Yes, folks, it's time to discuss one of the Big Mother Ghost Movies, Stanley Kubrick's beautiful, messy masterwork of horror, 1980's The Shining.
Most genre fans, if not just plain ol' movie fans, know the film's plot by now. Meet...the Torrance family. Father Jack (Jack Nicholson) is a frustrated writer and recovering alcoholic. His wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) tries her best to keep the family together despite all the problems. What she lacks in self-esteem she more than makes up for with love for her son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny's gifted with "the shining", a psychic ability that allows him to see glimpses of the past, present, and future. Not entirely sure how to deal with his visions, Danny has invented Tony, the boy who lives in Danny's mouth and "tells him things".
After losing his teaching position, Jack takes the job of caretaker for the Overlook Hotel while it's closed up for the long Colorado winter. Soon after the Torrances are shut up inside the sprawling hotel, the malevolent forces of the Overlook begin to manifest themselves, calling to Jack. Already in a position of instability mentally, Jack soon descends into madness and attempts to kill his wife and son by "chopping them up into pieces" with an axe. With the help of hotel cook Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), who also "shines", Wendy and Danny escape the Overlook and its raging caretaker. After killing Dick, Jack becomes lost in the hedge maze outside the hotel and ends up freezing to death in the brutal cold night.
It had been some time since I'd seen The Shining, and while I've always enjoyed it (and gotten some good creepy scares out of it), what struck me most while watching it today was the beauty of the whole thing. Visually, The Shining is one of the most stunning films I've ever seen- finding a horror movie to top it in that regard would be no easy task.
The opening sequences of the Torrance family VW Beetle driving to the Overlook are breathtaking...with the mountainous scenery, that's unavoidable. However, Kubrick effectively uses the dirge-like sounds of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and sweeping camera shots to effuse the sunny landscape with a surprising feeling of bottomed-out dread. The camera, so high above the tiny yellow car, follows along- an unseen force travelling right behind Jack until eventually the car is overtaken and the camera moves on to the hotel itself, grand and imposing. Even over my lunchtime ravioli, the sequence was chilling.
The Overlook Hotel is an evil place...it's got its ghosts. It's got a bloody history which may or may not have to do with the fact that it's built on the site of an Indian burial ground. What's unusual about this story, however, is the fact that the hotel isn't obviously haunted. It's a perfectly functional, brightly lit, popular resort hotel...until the caretaker takes over. What is it that amps up the evil energy in the building? Who knows. Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson don't tell us.
Much of The Shining is open to interpretation. What exactly lurks in Room 237? Again, who knows. We do, however, know that it's real, as are all of the ghosts in the Overlook. They don't simply pass through walls, they don't fade away- whatever they are, they're as real as you or I. They can pour you a drink, they can roll you a ball...they can unlock doors and leave bruises on a young boy's throat. Beyond that, however, they need the "caretaker" to capitulate to their desires before they can claim their victims. It's the caretaker, not the ghosts, that chop families up into bits.
The title placards used during the film subtly show the build in intensity as events reach a fevered pitch- the leisurely pace of "one month later" gives way to daily updates ("Thursday") which give way to specific hours. Despite this seemingly frantic pace, there's no sense of linear time in the Overlook itself...events crisscross back and forth, while the past, present, and future are all liquid, running into and over one another repeatedly. Everyone, it seems, has their role to play as events play out time and time again. Charles Grady has been a caretaker, so has Delbert Grady...here's Jack Torrance in 1980, and there he is in a photograph dated 1921. Is it reincarnation? Maybe, maybe not. While Jack is told he's "always been the caretaker" and Jack himself expresses feelings of deja vu, we have no clue who was the caretaker the year before Jack or the year before Grady, for that matter. Various characters intone the phrase "forever and ever" repeatedly, as if there is no beginning or end to anything at the Overlook. Additionally in that regard, it's very telling that Jack's life ends inside of a maze- he's trapped in the cycle of time, consumed at last by the hotel.
While Jack Nicholson's performance is the one that people remember from The Shining, I've always found it to be way too over-the-top. Occasionally there are true flashes of brilliance, but they come in the quiet moments; his reaction to Wendy's accusations when she finds bruises on Danny's neck, for example. Nicholson conveys surprise, confusion, anger, and detachment without uttering a word. As he goes deeper into "Crazytown", though, it's such an obvious act that to me, any potential terror is taken out of the equation. Folks might disagree with me because everyone loves the "Here's Johnny!" and "Honey, I'm home" quips, but watch it all again and see- particularly during his conversations with Lloyd, the ghostly bartender. Nicholson mugs, rolls his eyes, wags his tongue, shucks, and jives as he acts "insane", and it's all put-upon to the point of distraction. We shouldn't be laughing at him- this man has descended far enough into madness that he's got an uncontrollable bloodlust for his wife and young son. He's a monster, but I don't think that ever really comes across effectively. The role, I think, would have been served better by a more understated performance.
The performance that does knock me out throughout the film is that by Shelley Duvall. The nervous tics and slight stutters during a calm conversation with the child psychologist early on betray so much about Wendy Torrance; as she attempts to rationalize her husband's violent outbursts, her cigarette ash grows longer...and Duvall's line readings are so effortless that it seems as if she's not acting at all. Whereas Jack Nicholson acts crazy, even at her most manic Duvall doesn't get all wrapped up in histrionics and obvious attempts at acting scared- she simply is. She's bleary-eyed and terrified, but most importantly, she's confused by her husband- she doesn't understand what's happening and why he's suddenly turned homicidal. It's an outstanding, amazing performance.
Aside: is it just me, or does Danny sport the best outfits in this movie? I should be ashamed of wanting to dress like a 6-year-old boy from 1980, but he's such a little fashion plate. His sweaters are fucking rad.
Kubrick manages to induce feelings of being trapped in a space where you wouldn't expect to experience them: the huge, sprawling hotel. During the tour of the building, Wendy comments that she'll need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs everywhere she goes so she won't get lost. How could cabin fever set in in such vast space? It seems impossible, but the audience experiences it firsthand thanks to Kubrick's brilliant shot composition and framing. There are hundreds of instances where the director uses symmetry in the shots, putting the focus directly in the center of the frame. It's a confrontational, objective, and detached view, and yet the limited scope leaves the viewer feeling cramped, even in the largest rooms. He very frequently adds the ceiling in the shot as well, to heighten the claustrophobic effect. Some examples:
And yeah, there they are- those damn creepy Grady Girls.
While it's not a flawless film, The Shining is a damn fine horror movie that loses little impact over the years, even through repeated viewings. It seems I find something new to admire about it every time I see it. Visually, it's a stunning achievement. The Overlook Hotel is one bad, bad place...but only sometimes. I give it 9 out of 10 rocket ship sweaters.
FYI, there's a fantastic page of trivia about The Shining over at imdb.com. Follow this link.