2 Hrs., 21 Mins.
I don’t want overanalyzed murderers, long explanations, or characters in touch with the situation that befalls them. I crave mystery, enigmatic shocks, inexplicable horror, claustrophobia in even the largest of a room. I long for danger pushed forward by a sudden psychological crumbling. I want horror that leaves me just as disturbed as I am left in the dark. Years after, I want to recall frightening imagery that, when I really think about it, is rooted in indecipherable macabre.
The best horror films ever made, including Suspiria, The Birds, and The Silence of the Lambs, terrorize us so deeply because they so thoroughly study uncharted territories of human existence: the violent supernatural, the unexplained, and the unknowable insanities of the psyche, respectively. Psycho, wonderful as it is, or Dressed to Kill, methodically stylish as it stands, don’t stick with us nearly as long because they bother to provide us with a reason as to why such fear exists in the first place. But like in comedy, or in romance, I want the feelings that come with the genre to wash over me naturally.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a visceral but loose adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name, is an artistic masterpiece in every sense of the word. At once rooted in reality and struck by labyrinthine, fantastical horror, it is a slow-burning, unbearably unsettling exercise able to turn our blood cold for days and then some. It’s a kind of experience so disconcerting and so wretchedly scary that we normally would swear to ourselves to never sit through a film so horrific ever again — and yet we want to rewatch it almost immediately, as if to feel the need to solve some sort of mystery not quite apparently conclusive before. It is like reviewing the events of a winter night’s nightmare; you don’t want to think about such terrors ever again, but, by doing so, you may have a shot at finding out what its hidden meaning amounts to.
The center of its ghoulishness is Jack Nicholson, who portrays the focal Jack Torrance with such convincing menace that he becomes much more forbidding of a figure than Michael Myers or Norman Bates could ever be. A writer with a loving wife (Shelley Duvall) and a troubled young son (Danny Lloyd), the winter is going to be spent at the eerie, secluded Overlook Hotel, where Jack has signed on as caretaker for a few months. Most would step back in fear when faced with the possibility of the vast emptiness of the hotel (not to mention the very real occurrence of being trapped by weather), but Jack, who has come to the conclusion that isolation will help him get work done, sees the job as ample opportunity to pen a masterwork. Spouse Wendy is kind and willing to do anything he wishes; young Danny is too much psychiatrically unstable to worry about the pitfalls of schooling.
Jack is warned by the manager of the hotel that the previous owner axe-murdered his wife and children most likely due to the extreme loneliness of the facility — his response portrays a kind of twisted sense of humor that works to foreshadow against his later personality. “That’s not going to happen to me,” he smirks. “And as far as my wife’s concerned, I’m sure she’ll be absolutely fascinated — she’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict.”
The first few months are uneasy but pleasant enough. Wendy adapts to the size of the hotel rather quickly, and Danny finds easy entertainment by riding around on his Big Wheel through the seemingly vacant, looming hallways. But things steadily darken as Jack grows increasingly hostile, screaming at Wendy for doing something as simple as interrupting a writing session. Soon, he begins having disjointed yet very real hallucinogenic encounters, with Danny experiencing disturbing visions of the blood-soaked past and future of the hotel. All this leads to a sprawling, intensely frightening conclusion among the finest in horror history.
If viewing The Shining is a hair-raising sitting, imagine the hell the cast and crew went through during the grueling thirteen month shoot, a journey induced by Kubrick’s obsessive needs toward perfectionism. Some scenes were filmed hundreds of times; the notorious “Here’s Johnny!” scene took three days to film, utilizing over sixty doors for Nicholson to hack away. Anjelica Huston, Nicholson’s girlfriend at the time, admits that a day’s work would be so exhausting that he frequently would arrive home, jump into bed, and fall asleep within seconds. Duvall, so traumatized by the experience and so disdainful toward Kubrick, became physically ill and faced hair loss during production.
The unease behind the scenes perhaps only adds to the malevolent nature of the film; the central trio of actors carry authentic agitation that makes their performances all the more haunting. The film’s only fatal flaw comes with the fact that we never necessarily see Nicholson’s mental deterioration: there always seems to be something wrong with him. He can never answer a question without his usual cocky demeanor. But when his psyche becomes too much to handle and he turns into a monster, he ends up giving one of his finest performances — it’s rare to see an actor transform into a figure verifiably terrifying.
Duvall, whose written character deviates from the strong-willed nature of the novel, makes for a meek, innocent supporting actress who makes the situation even more chilling. Most of filming consisted of her having to endure hours upon hours of screaming, crying; I can only applaud her for not physically breaking like a china doll. No other actress has suffered quite as much as she did during the making of this movie.
Kubrick’s difficult working style certainly would not provide for a working life any one of us would want to endure, but there’s a method to his madness clearly apparent in the film — artistically, it is flawless. The hotel feels three-dimensional, endless even, despite much of it being an intricate set. Effective camera techniques, such as the Steadicam photography that follows Danny around on his Big Wheel (I’m sure you’d recognize the imagery that takes place when he stumbles upon the ghosts of the previous caretaker’s daughters), or the seemingly “alive” cinematographic movement throughout Jack’s chasing of Danny through the hotel’s maze, heighten the feeling that we’re adrift at the Overlook, onlookers of events we watch in the same mindset we would a train wreck.
My only objection to the film is the casting of Jack Nicholson, who, despite his outstanding characterization, takes away an aspect of The Shining that could have further added to its terror. And that terror, of course, the unexpected decline of sanity. Because Nicholson has a face and demeanor that suggests something wicked is lying underneath his exterior, nothing seems to much change. Even when his character is at his most normal, his most subdued, you still feel as though he could crack into his “Here’s Johnny!” hysteria with the snap of a finger. King himself objected to the casting, feeling as though a “dramatic thrust” would be added to the storyline if a Jon Voight type were cast instead. But would they be able to pull of Jack’s final moments quite so well? I’m not so sure.
Some argue that the eventually overt killer instincts of Jack are either due to an uncovering of an already violent capacity (he is revealed to have been an alcoholic prior to the film’s events, and it is suggested that he has been abusive toward Wendy and Danny in the past) or is the result of the malignant entities of the Overlook Hotel. The ambiguity is one of the key successes to The Shining — this unreliability leaves the viewer to decide if Jack’s foray into madness is an example of a good man whose reality was unexpectedly mangled into something horrible or if he was always destined to explode. The final shot, forever embedded into the minds of its viewers, further complicates things in ways both satisfying and infuriating.
The Shining is an epic puzzle of psychological horror, blood curdling and distinctly morbid. It is one of the best horror movies ever made, satisfyingly hard to forget yet artistically ambitious. Kubrick outdoes himself; and so do Nicholson and Duvall, pulling off immensely difficult roles with effective wonder. A+