To our society? I don’t know what I would do in Darcy Anderson’s position. Even when she went poking into that box, my heart was pounding. I was truly terrified by what she was going to find, and since I was feeling and not thinking, I was totally shocked by what she did find. In the moments leading up to the revelation, I was in no position to guess. I had to keep remembering to breathe!!!
Rating: ★★★★★

Ron Howard obsesses over Dark Tower dreams

It looks like it’s finally going to happen!!!! — Roland and the Dark Tower are coming to a big (and small screen) near you. Director Ron Howard is scheming and dreaming while I write this, and has been for well over a year now, all in the hopes of doing King’s magnum opus justice. It’s a daunting (not to mention terrifying) task considering the source material spans seven books and nearly 4000 pages (and that doesn’t include the concordances, graphic novels, short stories, novellas, and poetry dedicated to Roland’s world). In these seven books King creates a sprawling, genre-defying edifice that’s a heady mash-up of science fiction, fantasy, western, and horror, unfolding upon a post-apocalyptic landscape in a world that has long since “moved on”. 

The man in black
fled across the desert
and the gunslinger followed

It was enough to discourage Lost creator J.J. Abrams, who walked away from the project some time ago justifiably intimidated. Not so Ron Howard and writing / producing partners Brian Grazer and Akiva Goldsman. They are on board full passion steam ahead, with King himself enthusiastically along for the ride. The roll out plan seems to be that Howard will direct the first film and then the first season of a tie-in television series, both of which Goldsman will write. Two more films would follow. Read full article here.

Ahhhhhh!!! I can’t believe it … part of me is so excited, but part of me is absolutely petrified they’re gonna screw it up. (more…)

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