Lost in the Movies: My #1 horror film: The Shining

My #1 horror film: The Shining

Just in time for Halloween (wait, it's over?), this is a response to the Wonders in the Dark Horror Countdown, which just wrapped up yesterday (The Shining also appeared on their list at #15, generating some comments almost as long as their post). A few films could have taken this spot for me - Rosemary's Baby and Pyscho were other close contenders, but ultimately this was the one I wanted to re-watch and explore in this short and informal piece. Check out the countdown, by the way, if you haven't already. And the genres keep coming - an animation countdown will launch Tuesday on the website; once it's over, I'll offer my #1 pick for that as well. For now, the Overlook Hotel...

How do you pick a #1 horror film? Well, of course, there are two parts to that question - why #1, and what's a horror film? Let's take the second part first. One great aspect of the recently concluded countdown was that it opened my eyes to viewing a whole slew of movies through this genre's framework - films with cross-genres, plots, and styles wildly divergent. Considered in the process were the sci-fi Alien, the adventure-suspense Jaws, the "realistic" serial killer movie Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the surrealistic, noiresque, perhaps just purely Lynchian Blue Velvet, even the Italian "rebellious youth" 60s classic Fists in the Pocket (which unfortunately did not make the top 100, but was mentioned in the offing). These were included alongside black-and-white monster movies, ubiquitous slashers, grotesque giallos, and other usual suspects. The approach broadened my own horizons, made me see both the genre and the films in question in a new light, and made for a fun list because you never knew what would show up! Still, when going for #1, all-time, top horror, it feels right to return to the roots of the genre, its core values.

In this sense, The Shining is just about a perfect representation of Horror with a capital "H." It has a haunted house, a psycho killer, a tense atmosphere, ghosts, supernatural powers, murder, corpses rising from the dead, an ax-wielding maniac (which I suppose overlaps with psycho killer, but this iconic fixture needs to be acknowledged separately). The Shining also includes a deeper, psychological element beyond the physical horror, an aspect which taps in to fears and anxieties about family, masculinity, alcoholism, abuse, creative block, and the ease with which one can descend into madness. So many images from the film have lodged themselves in the moviegoing consciousness: the snowy labyrinth, the twin girls standing in the hallway, Danny barreling his little tricycle through the corridors, Jack sitting demented at the typewriter, the blood pouring out from the elevator, and of course, Jack smashing the door in with an axe and leaning his face in the door, leering, as he proclaims, "Here's Johnny!!!!" Alongside other diverse horror approaches employed here, from slow-boil suspense to the shock surprise to the creepy immersion into the grotesque, the film does not forget that sometimes the most potent horror contains at least an element of humor - we like to laugh as we scream.

Which brings me back around to the first part of this question. We've listed a number of elements common to horror films, and tied them into The Shining. That said, why #1? Is it just a matter of hitting all the right notes? To answer this question, I'd actually like to switch stance and focus on the elements of the film which don't quite gel, at least at first: the bits and pieces of the movie which could be considered flaws. After all, for a while The Shining was not necessarily considered Kubrick's, er, shining moment - just a potboiler churned out while he was between an epic period adaptation and an intense comment on Vietnam (neither of which, incidentally, met with anything near universal acclaim on their own releases). While the film has always had a reputation within the horror genre, I don't remember seeing it on many "Best Films of All Time" lists more than a dozen years ago - it seems mostly within the past decade that it's been considered alongside Kubrick's other masterpieces. The movie "feels" quite long, though it's less than two and a half hours (some viewers found it more boring than frightening), a quality exacerbated by the slow unfolding of its scenes, utilizing long takes and exaggerated fatigue in the performances and pacing (though this accelerates by the violent finale).

That in itself wouldn't be considered a flaw by most people (indeed, it's a strength) but the film has a number of qualities which, at various times, I've regarded as either mistakes on Kubrick's part or at best bizarrely fortuitous risks. From the very first scene, there's something weird about the movie, even putting aside the strangeness of the dialogue (as in that first interview where they cheerfully discuss an axe murder). Kubrick's a formal master, no decisions being made that he isn't fully conscious of, yet at times we wonder what he was thinking. The colors are low-key garish (in that inimitable late 70s way) - all mauve, and sickly orange, and blanched brown. The scenes unfold in a kind of somber, trademark-Kubrickian intensity, even when their content doesn't seem to warrant it. The incessant dissolves from shot to shot are distracting and at times unappealing - reading as if they were added after the fact so that the compositions being faded between don't quite match. The performances seem tired, confused, resolutely un-realistic - Shelley Duvall in particular seems to be broadcasting her personality in from another planet. No doubt this is due both to Kubrick's peculiar shooting style - the wide lens, the long take, the precision of the composition as if his camera is a gun pointed at the actor's heads (and they seem just as uneasy as if it was). And especially those infamous long takes, a hundred sometimes, in which the performer was worn down, unable to figure out what the director wanted, finally achieving what he desired simply by giving up all attempts to please him.

And then there's Kubrick's insistence on shooting in England - the exterior scenes of the Overlook don't even come close to matching the huge overhead establishing shots, filmed out in the Pacific Northwest. The horizon-line is too calm, the grounds too tidy - there's no sense at all of the mountains looming in the distance or that uneasy Western air unsettling everyone. When it's nighttime and it's snowing this problem is less pronounced; nonetheless, as in Full Metal Jacket or Eyes Wide Shut, there is no "real" sense of (outside) place, as there was in Barry Lyndon, the last movie Kubrick left the comforts of Elstree to shoot on location. On the other hand, as with the War Room in Dr. Strangelove or the spaceship in 2001, Kubrick's interiors have a life of their own, and the Overlook Hotel is one of the most memorable and fully experienced sets ever constructed. This is appropriate because the film is about being trapped in one's own world - both the actual physical confines of an old hotel isolated by a blizzard, and the uncanny space in one's own head where "reality" starts to lose its meaning and all sorts of other impulses and sensations come pouring in.

At any rate, in the past I've watched the movie and seen all of these elements - the dissolves, the performances, the lack of resonance to the location - as awkward flaws in the filmmaking. Thus it seems perverse to rank this as my #1 horror film, doesn't it? But in fact that's exactly what I love about The Shining - its perversity. It continues to fascinate after many conventional films have lost their charm because even beyond the plot mechanics and iconic apparitions, there's just something "off" about the movie, something we can't quite put our finger on. To the point where I'm inclined to believe, particularly because we know none of these decisions were accidental, that Kubrick wanted to make the movie seem ugly, awkward, bizarre, even before the plot theoretically "needed" to be. There's an element of madness, creepiness, and black comedy right from the beginning, along with an aura of heightened artificiality - achieved, paradoxically, through an intensely "realistic" shooting style, in which no tics of the actor or dead pauses in the action are allowed to be ironed out. As Amos Vogel writes about avant-garde "long-take" movies in his seminal Film as a Subversive Art, "Unexpectedly, the unedited flow of real time fails to provide a greater semblance of reality, but instead increases awareness of the work's artificiality. The film as such calls imperious attention to itself."

Though The Shining generally cuts between different shots, rather than letting entire scenes unfold in one single take, the concentration of action and the precision of movement (or lack thereof) within the frame contribute to this same sense of time slowing down, of nervous actors revealing not just the performance but the discomfort of the performer underneath (this is the sense in which the artificiality leads right back around to a deeper, more "real" experience than would an artfully conveyed illusionism). All of those "off" elements and eccentric touches (like Scatman Crowthers reclining under the gaze of two dramatically posed and symmetrically placed nude portraits) discomfort us from the very start - this is not a sane universe gone mad, but an already off-kilter universe allowed to unveil the full range of its madness. Before moving on from a formal discussion, we have to at least acknowledge the brilliance of Kubrick's Steadicam shots - the entire film moves with an uncertain yet unstoppable flowing momentum, adding to the sense of forces beyond the characters' control manipulating both their inner and outer lives. Also worth noting is Kubrick's use of the square frame (the "widescreen" theatrical release is actually a cropped version of the original camera negative; the movie was not shot anamorphically) - which with the drably realistic color palate adds to the eerie "live television" feel of the movie at times. This look puts The Shining outside the realm of heightened cinematic fantasy and into something existing uneasily between the soap opera and the Brechtian ("Twin Peaks" shares this quality among others; indeed, the similarities of Lynch's show to The Shining - in shooting and acting style, in location, in themes, in tone and pacing - are worth their own post).

While I'm sure it's been discussed extensively before, it's also worth pointing out that The Shining is a diabolically clever portrait (self-portrait?) of masculine anxiety. There's that bizarre encounter with the woman in the bathtub, whose transformation into a decaying hag reveals the depth of Jack's misogyny (even when she's still young and beautiful, there is something in her pose and gaze which threatens Jack as much as it compels him). Then, of course, there's Jack's abusive history, his merciless needling of his wife ("I think you've got some very definite ideas of what to do with Danny!") - as a friend pointed out, he even refers to his wife as "the sperm bank." Finally, Jack's madness is propelled by visitations from male ghosts, who reveal not only a deep-rooted sense of violent patriarchy (the previous caretaker had to kill his wife and little girls in order to "correct" them) but racism as well ("a nigger cook"). There's a reason Jack ends the film locked inside a picture dated "1921" - he has finally chosen the world of the past over that of the complicated present (in which difficult children "have problems" and need doctors, while husbands have to sacrifice and nurture) - a world which his son and wife have escaped but which he can't. He's not only a failed father, husband, and macho man, he's a failed artist. A Hemingway-wannabe whose prose output ultimately consists of ten words, Jack is the perfect portrait of terrorizing creative block; anyone who's sat in front of a computer screen or typewriter and struggled to hit the first key can relate to his maniacal meltdown.

I ended up writing more than I thought I would; this was supposed to be an informal explanation of my choice, but there was just so much to discuss. As the man with the bloody forehead proclaims, raising his glass with a wicked grin, "Great party, isn't it?!"

If you want to discuss your own favorite horror films, visit "Final Lists", which concludes the countdown.


Jaime Grijalba said...

This is also my choice for number 1 and for the exact same reasons you post, there are so many readings that can be made due to the characteristics of the making of the movie and what it trascends to the screen.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, if there was to be a poll on the site I suspect this would at least come close, even if Psycho was the favorite (I'll be writing on Psycho next week btw). I think it might even take it. At least if Dennis could electioneer ;)

Unknown said...

Well said! I love this film for all the reasons you stated so eloquently. To me, the film almost feels like it takes place in Jack's mind... at least that's what it feels like at times. One of the best films about madness ever made.

Joel Bocko said...

I know what you mean - for some reason that makes me think of the shot where it cuts from Jack overlooking the labyrinth model to an overhead shot of the real labyrinth, though it takes a few seconds for us to realize what we're looking at (such a great cut). And also the long, weird shot of him staring with dissipated menace out the window in the snowstorm.

Paul J. Marasa said...

As much as I shy away from "bests," if I had to commit to a favorite horror film, I'd pick "The Shining"--although "The Exorcist" sends me into an oneiric swoon, and "Bride of Frankenstein" is crueler than "The Devil's Rejects." (When I was a kid, Karloff's final line, "We belong dead," slapped me around pretty badly.)

But "The Shining" is, as you point out, THE horror film for the adult male, exposing every petty grudge and crippling doubt. Watching Jack stalk Wendy up those stairs, all the while hectoring her about his "responsibilities," is as troubling as "The Black Scorpion" was when I was eight.

By the way, Happy New Year.

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