Scary Movies: The Shining

When they ask you to come play with them, it’s probably best if you just say you’re busy.

The movie this week is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which I haven’t seen since high school and have wanted to see again for a long time. Upon rewatching, I think what makes this such a popular horror movie is how its ambiguities lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Things don’t have fixed meanings in this film; they keep shifting around.

It reminds me a lot of a movie I reviewed a few years ago, The Babadook, in that both movies involve the head of a fragile household who are going crazy and endangering their families, and whose madness may or may not be driven by actual supernatural forces. However, where I posited my own original theory about what’s happening in The Babadook, I’m going to refrain from that in The Shining. There are already numerous fascinating and well-thought out interpretations of The Shining and I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been thought of by somebody else. I’ll just stick to my normal review style.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has been wanting some time to work on his novel, so when he hears about a job as a caretaker for a remote hotel in Colorado over the winter, it sounds perfect. With nobody around for five months but him, his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall), and their young son, Danny, he’ll really have the time to write. The manager explains that a decade earlier, a previous caretaker went crazy from the isolation and killed his family with an axe. Jack assures him the isolation won’t bother him, and that his wife will be fascinated by the story. He doesn’t mention that it’ll also be a new start for them, because Jack is an alcoholic who’s only been clean for a few months.

On the day the hotel shuts down for the winter, the manager shows Jack and Wendy around, while the head chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), gets some ice cream for Danny. At one point, Mr. Hallorann communicates with Danny using his mind, and later Danny confides in him that the little boy who lives in his mouth has shown him terrible visions of the hotel. Mr. Hallorann tells Danny they share a special gift called the Shining, and if Danny ever needs any help, he can let Mr. Hallorann know psychically and Mr. Hallorann will come help. He also warns Danny never to look in Room 237.

Everybody leaves and the Torrances are left alone. For a month, they enjoy themselves, eating from the well-stocked hotel kitchen and having the run of the grounds. But as one of the worst blizzards in years approaches, strange things start happening. Danny sees spectral twin girls in the hallway who invite him to come play. Jack encounters a ghostly bartender at the hotel bar who provides him with booze, which has an all too real effect on him. And when Danny finds the door to Room 237 ajar and the light on, he goes in to investigate, where he’s choked by a strange woman. Later, when Wendy sees Danny’s bruised neck, she assumes Jack did it. The movie is ingenious in how it shows us the perspectives of the various characters, and how they each seem to be going crazy in their own way. It’s not really even clear whether the hauntings are real or just the products of their own cabin-fevered minds and their suspicions of the other characters.

Soon the blizzard hits and the high snow precludes any help arriving as the family’s relationships break down and progressively weirder things happen around the hotel. Jack is overcome by paranoia and in his vulnerable state, is convinced by a ghost of the old caretaker to kill his family. Danny finally decides to call Mr. Hallorann, who’s vacationing in Miami. Will Mr. Hallorann be able to make it back through the snow and wind to help Danny?

The Shining (1980)
Story/Plot/Characters— A fascinating set-up and situation, a superb script, and fully-inhabited characters. Jack Nicholson is over the top in a way that would have overwhelmed any other movie, but works here. Shelley Duvall was apparently criticized at the time for wooden acting, but I don’t see it–I find her character utterly believable. Just a few weeks ago, I was discussing how in The Omen we barely get to know the kid. Not so here, as we get a good idea of what Danny’s like as a kid, what he likes to do, etc.

I’m going to take half a point off the score for being slow in the first half. Yes, it’s a deliberate slow burn as we build up to the explosive second half, but the movie clocks in at 2:24, and easily could have been trimmed a bit without losing anything. (3.5 points)
Special Effects— Not just traditional special effects, but make-up, sets, camera tricks, Kubrick uses everything at his disposal, and it’s all employed to maximum effect. (2 points)
Scariness— Probably overall more creepy than outright scary, but it has its share of scares too. (2 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— Apparently inspired by photos of a real hotel in California, Kubrick had extensive and elaborate sets built for the movie to provide the exact atmosphere he was going for: lavish, labyrinthine, and disorienting. Combined with the remote location and circumstances, it produces a feeling of exquisite beauty, mystery, isolation, and eventually, helplessness in the midst of insanity. (2 points)
Total=9.5 points (Best Horror Movies Ever)

Final verdict: not only scary, but a fascinating scary. Very close to a perfect horror movie, tying for the third-highest score I’ve ever given.

Heeere’s Johnny!

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