But at the same time, there's only so much you, or at least I, can be scared of something like that. It can be intense or disturbing, and from that standpoint you might call it scary, but it's not very relatable is it? After all, nobody has a valid fear of being eaten by a dinosaur, and least nobody with a grasp on reality. But to dive into something that's tangible can elevate a film from being a collection of well-timed and executed shocks, and turn it into something that can crawl into your head, dig under your skin, and mess with you in a way that those outlandish monsters can't. That's where the real horror is, in my opinion. After all, everyone can relate to being angry at your family. And everyone can also imagine the fear of someone swinging an axe at your head.
And let's be honest. I think we all have an ingrained fear of Jack Nicholson. And plaid.
That brings me to what I consider to be one of the greatest horror films of all time, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's "The Shining." Kubrick is a director whose works for me run the gambit from the sublime ("A Clockwork Orange") to the moderately decent ("Dr. Strangelove") to the wretchedly unwatchable ("2001: A Space Odyssey"). You can never quite tell what you're getting yourself into with him, which makes him an interesting director to discover. And even though I think that often his work is frankly overrated, I can't deny that he makes a damn good horror film. Too bad he only did one.
The reason "The Shining" works so well is because of three main factors. The first is the famous Kubrick slow burn, which sucked all life out of "2001" but made "The Shining" fantastic because a) It's not nearly as slow, b) It serves a purpose other than to simply take a long time and c) Things actually happen. From the opening helicopter shot where we see Jack's car while that horribly ominous, unearthly music plays, we can tell something is off. Something's not quite right. The hotel itself seems to be watching him, keeping something waiting around every corner, ready to strike.
Man. This would have made the best Fruit Gushers commercial.
The cinematography helps with that, framing many shots like someone is watching without the character's knowledge. It's quite subtle, but it lends a lurking horror to what is honestly not that much happening. That is until the climax of the film where things go absolutely ballistic. And while it may take some time to get there, by the time we do get to the true madness the tension has been building up so much that the film stock seems like it's about to catch fire, aided along by some truly heart-stopping moments like the pantry door unlocking, the REDRUM scene, and my personal favorite moment - "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." That entire scene is unreal, and worthy of being placed up there with the greatest movie sequences of all time.
That brings us to the second reason, which is the acting. It probably would have been a better move to cast someone else besides Jack Nicholson, or at least cast someone who wasn't known for playing somewhat crazy people, but that being said Nicholson does an amazing job of taking us through a mad, twisting journey inside the mind of Jack Torrance. Having a more unassuming actor may have made that progression more surprising, but that's not really the fault of Nicholson. The man is just good at playing crazy people, and here he knocks it out of the park with one of the most terrifying performances I've ever seen.
And one of the most quotable.
I've heard a lot of people bash on Shelley Duvall as Wendy for being an annoying pushover. I disagree, but I understand where people are coming from. Duvall has moments of somewhat hammy dialogue where what she's saying doesn't sound like normal speech like she's doing an after-school special. But at the same time that comes across like a mask she's putting up around herself. When she does that she becomes the kind of "Good Wife Action Figure" with the pull-string voice box that'll spout stuff like "Sure thing, hon!" and "This is just dandy" and "Let's forget our troubles with a big bowl of strawberry ice cream!"
It's a front and a sham, and she wears it constantly to the point of passively accepting a rather severe amount of abuse from Jack, which could understandably make some people dislike her. But when the mask comes off, and her world crumbles around her as her own sanity is being stretched to its utmost limits, that's when we see her in her basest, most naked form. The scenes that some people say they find her at her most obnoxious as she weeps and sputters in gasping cries (roughly the entire last act of the film) are not the marks of a bad actress, but of someone who is portraying a human being who has been stripped of everything short of their body. That should be ugly and unpleasant. I frankly find her performance oddly stunning and hard to watch in a good way.
Pictured above - A master's course in acting afraid.
Danny Lloyd also was one of the best child actors, but like Carrie Henn six years later with "Aliens," he only did one film. That's a damn shame, but at least he went out by giving one of the best performances by a kid ever put on screen. He's got this amazing thousand yard stare that is really unnerving to watch him do, and he brings this oddly intelligent presence the film like he's the smartest one there, and this little kid totally sells that. I especially love the scene between him and Scatman Crothers where they talk about what "shining" is. Absolute gold.
Lastly, as I mentioned before, it's the believability of the story that makes "The Shining" so terrifying. And I'm not talking about a hotel being haunted. I'm talking about the fact that this could easily be seen as a movie about people going insane due to cabin fever and their own personal issues they brought with them. True there are supernatural elements to it what with Danny's psychic gifts and whatnot, but if you took that out it's completely plausible to believe that a guy could go nuts and attack his family with an axe. And that's the kind of story that'll get under your skin, even if you believe that the ghosts made him do it or that he's the reincarnation of the groundskeeper who's been there since at least 1921. Or whatever the heck that last shot is supposed to mean.
I still can't decide if this is one of the best or one of the worst trailers ever.
THE BOTTOM LINE - "The Shining" is one of my favorite movies. It's scary as hell (one of the scariest films ever, I think), it's superbly acted by everyone involved, and while Kubrick's directing may be a tad full of itself as usual, boy did he nail it this time around. I consider it the best movie he ever made, personally.