Horror Month 2009: The Shining (1980)

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Horror Month 2009 continues with a Stanley Kubrick film, yes, I am giddy, believe you me!

Screenplay By: Diane Johnson & Stanley Kubrick
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick

After I finished The Shining I was debating how exactly to begin my review. The question rolling through my brain was whether to begin by talking about the craftsmanship of Stanley Kubrick or the type of horror the movie brings out. Being a dolt it took me a bit to realize that both elements go hand in hand and are essentially the same thing, thus no need to separate the two. This is what you get when you read reviews written by one Bill Thompson, the only time the word craftsmanship will be used without the precursor of shoddy is when discussing someone other than myself.

A man who possesses infinite levels of craftsmanship is one Stanley Kubrick. After The Shining I came to the realization that it’s almost impossible to ever pick any one element of a Kubrick film to highlight and talk about. The man puts so much care and attention into every detail of his pictures that it’s entirely possible for your brain to shut down from overload. I almost broke down when trying to grab screenshots post-script, after I had grabbed forty and wasn’t over an hour into the film my brain went into a screenshot coma. Image is just one element of a film and the fact that it captured my attention in such a vivid manner should tell you just how much care Kubrick put into every aspect of The Shining.

Time and space are elements that Kubrick toys with in all of his movies, but a near empty hotel may be the perfect place for him to explore those particular elements. He has plenty of long hallways to play with, interesting rooms and confines to scope out and a stark surrounding landscape to finish it all off. Quite often the camera starts far away from its subject and either the camera closes in or the subject slowly approaches the camera. This creates a permanent sense of unease, nothing is ever quite in focus, objects take up more space than they should or are confined to a smaller area that feels comfortable. At every moment Kubrick plumbs the depths of the landscape of the hotel, leaving no area safe. His camera is always pervasive yet standoffish at the same time. Much like its lead character The Shining never feels quite right visually and in that way it is perfect.

The question then becomes, sure, the craftsmanship is great, it’s a great looking picture, but how does it work as a horror film? The answer to that isn’t easy, or maybe it is, I’m not sure. The simple answer is that The Shining may be the best horror film ever made, but to get to that conclusion requires a bit of complexity. Most great horror is all about the mood and atmosphere of the picture, and The Shining has mood and atmosphere in spades.

It starts with the eerily artificial score, there’s no better way to instill horror in a naturally beautiful setting than by having a score that sounds like something from another world entirely. Every scene has a bit of an edge to it, even when there isn’t any malicious intent in the story the score implies that there is and the viewer is taken aback by this contradiction. I’ve already covered the visuals, so that moves us onto the acting. Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd are very naturalistic and minimalistic in their approach. This isn’t Jack being Jack, this is Jack adapting his natural persona into a creepy atmosphere to great affect. Duvall is scared and because we relate to her fear we are scared for/along with her. Lloyd isn’t a typical child actor, he is mighty creepy and never once feels out of step with his adult counterparts.

All of the above elements combine to form the slow cooker approach to horror. For those who don’t understand what I mean, think of that crock pot in your parents kitchen. You watch them put all sorts of ingredients in and then walk away. Hours pass by and the ingredients slowly combine and join together to form what will eventually be a scrumptious meal. That is the horror on display in The Shining, not the fast slasher type or the twist type, but the kind that slowly cooks over the course of the movie. It cooks and cooks until it reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that never had any choice but to be great, because all the ingredients were slowly added and cooked to perfection.

The last point of interest would be the very nature of The Shining. What exactly is the point of the film, is there a greater theme or is it just a horror movie meant to scare? There is no easy answer for this question because I believe The Shining is a movie meant to scare just as much as it is a movie about women needing to wake up. Wendy Torrance is a typical 1970’s American housewife, under her husband’s thumb and always willing to make excuses for his actions. The events in the Overlook force Wendy to open her eyes to the truth. She needs to protect herself and Danny, she may love Jack, but love can only go so far. She can’t make any more excuses for him, the Overlook has shown her the man that he truly is. The Overlook has caused in her the awakening that so many women during the 1970’s needed to come to and hopefully did. Maybe it’s far fetched, but that’s my interpretation and there are many other interpretations that can be found in this wonderful film.

Whether you are looking for a scare, a great Stanley Kubrick picture, a nuanced Jack Nicholson performance or a great film in general, you can’t go wrong with The Shining. It’s rare for one of the all-time great directors to tackle the horror genre after he has achieved his fame. Mr. Kubrick makes the most of his time in the genre, directing a splendid horror film that is up there with any picture he has ever directed. You shouldn’t need a special reason to see The Shining, but if you haven’t seen it yet then Halloween is the perfect opportunity to see it for the first time, you won’t be let down, trust me.

Rating:

****

Cheers,
Bill

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12 responses to “Horror Month 2009: The Shining (1980)

  1. mcarteratthemovies

    You got it just right, Bill — “The Shining” is all about mood and atmosphere. That’s why it’s as terrifying after the 16th viewing as it is after the first! The dramatic tension is just killer, and nobody could have played this part except Jack Nicholson.

    The scene that haunts me years later: “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

    Eek.

  2. The scene that gets me like no other is when Wendy is walking through the hotel and out of nowhere sees the image of the guy in a dog costume going down on another guy. I get why that’s called the WTF scene, because every time without fail that scene pops up and all I can say is, WTF!

  3. Lol, I actually think the guy in the dog suit giving head is one of the stranger inclusions in the movie. I used to think this movie was stupid for the longest time, then I rewatched it again last year and it totally creeped me the hell out. Really eerie stuff, really subtle, and I dig that. Good review, man.

  4. The dog suit moment ties into something that takes place in the book. Admittedly it is out of left field in the movie, but I think it works within the context of what is happening at that time.

  5. James Blake Ewing

    That scene makes me laugh every time. Yea, it’s random and for some reason I just find it hilarious. It serves as a kind of reminder that other sordid stuff went on in this place as well, not just a murder rampage.

  6. It cracked me up to, sort of the “Wait, what the hell did I just see” reaction where you end up laughing hysterically because your brain just can’t comprehend what is going on. Yeah, that laughter.

  7. as M Carter says, this holds up cos its scary no matter how many times you watch it. so many great scenes to mention, although im partial to that bit where Jack looks into the maze model and sees Wendy and Danny

  8. You know what freaks me out the most about this film? It’s so GD bright. Horror films rely on darkness for surprise and cheap establishment of mood, but so much of The Shining is totally visible. Kubrick makes it work solely with that detached style of his, usually so good for understated satire but here just constantly, unerringly creepy as all hell. And he makes it scary, which is hard to do given his visual acuity: John Carpenter’s Halloween is a masterpiece of composition and ambiance, but it isn’t scary in the least. The Shining has a way of scaring you even without scares (the only big moments are the naked lady-cum-hag and the final insanity) by using the mood itself almost as the antagonist instead of Jack.

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  12. Ross – That is a great scene, may even by my wife’s favorite.

    Jake – I can’t speak much about how scary The Shining is, I simply don’t get scared at horror movies. But, what does work is the suspense of the film. The moments that Kubrick builds to and the payoff that he provides.

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