The Shining ReviewJoe Shaffer
The Shining doesn't open with a bang, nor maintain a relentless assault of terror from start to finish. Nor does the film radically shift from one mood to another at the drop of a hat. Rather, The Shining flows like some Japanese horror movies I've seen do. It starts with an average family engaged in everyday activities, not to mention some fine character development, and progressively alternates its gears from mundane to odd to weird to crazy to downright mad as the story progresses. The film's mood seems to imitate that of its protagonist, whom we watch steadily descend into depravity as the minutes pass.
It's not as though Jack Torrance's (Jack Nicholson) downward spiral is unexpected, though. Although the main trio appear normal enough, we get a few sneaking suspicions that something isn't quite right about them (never mind the ominous opening theme). It could be that the mother of the household, Wendy (Shelly Duvall), seems somewhat detached and cautious when interacting with her husband Jack. It could also be that their son Danny displays rather peculiar behavior. In particular, his imaginary friend Tommy shows him horrifying visions of future events. Or maybe it's the film's references to Jack's alcoholism and episode of child abuse that occurred ages ago.
Now take into consideration that this psychologically fragile family is currently en route to the Overlook Hotel in the heart of Colorado. As it turns out, the hotel's management hired Jack to be the winter caretaker, giving the man an opportunity to provide for his family while he attempts to pen his latest novel. This may sound like a hell of a deal, except that the Overlook is not your garden variety inn. It's large, lavish, and haunted as all get out.
Part of what makes The Shining such a terrifying movie is Jack Nicholson's awesome performance. Jack starts off as a level-headed, rational man looking to support his family. By and by, the hotel firmly takes hold of him. As it tightens its grasp, we see Jack evolve from a mild mannered writer into an enraged psychopath. I still get chills seeing Jack stare into space in a few scenes, the gears in his head likely turning in insidious directions. One of my favorite scenes involves Danny entering Jack's room while he's napping, and Jack sitting his son next to him to have a man-to-man chat. Though Jack is calm during the exchange, you can tell by the horrible tone in his voice that he's on the verge of losing it.
...and then he does. His sanity eventually wanes to the point that he secures an axe, thereby initiating a nearly mesmerizing rampage that prevents a certain deus ex machina from occurring.
The scenes that feature Jack Nicholson sprinting through the Overlook, shouting at the top of his lungs with his axe in hand, his mug bespeaking a burgeoning bloodlust, are downright unnerving. They are not, however, the most terrifying part about The Shining. What truly takes the cake is the film's bizarre imagery that appears throughout the final act. At first, The Shining's strangeness is pretty tame. One scene, for instance, depicts Danny and Wendy exploring the Overlook's hedge maze. Simultaneously, Jack spots tiny replicas of Danny and Wendy traversing through an indoor model of the maze. From there, the ghostly manifestations of the Overlook slowly progress from 'a little odd' to 'crap-in-your-pants frightening.' Danny in particular runs afoul of a few specters, namely a pair of murdered twin girls and a psychotic old woman in room 237. It all builds to a major assault in the movie's closing minutes, when Wendy traverses the hotel in search of her son, occasionally assailed by phantasmal depictions that range from a blood-spouting elevator to a man in a bear suit presumably giving oral pleasure to a stern-faced old man. Many of these visions are not creepy in and of themselves, but have become so through a lack of explanation or context. Rather than merely strange, they're otherwordly and quite possibly malevolent.
One thing I should note about The Shining: it doesn't stick very well to its source material. Honestly, though, I'm glad that it doesn't. Some folks, Stephen King included, argue that the novel was basically King's psyche crying out for help in the midst of his struggle with substance abuse. In a way, the novel very personal to King. As such, the only person who should therefore direct a straightforward retelling of the novel is King himself. As some of you know, King actually has directed a movie before, and it wasn't exactly a smash hit. I think this film was better off with a director other than King. Kubrick's iteration of The Shining eschews most of the King-specific material and axes a lot of the backstory and clunky explanations, creating an depraved, yet memorable horror experience. Best of all, it doesn't completely ruin the novel for interested readers.
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