As I began to get acclimated to watching scary movies, I quickly realized that Friday the 13'th-type slasher flicks really didn't do a lot for me. What did petrify me, however, were spiritual threats: movies with ghosts, phantoms, specters and haunts. The first time I ever watched The Shining, I had no clue that I was about to get into. I certainly didn't expect to see my worst fears manifest on home video.
Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a failed writer and recovering alcoholic. Forced to take odd jobs to survive financially, he applies for the winter caretaker gig at the Overlook Hotel. He accepts the assignment, despite being told that the previous caretaker went all banjo-kazooie during his stay and hacked his wife and twin daughters up with an ax. Um, okay.
Jack totes his insecure wife Wendy (Shelly Duval) and their young psychic son Danny (Danny Lloyd) up to the hotel. Almost immediately, Jack starts to go a little whack-a-do. He gets writers block, snaps at his wife, obsessively throws a tennis ball against the wall for hours on end and then starts to exhibit signs of intoxication. This last bit is super-creepy since we've already been told that the hotel is completely devoid of alcohol.
Meanwhile, young Danny starts to explore the hotel and pretty soon the setting itself becomes intolerably spooky. I don't know what it is, but deserted schools, hospitals and hotels all creep me right the fuck out. To make matters worse, Danny begins to see disturbing images just below the facade of reality, like psychic residue left over from traumatic events. The first time I saw that blood-tsunami pour through those elevator doors, I knew that I was in w-a-a-a-a-a-a-y over my head.
But then it got worse, much worse. Via an amazing continuous Steadicam shot, Kubrick shows Danny driving through the deserted halls of the hotel on his Big Wheel. After an appropriately uncomfortable amount of time ticks by, he cuts around a tight corner and runs smack dab into two pasty, twin British girls who stare at him balefully and say:
"Come play with us, Danny. For ever and ever..."
Kubrick then raises the terror level to fire-engine red by splicing in a few frames of the girls lying there all bloodied and hacked up. It's a truly ghastly image that's done absolutely nothing whatsoever to cure my irrational fear of kids. Especially kids with British accents.
Later, after Danny is found wandering around in a state of shock, Jack goes to investigate the ominous Room 237 just to prove that there's nothing in there. As he slowly inches his way through the suite, he eventually makes his way into the bathroom where he sees a gorgeous naked woman rising out of the tub.
Needless to say, Jack is pleasantly surprised by his good fortune and also seemingly unaware of the ominous music by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind which is shredding the viewer's wits to ribbons. The woman silently steps out of the bath and then walks over to embrace him. Then Jack gets a fleeting glimpse of the woman's true appearance in the mirror. What follows is so supremely disturbing that I can't even bring myself to write about it.
I distinctly remember shutting the movie off at that point just to exert some control over it. If you're anything like me, the temptation to turn on all the lights, locate your own baseball bat and rock back and forth in the corner will be overwhelming. Hopefully you'll also be as nutty as I was and forge on.
After Wendy discovers that Jack's been writing a book only slightly more boring then the average Stephenie Meyer novel, he freaks out and tries to kill her. As she attempts to escape from the Overlook, the hotel's ghosts really start to come out of the woodwork. Kubrick then annihilates what was left of our frazzled nerves by showing a sordid, surreal, half-glimpsed costumed coupling going on behind a half-open door. Just thinking about this image and the teeth-jangling musical accompaniment always gives me chills. Only the "Fur and Loathing" episode of C.S.I. is more consistently disturbing to me.
It's hard to believe it now but The Shining was almost universally panned when it was first released back in 1980, even by original novelist Stephen King. He thought that Kubrick had taken far too many liberties with the original source material. Interestingly enough, when King himself oversaw a T.V. movie remake back in 1997, the results were tepid at best.
The perspective of time eventually earned Kubrick's horror masterpiece a slew of accolades, forcing many a film critic to eat crow. King has since changed his opinion of the original film and I actually count myself among the reformers. At first I thought that Jack Nicholson went bonkers way too quickly and his manic performance was unintentionally funny. Although I still stand by that somewhat, I've come to realize that the film less about a Jack Torrance character study and more about our failure as human beings to learn from our mistakes.
Even though Nicholson's performance is kinda hammy, Shelley Duvall's pathetic and annoying Wendy is tremendously realized and little Danny Lloyd is a tremendous asset to the cast. This is in stark contrast to child actor Courtland Mead who was a crippling liability to the crappy T.V. movie remake. To round out the cast, Scatman Crothers is wonderfully comforting as Dick Hallorann. When he becomes mired in an epic panic attack towards the end of the film you know that shit's gonna get real post-haste.
Indeed, The Shining is one of the most artistic, epic, psychologically-complicated and downright scary films ever to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public. It's impossible to take your eyes off the damned thing. Regardless of how late I start watching it, I never come close to distraction. Kubrick's superb eye always keeps me rapt, even during the slow build up at the start.
I gotta salute any movie that sends chills down my spine even by merely thinking about it. For its tremendous mise-en-scène, brilliant cinematography and eternally haunting, perverse imagery, The Shining scores top marks.