Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Shining


The Shining
1980
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers

The Shining and I have a bit of a history. I haven’t seen it a billion and one times, but the few times I have committed to watching it all the way through have been memorable in one way or the other. The Shining is Stanley Kubrick’s take on what a horror movie is, and, because he’s Kubrick, he can’t help but put his own stamp all over the film. What results is an incredibly atmospheric and FUCKING SCARY movie.

But why? Because this is Kubrick playing with horror, interpreting horror in his own way, we get something that is relatively unique in its horror. We don’t have the typical trappings of terror in The Shining. Consider the very opening of the film, for instance. We open on gorgeous helicopter shots of the Rockies, gradually zooming in on a car driving through winding roads, and Wendy Carlos’ score starts playing, those plodding, synthetic tones, and holy shit, it’s already scary. Scary, with nothing but gorgeous helicopter shots of the wilderness and minimalistic music. This is not typical horror.


Well then, we must ask, where is the horror? First of all, there’s the photography. I’m mad about Kubrick, I’ve admitted that in the past, so for me, I love the horror of Kubrick’s photography. The Steadicam shots, the Steadicam shots, the Steadicam shots. To me, that is the horror in this film. The unnerving way the camera follows everyone around in perfectly symmetrical shots. The walls are literally closing in on you from each side. Things look supernaturally perfect; it starts to become oppressive. It’s easy to understand the shocking finale, when everything falls apart, based on how superficial everything else seemed throughout the film. Then consider how the camera follows Danny around in that damned freaky-as-all-get-out Big Wheels. *shudder* That shot really creeps me out, but then, what’s so creepy about the freaky Big Wheels? It’s a kid riding his toy. But, of course, this is Kubrick. First, Kubrick cuts all soundtrack and all you hear is the sound of the wheels. The alternating between wheels on hardwood and wheels on carpet is, frankly, more than unnerving. Kubrick then carries the shot on for an interminable length of time. We keep waiting for something to happen, but no, Kubrick just keeps building the tension. Second, Kubrick shoots these scenes with the Big Wheel from the floor so that we are literally only about 12 inches above the ground. We are truly at Danny’s vantage point, and we realize what a vulnerable position he’s in.


Where else is the horror?

Whoever thought a black screen with the word “MONDAY” in capital white letters could be so frightening? The smash cuts going from scenes of life at the remote Overlook Hotel to, so suddenly, all black screens with words on them is really, really creepy. Each of these smash cuts is so unexpected that it catches you off guard, and a small jolt of adrenaline runs through you at the appearance of each one. Meaning that each one scares you. A black screen. With white words on it. SCARY! This is Kubrick, people! This is not typical horror!

Where else is the horror?

Jack’s slow descent into madness, of course. That’s where so much horror of this film is derived, watching a normal if somewhat troubled man make the frightening descent into homicidal madness. Watching his behavior become slowly more erratic and violent is a breathlessly tantalizing build. You know the outcome; everyone does. But it is the journey, not the outcome, which is exciting. Jack Nicholson does a great job of laying all the groundwork for the descent. Rewatch the opening, and it’s hard not to anticipate how insane he’ll go. He does a great job of playing someone who is trying too hard to be normal. The sudden appearance of ghosts (are they ghosts?) from the hotel’s past is deeply unsettling, not least of which for the fact that Jack doesn’t blink at all when there is suddenly a bartender behind the previously empty bar. Or the fact that he comes across a man who murdered his family, then killed himself, in the men’s room. Has there ever been scarier use of the word “corrected?” No. There has not.

Where is the horror?

Color, color, color. Kubrick is the only director I know who can make a horror film that is shockingly well lit. He doesn’t have to resort to washed out colors, blues, greys, and blacks to set his scene. He is supremely confident in his ability to create horror using things other than shadow and creepy colors. Boy, does Kubrick love white. An opening scene in the Torrence’s apartment, with the stark white walls and white furniture, manages to be unnerving, and we haven’t even gotten to the hotel yet. For that matter, has bright red ever been creepier than when Jack is in the bathroom with the former caretaker? No, and it’s not because it’s just a hint of red. It’s because it’s completely everywhere. It’s also surrounded by fluorescent lighting. The brightness of the scene is shocking, as is the admission from the former caretaker. That scene in the bathroom is quite possibly one of my favorite Kubrick scenes ever. It excites me, it thrills me, it turns me on, and I don’t say that lightly. So much of the reason why it turns me on is the fantastic use of lighting and color. Similarly, when Danny is playing on that fantastic, graphic, colored carpet and the camera pans back, the effect of the color and the pattern is simply breathtaking. Too few horror films go beyond the realm of blues and greys and the occasional red blood that The Shining really stands apart.


Where else?

As I mentioned earlier, Wendy Carlos’ score. The sound in The Shining is phenomenal, but it’s the most unconventional Kubrick score I’ve heard. Instead of working with classical music, something he does so well in, well, pretty much every other movie he ever made, Kubrick uses a wholly original score in The Shining. While I will always be curious to know which classical music pieces he *would* have picked for this film had he gone with a more standard Kubrick soundtrack, I also can’t imagine The Shining with anything other than the thoroughly unnerving dissonant chords. It’s simple, but it’s chilling.

The most oft-quoted negative part of this film that I’ve come across is Shelley Duvall. Most people who complain about Duvall seem to mostly complain that she looks funny. As hostess of Faerie Tale Theatre, one of the great television programs of my youth, Ms. Duvall holds a special place in my heart, so I forgive her the fact that she was not born looking like Angelina Jolie. I rather like that about her. She’s much more real that way, a normal person. Sure, her here-one-minute, gone-the-next Southern accent at the beginning of the film is a little strange, but Duvall pulls off a great scream queen performance in the finale. She’s a weak woman who has to find her strength in order to survive, and I admire her for doing exactly that.


Now onto my personal experience with this film. I have had two incredibly memorable experiences with The Shining: one was very good, the other, rather bad. I’ll cover the bad one first. My local classic movie theater showed The Shining last October, and I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen. However, once there, we were told how exciting it was that we would be watching an original print of the film. I will say this about “original prints:” they are cool in concept, but not in actuality. Watching a very old, faded, sketchy, and skip-laden print of a horror movie is not fun. All of Kubrick’s brilliant color work and lighting work was lost on the big screen, a fact I am still mourning a year later. Moreover, the audience was, well, weird. They laughed. Far too much. People were tittering constantly during the film, and it completely robbed the experience of any horrific buildup. I came out feeling incredibly disappointed, something I was not expecting. A letdown of an experience.

Rewind a few years. I was spending Columbus Day weekend at my parents’ cottage in New England by myself, something I love to do. My own personal vacation, I like to call it. The second night there, around 8 o’clock in the evening, I decided to put in The Shining. I hadn’t seen it all the way through in years, and it seemed like a good idea. I lit a fire in the fireplace and turned off all the lights. I still can’t decide if that was either a brilliant idea, or one of my worst ideas ever, because I found myself thoroughly scared by the film. There I was, in a cottage in the middle of the woods, all alone, and in the dark. When I say, “all alone,” I do not mean that I was the only person in the house (which I was), but that the surrounding cottages and homes were likewise empty. I was literally all alone, by myself, in the dark, in the woods, watching The Shining. It took me a long time that night to snap myself out of the heebie jeebies the movie had managed to give me. A horrifying and creepy experience, which is exactly what one wants from a horror film.

To me, what makes The Shining ultimately a fantastic horror film is that it’s Kubrick’s take on horror. What I adore so much about Kubrick’s oeuvre is that he decided to tackle different genres in his career. He never put himself in a single category. He experimented with the very concept of genre. 2001: Stanley Kubrick does sci-fi. Barry Lyndon: Stanley Kubrick does a costume drama. Dr. Strangelove: Stanley Kubrick does a comedy. Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket: Stanley Kubrick does a war flick. (I’m still not quite sure what genre A Clockwork Orange is, but that’s a different discussion for a different day.) And The Shining is his entry into horror films. It’s an incredibly traditional horror tale – one man’s descent into madness and violence – but it’s done in such a nontraditional manner, it can’t help but be pure Kubrick. I recommend often that people try this film as their first Kubrick; I think, as a horror film, The Shining is the most accessible of his films, while still managing to maintain that classic Kubrick sensibility. Kubrick is exciting, Kubrick is vibrant, Kubrick is fascinating. And when Kubrick does horror, yeah, it creeps you out.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10.

7 comments:

  1. Man, this has been one scary, unnerving month for you (The Exorcist, Cache, this movie). Are you dreading next October already?

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    1. Pretty much. Next October, I'm watching horror movies that aren't actually scary. Y'know, the old ones.

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  2. Count me as someone who thinks Shelley Duvall was perfect for this role. The fact that she isn't a physical knockout makes her real. I don't care too much about her accent--what I do care about is that her fear seems real through the whole thing.

    People who don't like this film often cite the fact that it's very different from the book as a reason. I think instead it's another interpretation of the King's story.

    And while I can be difficult to scare, the two girls in the hallway are pants-wettingly scary!

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    1. I refuse to buy the excuse of "it's different from the book" as a reason why a film doesn't work. Entirely different entertainment medium = different rules.

      Props for enjoying Ms. Duvall. There's a sizable population out there who just dumps on her.

      Those girls... *shudder*

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  3. Great write-up! I never really thought about Kubrick rewriting the rules for horror movies according to his own vision. By the time I saw The Shining for the first time it was at least twelve years old, and by then it was a revered classic and lots of the horror movies I cut my teeth on had been duly influenced by it. Interesting to think about how it must have impacted audiences when it was a brand-new, precedent-setting trailblazer.

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    1. Thanks so much! The seventies/eighties was such a zenith of horror films, and yet, amongst all its cohorts, The Shining is very very unique. But then again, I'm a Kubrick fanatic!

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