Brief Thoughts on ‘The Shining’

Last night I watched The Shining for the first time with my family. Though obviously I’ve been familiar with it for a long time and I’ve seen many clips of it (which, unfortunately, meant that I kind of went in knowing more or less what was going to happen).

Quick take: it’s pretty good. I can’t say I thought it was amazing, certainly not one of my top horror films, but it’s pretty good.

The best part: definitely the camera work and set decoration. I haven’t seen a camera move as much and in the way this one does in a long time; maybe ever. Especially the way it’ll hang over the character’s shoulders, following them from room to room as though something’s watching them. The suspense scenes are very well set up as well, like when Wendy is dragging Jack to the storeroom, and we can see he’s beginning to wake up as she fumbles with the doorknob. And the Overlook Hotel is a masterpiece of design. It looks very much like a real hotel, but something about the way it’s shot and the ambiance conveys a strong sense of isolation, of that particular, specific feeling of being alone in a place meant for crowds.

The performances are great all around. Danny Lloyd, who plays little Danny is a stand-out in the ranks of creepy children in horror films. Shelly Duvall has to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and props to her for pulling off the terrified wife role so effectively. I also really liked Scatman Cruthers as the kindly chef who shares Danny’s gift and tries his best to help them (his exit was kind of annoying, though: all that work and time to get him there, and he’s just bumped out of the movie). The smaller roles were excellently cast as well: particularly Barry Nelson as the hotel owner, trying to put the best possible spin on “one of your predecessors went nuts and murdered his family” so as not to scare off a potential employee, and Joe Turkel as Lloyd the bartender, who manages to be one of the most unsettling things in the hotel with nothing but a piercing smile (who was also Dr. Tyrell from Blade Runner: dang, that’s a resume right there).

(There is one big exception to the cast, which we will get to. Though you’ve probably already notice who I’ve left out)

The scares were nicely done for the most part. I thought some of them dragged on for too long (the nude woman in the bath for instance could have stood to have been tightened up a bit: come on, movie, we know something’s going to happen here). And I really liked the creeping sense of uncertainty of just what the hotel wants and what really is happening here. That famous final shot, coupled with some earlier lines, leaves us feeling we’ve touched the edge of a world of rules that we don’t understand, which is what many good horror films aim to achieve (definite Lovecraft influence there, as he was the master of this effect).

Speaking of influences, I saw quite a bit of DNA from Robert Wise’s The Haunting, especially the creative camera work and the specific scare of having a crucial door which had previously been locked suddenly be found open. Actually, upon reflection, the film is more or less the same story as The Haunting, only with a family and ax-murder angle and more heavy-handed manifestations. This is not a bad thing at all; most stories are variations on older ones. Just so long as you do something creative or interesting with it, and I’d say this one does.

The biggest liability to the film is definitely Jack Nicholson. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great actor and he’s extremely entertaining here. But that’s kind of the problem; he’s more entertaining than scary. When he goes nuts, I couldn’t help laughing because it’s Jack Nicholson gnawing at the scenery like a sugar addict set loose in Willy Wonka’s factory, bugging his eyes, arching those famous eyebrows of his, and twisting his face like rubber. Take the scene where he’s talking to his son (a genuinely uncomfortable scene, admittedly). When he says, “I would never hurt you,” I just laughed because he says it in the most insane, non-reassuring way imaginable. It wouldn’t have been out of place in a cartoon.  

Who would believe this guy could become an ax murderer?

That, and he’s too obviously crazy from the get go. If I’m supposed to be disturbed and shocked by a normal family man dissolving into an axe-wielding psychopath, he can’t start off looking like an axe-wielding psychopath. Nicholson’s many things, but he’s not the everyman. Intentional or not, he comes across like a nutjob from almost the moment we meet him (about a half-hour in I commented “this is basically ‘I Married the Joker’”).

I also didn’t care much for the roller-coaster of scares in the climax, with Wendy running around the hotel and encountering different ghosts. Throwing weird stuff at her like a guy in a bear costume giving a blow-job to a butler feels way too desperate and…well, just random. Like they collected a lot of different weird ideas and just pulled a few out of the hat. Not like, say, the Shape’s surreal tableau of jack-o-lanterns, a tombstone, and the body of one of its victims at the end of Halloween, which was atmospheric as hell while tying in with the opening and giving disturbing hints at the inner workings of its mind. This just feels like they were trying to be shocking for shock’s sake.

Actually, that’s another problem; the manifestations throughout the film are too random. They actually remind me of the scares in House on Haunted Hill: that sense of just throwing anything at the screen in the hopes of getting a reaction. They seem to me to lack any kind of thematic through line, or to have any real depth to them. They could have had with a few small tweaks, but they don’t (I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how much this applies there as well). Like, the bear-costume bit could have been ten times as effective if, say, Danny had carried a teddy bear around with him or been particularly attached to such a toy. That would have linked it to the rest of the story, would have been a scare with some real bite to it, instead of just a “what the heck?” moment. Likewise the woman in the bath would have worked better if we’d established that Jack and his wife were no longer being intimate (playing on the idea of isolation and confinement), but nothing suggested that to me. Wendy is warm and affectionate to Jack, if a bit of a frumpy nag, and the friction comes primarily from his end.  

The best scares are simply the sense of isolation and cold created by the visual style: the crushing sense of loneliness, of boredom, of confinement. The film excels at this, and I think it’s the best thing about it.  

Overall, I’d call The Shining a good horror movie, but not a great one. The directing and acting are exemplary, it’s amazingly atmospheric, and it’s highly entertaining, but a lot of the scares are pretty shallow upon reflection and it’s handicapped by a tremendous miscasting in the lead role. But whatever its flaws, it’s definitely one that needs to be seen by anyone who enjoys horror films or wants to understand the horror genre.

Never going to be a favorite, but clearly canon status.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s