Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Shining (1980)

Being Film #12 in Hail Horror 2008

Can anyone frame a shot like Stanley Kubrick could?  I thought about this as I watched THE SHINING again, mesmerized at how deliberate, how measured each shot is, not one second shorter or longer than it needs to be.  And I think a large part of the reason THE SHINING is still as terrifying as it is has as much to do with this pacing, and Kubrick's ability to move you along with the scenes at exactly the speed he wants you to, as it does with Jack Nicholson's maniacal performance as Jack Torrance.

More of a distillation of the famous Stephen King novel than a direct adaptation, THE SHINING tells the story of Jack Torrance, who has been hired to be the caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, an enormous resort that closes for half the year due to the deep snows of Colorado.  Jack, a recovering alcoholic with anger issues, brings his wife Wendy and their young son Danny with him as company while he attempts to gather his thoughts around a novel he's attempting to write.  Danny is touched with "the shining," a kind of mental power that allows his to hear the thoughts of others, and manifests itself in the imaginary person of Tony, the little boy who lives in Danny's mouth and warns him of the evil that lurks in the hotel, and eventually in his father as well.

The camera in THE SHINING is as much as character as anyone actor in the film, moving very purposefully through each scene, sometimes following characters, sometimes leading them, and sometimes simply observing them, always moving in the same slow, steady pace.  It also acts as our guide through the story, often moving beyond the action to alight on some sign, some action that foreshadows a later event.  Married with the ominous score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, the movie takes on an almost dreamlike quality, pulsing and moving like a thing alive.

But when it does move quickly, it does so with a clinical precision, as when the image of the two little girls (disturbing just when they're standing there) intercuts with their mutilated bodies, their blood splattered over the walls:

Kubrick downplays many of the mystical elements of the novel in favor of watching the downward spiral of Nicholson's sanity.  And who wouldn't?  Even close to 30 years later it's still a frightening presence to behold.  In the beginning of the film we see Jack Torrance, hat in hand and obedient as a penitent sinner as he interviews for the caretaker position.  It's only through the side story of Danny's fainting spell, as the doctor questions Wendy Torrance (Shelly Duvall in an outstanding role) that we learn of Jack's drinking, and his temper that broke Danny's arm almost six months prior.  So Jack's state of mind is completely set up by the time we get to the Overlook, and the slow erosion of what's left of jack's mind is punctuated by the hollow echoes of a tennis ball as he hurls it across a large, empty room.  The "writing room" where Jack spends most of his time looms over everything like a death shroud, and shows us the isolation that pervades THE SHINING as much if not more so than the location shots of the hotel in the middle of the blizzard:

Danny's presence in the film tells us that the ghosts and spirits that haunt the Overlook hotel are definitely real, and as frightening as those scenes are, Kubrick time and time again brings the real horror back to the Torrances.  As Jack is driven deeper and deeper into the evil of the hotel, his lashings out at his wife become more and more startling, and he seeks solace with Lloyd, the ghostly bartender who refuses to accept Jack's money for the drinks.  "Your money's no good here, sir.  Orders from the House."

And speaking of the house, the art direction is a wonder to behold.  From the bright reds and greens of the more haunted areas, brought alive by Jack's presence, to the vivid carpet that Danny plays on and rides on, every color and light is tweaked to provide a maximum amount of unease.

Everything comes to a head in the closing half hour as Jack takes axe in hand to "correct" his wife and son.  Watching it again I'm amazed at how effective Shelly Duvall is during Nicholson's "I'm not gonna hurt you" speech.  Her utter confusion at what's going on, the horror and terror at the situation is right there in her saucer eyes, and her constant ending of everything she says with a question, something Nicholson picks up on in his mockery of her.  Later Kubrick relentlessly picks up the pace as Jack pursues Danny into the cold and dark garden maze.  The final scene of Jack frozen in the snow, his spirit now joining the rest of the "residents" of the Overlook Hotel, is just another in a series of lonely, isolated shots - people isolated from each other and from themselves.

Cold, disturbing in its images and shocking in its sudden bursts of rage, THE SHINING is a prime example of horror in its most unsettling forms: the dread of being truly cut off from the world, the unnamed fears of a child, and the terrible insanity of a broken mind.

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