Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Stanley Kubrick's, The Shining

I'm aware not everyone has an interest in horror films. When I reveal my own fondness for horror films, it's often received with a tilt of the head and an "I don't get it." In time I've found enough people who have the same love for these films as I do. My love of all things scary, bizarre and creepy in film goes back to the fact that "The Shining" was the first horror film I ever saw. I was probably ten or eleven years old, and it scared me out of my wits. I loved every pulse pounding, claustrophobic second of it, and I've been a fan ever since. I'd be willing to bet it's also somewhat due to the fact that "The Exorcist" was the second horror film I saw, and that too scared me silly. I was a lot luckier than most to have had my introduction to horror films be two of the finest the genre has to offer.

I'd lost my interest in kids books a pretty young age and when I got my hands on a copy of Stephen King's "Pet Semetary" it was off to the races for me. My parents always gave themselves and me enough credit to not think I'd mistake fantasy for reality, and so my journey into the world of horror began.

As I became more aware of the world around me and it became clear to me my love for the world of horror wasn't shared by everyone else, I went from feeling just plain strange about it, to feeling it was some badge of honor (I was, of course, intellectually superior. Yes, I'm kidding now, I wasn't then) to realizing it's like the difference between one persons favorite color being blue and another persons being red or green. What I have found though, is that if I ask someone who's not particularly a fan of horror films to name one they did like, it's nearly guaranteed the answer is going to be "The Shining."

One of the reasons for that is "The Shining" doesn't rely on what even then in 1980 when it was released, were already established horror genre cliche's. There are no cheap scares. If you're scared, it's because you've been given a damn good reason to be scared. It's a combination of masterful restraint, and all out assault on the senses. Now, don't make the mistake of thinking that by assault on the senses I mean an assault on good taste, because somehow, that's never the case. The film never goes for the cheap scare, never treats it's audience as anything other than intelligent, and doesn't' rely on blood and guts for its' scares. Although there is some blood in the film, with the exception of one quick camera shot, all of the violence (which there is little of to begin with) is either implied or takes place off camera. It's a film which somehow scares one to death without using any of the cheap tricks which we've all come to expect. It's so artfully, masterfully crafted that it doesn't need gore. If not for the supernatural overtone, I'd be willing to bet that like "Silence Of The Lambs," "The Shining" wouldn't be considered a horror movie by most, but a thriller, psychological or otherwise. What the two films have in common is incredible quality, and a love for them by those who made them which is clear by just how powerful they are.

According to IMDB the tagline for "The Shining" is - "A modern masterpiece of modern horror," and in what is such a rare case, it's absolutely the truth. This is of course, "Stanley Kubrick's, The Shining" and not Stephen King's "The Shining" so it's not completely faithful to the original novel. I was lucky to have seen the film before I read the book, so the two things stand on their own for me, not as extensions of the other. Stanley Kubrick is absolutely at the top of his game for this film, and that's saying a lot considering the man is one of the great genius who was able to elevate film to an art form.

Kubrick was known as an eccentric genius who was nearly obsessive compulsive when it came to his attention to detail in his films. This reputation is proven as fact in every shot, every sequence of "The Shining." Kubrick instills the entire film with a sense of dread and foreboding which builds from the opening shots of Jack Torrance driving the mountain roads on his way to an interview at the Overlook Hotel to the ending sequence as the camera follows the films characters through the hotels hedgemaze. The tension which grows throughout the film starts out as a feeling of unease and crescendo's as all out terror and panic.

There are four pieces to the puzzle of what makes this film so superior, not only to others in the genre, but also to so many other films in general, the puzzle of what makes it a masterpiece in not only modern horror, but in film making. First is Stanley Kubrick being at the top of his game. He lent his genius to films in a number of different genres, and in many cases his creations are considered the greatest in their genre, "The Shining" being another example. It is to the horror film what "2001: A Space Odyssey" is to science fiction, what "Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb)" is to comedic satire, what "Full Metal Jacket" is to the war/basic training genre. The history of film making may not have another director who can claim those kinds of achievements. And let's not forget that he also co-wrote the screenplay for "The Shining," adapting it from the novel himself. Not an unusual thing for him to do. Kubrick's beginning's as a still photographer can be seen in every frame of "The Shining" as every single shot is meticulously composed. One of the most inspired choices he made in creating this film was to almost completely do away with a conventional score, and instead to have used what is more a soundscape than a score. It doesn't sound so much like music as it does like musical instruments being tortured into releasing sounds they weren't meant to make. Without it, the overall experience with this film would be drastically different.

Second is the incomparable performance turned in by Jack Nicholson. By the time "The Shining" came around, Nicholson had already become a star with such films as "Easy Rider," "One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest," "Chinatown," "The Last Detail," and "Five Easy Pieces." But for all of his star power at the time, it was his turn in "The Shining" which would catapult him to the status of icon. His portrayal of a man overcome by his demons, both inner and exterior was not only terrifying, and at times hilarious, but also unforgettable. His delivery of the line "Heeeeeeeerrreesss JOHNNY," has become part of the cultural vernacular as well as his psychotic grin and sarcasm have become part of the collective unconscious. Without Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, "The Shining" wouldn't have been as effective. In an interview with Kubrick's daughter who was on set for filming, Nicholson comments on the fact that an actor spends his time, his training saying, "I'm going to make this real, I'm going to get it to be real. I'm going to make this more real than they've ever seen before. Then you meet up with someone like Stanley who says, 'Yeah, it's real, but it's not interesting." Luckily for all of us who love film, Nicholson went with Kubrick's suggestion and tried to turn in an interesting performance because more than interesting, it's unforgettable.

Next we come to Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance. Upon first viewing it's very easy to be completely unsympathetic to her character, to almost wish her husband does her in. But the more I watch this film, the more I become aware of just how subtle and ingenious her performance is in this role. Beyond the fact that I don't know any woman has ever been so convincingly terrified in a film, Shelley Duvall imbues this character with enough of a genuine care for her child's well being and an absolute ability to make us believe she does not understand what is happening at all that without her, without which the film wouldn't hold together at all. Her character is the lynch pin in the entire story. She is the one who is least aware of what is really happening to her husband as they try to wait out the winter together in the deserted resort hotel. Her son's psychic abilities, or his ability to "shine" as the always interesting and sympathetic Scatman Crothers calls it, gives him some ideas about what's going on she is never privy to. Her husband is losing his mind completely as she so memorably finds out when she reads his "manuscript" which is nothing but a number of reams of patterned typing of the sentence, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Kubrick and Duvall had many a disagreement during filming, but she would later go on to say the film and Kubrick had probably taught her more than anything else she'd ever done. One is forced to wonder in seeing interviews with her during filming whether or not Kubrick purposely pushed her to her limit emotionally to help to bring this performance out. One way or another, Duvall has a place in my Hall of Fear for her incredible performance. When you consider the fact that she has at least as much screen time as Jack, and that the film never lags when she's not sharing the screen with him, you have to conclude that although he got the juicy lines, Duvall went toe to toe with Nicholson in this film.

Last, comes the real antagonist of the film, The Overlook Hotel. Oregon's Timberline Hotel is assigned the task of taking over the role of the sinister Overlook. It's isolated location, rooms both large and small somehow all contribute to the films feeling of claustrophobia and ever present evil. Never has such a breathtakingly beautiful location been so terrifying at the same time. There may not have been another place in the world which would have so well lent itself to the story. Since the hotel is actually a character in the story, it was essential to find someplace which was both majestic and somewhat unsettling, and I'm not sure whether it was Kubrick's directing entirely or just the sheer size of the place which helped create that. Again without it, the film would never have worked nearly as well as it does. The hedgemaze outside being the absolutely perfect place for the climax of the film, and another somehow eerie touch during the rest of the film.

This is one of those rare films that not only transcends genre, but also transcends time and in many ways the limits of the medium itself. "Stanley Kubrick's, The Shining" is a masterpiece and work of art in film, not only in horror films. Even if you're not a fan of horror films, this is one you have to see. If for no other reason than the fact that you'll be able to add one horror film to the list of your favorite films.

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