The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980) – What makes a movie scary? The most horrifying thing most parents could imagine would be to lose their child, but if you have a movie about parents losing a child it would be much more likely to be categorized as a “drama.” I often refer to the documentary Jesus Camp as “the scariest movie I have ever seen” (due to its chronicling of cult-like indoctrination of children) but it hardly meets the traditional definition of a “scary movie.” Even within the realm of murderers stalking people, movies like The Silence of the Lambs tend to be classified as “psychological thrillers.” No, if you say “scary movie” the minds of most people will pretty much go straight to horror films. Therein lies the conundrum: most horror movies just aren’t that scary. I suppose that’s up for debate, again depending on how you define scary. If some previously unseen person or thing jumping out at the camera qualifies to you as a genuine scare then yes, I suppose a lot of horror movies are scary. A lot of movies can make me jump. I wouldn’t call them genuinely scary. To me, what makes a movie scary is a unyielding sense of unease that persists even after the film is over. Most horror movies don’t quite do this for me. The Shining does.

The Overlook Hotel is a prestigious hotel in the Colorado Rockies. Due to the challenges of the extreme weather, the hotel closes for five months every winter and in that time they hire a single caretaker. The latest caretaker is a writer named Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson). Before he takes the job, the hotel manager Mr. Ullman (Barry Nelson) warns Jack that the job can take its toll on people mentally. A previous caretaker (Philip Stone) went insane and murdered his family with an ax before committing suicide. Jack assures Ullman that he is more than up to the task, and he moves into the hotel with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Before the staff clears out for the winter, Danny talks with the cook Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) who shares Danny’s unique psychic gifts, which Halloran’s grandmother always called a “shine.” The Overlook has a lot of history, a lot of which has left traces behind. The kind of traces that might appear vividly to someone with Danny’s gifts. Or Jack’s issues. The winter is not kind to the Torrance family.

The Shining has something of a slow build. There’s a lot of backstory involving things like Danny’s imaginary friend Tony, Jack’s past with alcohol abuse, and the titular psychic ability. But from the very first frames something about the movie feels… off. The music by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind serves to underscore every scene with a unescapable feeling of dread. A lot has been made of the film’s more famous scenes of terror such as the two creepy girls in the hallway (Lisa and Louise Burns), the blood in the elevator, and what happens in room 237, but to me the scene that best encapsulates the power of the movie is a quiet one. Danny is getting a toy from his room and sees his father sitting on the bed. They have a simple conversation about how they’re liking life in the hotel. Nothing they say is that weird (except for one of Jack’s lines that echoes those creepy-ass girls) but the tone of the scene is just so wrong that this simple ostensibly happy conversation is creepy in its own right. Then there are the things that just make no sense, the most famous of which involves a man in an animal costume. (Actually if you’ve read the excellent Stephen King novel that the movie is based on that IS explained but it works so much better as something completely random when everything is coming apart at the film’s climax.)

Jack Nicholson’s performance is great. He seems from the beginning to be a man who is just barely holding on, so you know when shit gets crazy Jack will match that crazy blow for blow. Stanley Kubrick was something of a notorious perfectionist. Everything in this movie is as it should be under the eye of a meticulous craftsman. Stephen King actually does not care for this movie, as he feels that the novel’s allegory for King’s own struggles with alcoholism were lost in translation. Having both read the novel and seen the movie I can understand his complaints while not sympathizing with them. The movie belongs to Kubrick far more than King and I can definitely get how that would be alienating for an author. Especially involving what I consider to be King’s single best book (narrowly edging out The Stand for me). The Shining has a firm place in cinematic and cultural history. It inspired one of the single best Halloween parodies on The Simpsons. It played a central part in a memorable episode of Friends. The Overlook’s carpet pattern is visible in Sid’s house in Toy Story (and several more references to this movie pop up throughout Toy Story 3). An entire documentary, Room 237, has been made about the film and is critically-acclaimed in its own right. The movie’s iconography (the twins, the blood, the hedge maze, “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”) is instantly recognizable. But the most important legacy of the film for me is this: few movies truly scare me and The Shining ranks at the top of that list.



This is the second scariest movie I have ever seen [after Jesus Camp, but that isn’t technically a horror movie].  Now I’m sure a bunch of people have seen this movie and think “well it’s not that scary.”  I disagree.  It’s very short on “jumps,” which seems to be all most modern horror movies consist of for scares [I’m not knocking them, I love those movies].  The Shining goes for something deeper.  Imagery like the blood coming out of the elevator or those FREAKY-ASS LITTLE GIRLS doesn’t make you jump out of your seat.  But it gets to you.  It’s deeply unsettling and that’s what this movie does.  Everything is tuned to rattle your cage.  The screaming violins on the soundtrack or the very deliberate pacing of even the “non-horror” scenes.  There’s something… off.  There’s something off about the whole movie and it makes the truly scary scenes all the more terrifying.  The bathtub scene gets me every time because it starts nice and then goes bad so very quickly.  Even when you see it coming, it still gets you.  Jack Nicholson really makes his character worse because actors love to do over-the-top “crazy” characters but Nicholson makes you believe from his very first scene that his recovering alcoholic character is just barely hanging on.  It doesn’t take much in the way of supernatural influence to push him far far far over the edge.  A truly scary movie doesn’t necessarily make you jump in your seat.  A truly scary movie stays with you even after you’re done watching it.  And if it’s really good maybe it will stay with you forever… and ever… and ever…

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