The schedule for the 2015 Mile High Horror Film Festival is bursting with quality programming all day and deep into the night, but a double feature on Friday afternoon/evening was my primary target as soon as I viewed the calendar: The Descent with director Neil Marshall in attendance, and The Shining with Joe Turkel (Lloyd The Bartender) and Lisa and Louise Burns (The Grady Daughters) conducting a Q&A session prior to the show. Arguably the best horror film of the 2000s followed by arguably the greatest horror film of all time, with these creative forces behind them in the house? No question I’d be at both, and each was fantastic. The Descent and The Shining have important similarities, such as masterful senses of tension and locations that are crucial to the proceedings, but couldn’t be more different otherwise—a monster movie enclosed in darkness, gore and stone versus a brightly lit ghost story floating through spacious, impeccable halls. A naturalistic, tough and large female ensemble; a stylized nightmare with few (living) souls inhabiting it. Still, the two stand on equal footing because the purity of vision in each is unquestionable, and not a moment is wasted in taking the viewer on their respective dark journeys.
Neil Marshall’s The Descent is celebrating its 10 year anniversary, and one could see the pride and enthusiasm the filmmaker still has for discussing this gem by his effusive Q&A immediately following a fully attended afternoon screening. He started by addressing the “alternative ending” controversy, stating that the UK received the real finale so he wasn’t as worried about its reception overseas, and the test screenings indicated US general audiences preferred something more upbeat, so he allowed Lionsgate to show the truncated cut here with the condition that they gave it the widest release possible, ultimately on over 2,000 screens. He also pointed out that his original vision is the happy one; Sarah’s ending up with her daughter (played by Marshall’s niece) was the only version of peace she would ever find.
The director continued by discussing the origins of the story and its early reception. He originally wanted to expand an earlier student film revolving around space zombies called Brain Death into a feature, but was told it would be too expensive at a meeting to pitch producers and was asked to come up with something else. Remembering a challenge he’d heard in the press about his debut, Dog Soldiers, not being scary enough, he determined to make the scariest film he could imagine, got on a train immediately after said meeting and let his mind wander. By the time he’d returned home several hours later, he’d figured out a little-used location in horror to exploit with a cast almost completely devoid of testosterone. The script felt more like a novel as he quickly entered extended sequences of little to no dialogue, and the stark descriptions within scared everyone who read it. One of his producers labeled it “too relentless!” and asked him to let them out of the cave; Marshall’s response? “They didn’t get to leave the boat in Jaws! They didn’t get to walk away from The Nostromo in Alien!” He knew keeping the heroes trapped was key.
A brief discussion of the technical details revealed a fun anecdote or two, including the time one of the “crawlers,” as he referred to them, sprained his ankle on set and was taken to the emergency room—in full costume. Marshall continues to be proud that barely any CGI was used, not to mention the fact that they’d built sets so effective the viewer couldn’t tell the entire film was shot on sound stages at Pinewood Studios with a few exteriors shot in Scotland (apparently real caves fill with fog fast when humans are around and the slippery surfaces ensure repeated, dangerous falls). He even pointed out a variety of obscure references to be found in the film, some as subtle as a shot of a sleeping Beth with her arm over her head nodding to Deliverance. When asked if Alfred Hitchcock’s influential hand could be felt anywhere on The Descent, Marshall balked at the notion yet then teased the audience that the next film he’s working on is his “Hitchcock Homage,” but spilled no further beans. For broad influences he called John Carpenter the biggest and mentioned The Thing, Alien, Deliverance and The Shining as specific touchstones.
Turning to that particular Kubrick masterpiece, the MHHFF and Alamo Drafthouse Littleton pulled out all the stops to celebrate the picture and set the mood for a 35mm projection with several cast members in attendance to discuss the famous filmmaker and their memories of the production. Initial events, including several twin-themed dance partners interspersed throughout the crowd and a Redrum cake that doesn’t belong on any child’s birthday table, gave way to the honored guests of the evening. Joe Turkel, spry and clearly excited for his chance to discuss fellow Brooklyn kid and longtime friend Stanley, was joined by Lisa and Louise Burns, the British twins who interestingly played sisters of different ages in their indelible, iconic scenes as the Grady girls. Joe was quick to point out that he’s the rare actor who appeared in three Kubrick productions (the others being The Killing and Paths of Glory), and often mentioned how he and the director bonded over their love of the Yankees and Joe DiMaggio, the latter having passed away a day after Kubrick himself did. Turkel also pointed out the ‘director’s bible’ that Stanley had with him on all three sets where they worked together, in increasingly dog-eared, underlined and battered form, a text by the great Russian filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin called Pudovkin on Film. He went on to describe the director’s demeanor as always quiet and respectful, but yes, famously thorough and prone to many takes. He claimed the shot of Jack Nicholson walking past strewn-about balloons and entering The Gold Room with a ghostly party in full swing was done no less than 180 times. As Kubrick asked for each new take, the camera angle or lens or lighting would always be slightly altered. Turkel once asked him, “Are you ever satisfied with just one take?” Kubrick smirked and responded “Oh yes! Many times!”
The soft-spoken Burns sisters didn’t have the same relationship with Kubrick but, like Turkel, had many memories of the director being warm, friendly and accommodating, even during the lengthy portions of their work. They didn’t have a specific take count on any of their scenes, but recalled that his getting the single shot he ended up using of their bloody bodies in the hallway took three full days, during which they were awfully cold. Kubrick personally went and retrieved a space heater for them when they complained, and when their birthday arrived he halted the shoot for several hours in order to throw them a proper party, wherein he presented them with an autograph book filled in by cast and crew. Speaking further about the director’s personality and demeanor, Turkel insisted he was a plain-spoken kid from Brooklyn (he preferred everyone call him Stanley, not Mr. Kubrick, not Stan) who wasn’t a hermit but understood his celebrity would require him to be increasingly beholden to anyone he met, so he chose to limit how many new people he brought into his life. Discussing the film itself, Lisa and Louise didn’t actually see it until they were in their 20s, and due to UK censorship the version they saw was a full half hour shorter than what audiences in other countries enjoyed. Turkel pointed out how strange this was considering The Shining is far from a violent picture; outside of Nicholson’s brutal ax murder of Scatman Crothers’ Dick Halloran, there is almost no physical conflict portrayed. As a result, the Burns sisters didn’t realize what a horrifying picture it was until much later. Joe Turkel claimed to have only seen it 5 or 6 times, but said his enjoyment deepens with each viewing. He took a quick shot at the original author’s negative take on the film and the resulting 1990s television miniseries version, which in his words “bombed” by not focusing on the psychological horror that Kubrick presented in masterful form. The actor then shared two quick stories, one about how he and a friend ran into a struggling Nicholson at the horse races in 1961, when that performer was considering leaving Los Angeles and returning to New York City but stayed after Turkel’s friend repaid Nicholson some money he owed him with their gambling winnings (“I saved his career!”), and another about his last day on set. Insisting Stanley was a warm man but not prone to physical contact, he walked up to Turkel, put his hand on the actor’s shoulder and said “you know, so far you’re the best thing in this movie.” Joe Turkel responded by saying “Thanks Stanley—so don’t wait another 40 fucking years to cast me again!” Kubrick smiled, walked away, and that was the last time the two spoke.
Finally, the 35mm print rolled for the audience, and as with most great films it felt like a first viewing all over again to share the experience with an anonymous audience in the dark. On a quick personal note, I must recommend that if any organization such as the Mile High Horror Film Festival or the Alamo Drafthouse gives you the opportunity to enjoy either of these films in a theater, take advantage of it. The Descent’s darkness flows off the screen and effectively envelops you, and The Shining’s still-stunning sound design, visuals and atmosphere trap you, the viewer, in the Overlook Hotel just as it did Danny and his family all those years ago. Seeing the two films this past Friday with these talented artists present to tell their stories made for a unique, revelatory and unforgettable day for the horror fans in attendance.