If there is any genre of film in which I am decidedly illiterate, it would be Horror. I unfortunately view horror films with a severely stigmatized viewpoint, muddled by decades of lackadaisical attempts to cash-in on a niche audience and cliched corporate sequels that just get progressively worse as time goes on. I know that there are good horror movies out there. I have seen some of them. However, I have seen far more bad ones than I have good, which causes me to stray away from the genre and view it with a very harsh-and honestly somewhat unfair-eye. But this Halloween season I was determined to watch a good horror film, the kind that people talk about religiously. So I picked The Shining. Assuming that since it was directed by Stanley Kubrick, as well as constantly praised in pop culture, that it was a safe bet. And man let me tell you, this film was positively enlightening.
If you have yet to see The Shining, allow me to give you a slight rundown of the plot. The Torrance Family, Jack, a disgruntled writer, Wendy, an earnest mother, and little Danny, the father of all creepy kids, have been charged with the task of maintaining the upkeep of The Overlook Hotel during the arduous winter months. Unfortunately for them, The Overlook Hotel has a dark and infected past, and Jack, played with utter brilliance by Jack Nicholson, finds himself getting…affected. This is a pretty perfect scenario around which to build a horror film. Adapted very loosely from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, The Shining spins a story so intrepidly mysterious and eerie, you find yourself engrossed in this entrancing tale from the moment we arrive at the hotel to the moment the end credits scroll. Each shot is framed in the perfect fashion to instigate the most discomfort in the viewer, without them even being conscious of the fact. Through Kubrick’s clever use of visual symmetry, as well as ominous shots of long corridors and the pairings of aggresive colors, the entire film is extraordinarily unsettling, and grows even moreso as the film progresses and the plot is heightened. The music is ominous without being overpowering like most horror films, creating a much more subtle sense of tension. I would say the greatest praise I could give this film is its effortlessness. Most horror films try very belligerently to make you scared, employing obnoxious music and over-the-top imagery to force you into fear. The Shining doesn’t need any of that. The Shining just is scary. Which is really refreshing after so many failed attempts we’ve seen since.
This film is perfectly cast. Every single actor fits their role just magnificently. Scatman Crothers as Dick Hollaran is cool without being unrealistic. His conversation with Danny in the kitchen about shining is deliciously interesting to watch, completely due to his suave and experienced persona that he has created for himself. Danny, played by a young man named Danny Lloyd, is inheritly creepy, demanding attention every time he’s on screen. Usually in movies of any sort, child actors are perhaps the worst part of the film. They just aren’t very good. Lloyd on the other hand, is a phenomenon all by himself. Reciting “Red Rum” like his life depends on it, he sends chills down your spine with his demonic demeanor, with a complete grasp of what’s expected of him as an actor. He doesn’t try to be creepy as so many children would when put in that position. By that I mean, he never overacts, but rather embodies this character as if it were possessing him. Though I am very fond of young Mr. Lloyd (who at this point is in his forties), I am perhaps even more impressed by Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance. I have heard people call her performance as annoying. To that I cry foul immediately. You have to understand the position her character is in. Her husband has gone absolutely crazy. Her six-year-old son is in grave danger. And she’s trapped in this terrifying locale with no feasible means of escape. Quite understandably, she’s overwhelmed. And Duvall portrays this with such realism, it’s almost striking at points. This distress builds along with the plot, and by the end we have watched Wendy turn into a desperate, horrified mess of a human being in a way that is almost surreal to witness. One thing that I greatly appreciated about The Shining was how intelligent the characters are. People are always posturing about how idiotic horror movie characters are, and for good reason, generally they act with complete and utter ignorance, and yet the characters in The Shining act very reasonably for people in their position. Wendy tries to defend herself. Danny hides in ways that I would never think of if I was in his position. Never once do they think, “Hey I wonder what that sound was, I’d better go investigate.” And for that I am very impressed.
I have always heard how great an actor Jack Nicholson is. His praises are sung all throughout the movie industry. And yet, I’ve never really experienced his abilities. I mean, I have seen Batman of course, so that’s something, but in The Shining he’s on a completely different plane. Jack Nicholson in The Shining is just absolutely mesmerizing. His descent into madness is calculated and thought-out, creating a seamless transition from exhausted husband to crazed maniac. When he does finally give way to killer instinct, he doesn’t overplay it, but he doesn’t downplay it either. He’s not a caricature, but he also isn’t a silent hulking figure like Michael Meyers. He is indelibly crazy, and commands your attention with simply his presence. He delivers rich dialogue with the kind of personalization that you would find in a legendary thespian, in the way that a master violinist can take a famous piece of music and make it seem fresh and better than ever. His dead-eye stare is paralyzing and creepier than one could possibly imagine. He makes this film what it is. For Kubrick can direct a great film all day, but without a considerably adept actor in the leading role, you don’t get a masterpiece. But that’s what The Shining is. A masterpiece of pop culture. The kind of film that cements its spot in the halls of cinema for all posterity. I am very happy that I saw this film, and am sure that it will stick with me for a long, long time.
All Images are taken from The Shining, a Warner Brothers film.