Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Shining: That's one creepy movie, yo

On Friday night, I had a rendezvous with a piece of cinematic history that was long overdue. On Friday night, I watched "The Shining."

Released in 1980 with Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall in starring roles and Stanley Kubrik at the helm, "The Shining" has to be one of the finest movies I have seen in ages. In the movie, Jack Torrance (Nicholson) is hired as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado during the hotel's five-month closure. The hotel has a bit of a past; ten years earlier, another caretaker went insane and killed his wife and two daughters when the prolonged isolation presumably got to him. Over the winter, Torrance experiences a mental breakdown and tries to kill his wife and child.

I'm not generally into horror movies -- either they're so schlocky that they're not believable, or they just substitute vulgar gross-outs for actual horror -- but this was a movie I found absolutely haunting.

The horror starts out with the opening credits, actually. As the credits roll, we hear disconcerting, ethereal music and follow Torrance's Volkswagen as it goes up the long road to the Overlook Hotel. There's not a scene in the movie that doesn't in some way add to this creeped-out feeling of being watched, followed, or just of encroaching doom.

As the movie goes on, Kubrik repeats the following motif: the camera follows Danny around the Overlook Hotel, uncomfortably close, as he rides his Big Wheel about; in the Overlook Maze, we follow him uncomfortably closely as he runs for shelter. In many ways, the entire movie is a labyrinth, as we work our way into the dark corners of Torrance's unraveling mind.

Kubrik's use of the ghosts is also brilliant -- they appear, setting the characters and the movie-goers on edge, then disappear. For the most part, they're not characters as much as they are props, meant to establish the setting and feel of the psychoscape: the murdered girls of the previous caretaker, the woman drowned in the bathtub, and ultimately the entire crew at the ballroom.

And tell me that doesn't creep you out when Torrance, at an empty bar in a ballroom by himself, offers to sell his soul for a beer, only to lower his hands from his eyes and find the bartender ready to give him a drink. Talk about Faustian bargains -- and this is where he really starts to go nuts.

The odd thing about the movie, from the point of realism, is the ending. As the camera pans in, it eventually settles on a picture of the July 4, 1920, ball, where Jack Torrance is featured prominently. At an earlier scene in the bar, the quintessentially British waiter -- whom Torrance recognizes as Delberton Grady, the 1970 caretaker who killed his family -- assures Torrance that he, Torrance, has always been the caretaker at the hotel. And Torrance himself said earlier in the movie that when he first went to the hotel, he felt as though he knew it intimately, as though he had been there before.

Realistically, this is impossible, and I spent a few days trying to figure out the significance of the ending, since it's obviously a key to understanding the movie. If it can't be taken literally, it has to be taken figuratively. The Overlook Hotel is a metaphor for something larger -- some commentators I've read suggest it's America itself, and the genocide we not only committed against the American Indians but are content to overlook, while others suggest it's the dark side of human nature.

The first viewpoint has some credibility -- the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground, for instance, and there is a fair amount of Indian iconography incorporated into the movie -- but even if that was a specific point Kubrik wished to make with the movie, the broader application still works. As the main character, Torrance is someone we're meant to identify with, even though he ends badly, frozen to death in the maze, and we have to believe that his dark side is something we know ourselves. Just as he denies any guilt in injuring his son two years earlier, in a drunken rage, we like to deny our own guilt over our crimes ... and we deny our guilt or responsibility for crimes our ancestors have committed, whether it be the legacy of genocide against the American Indians, the oppression of blacks, or years of other bigotries and small-minded prejudices.

This movie is a winner in every sense of the word. The score is brilliant, Nicholson and Duvall give stand-out performances the whole way through the movie, and Kubrik shines unfalteringly as the director and co-writer of the script.

The movie was based on a novel by Stephen King. I hope to watch the movie again, but all the same, I don't think I'll be reading King's book any time soon. His books usually don't do much for me.

1 comment:

Brucker said...

The novel is very good (probably one of King's best), and has a number of differences from the movie, which King has said he didn't like.

I've always taken both the book and the movie to be symbolic of the destructive force of alcoholism. As you point out, Torrance sells his soul for a drink. While I've never understood the significance of the picture either, it occurs to me that national prohibition took effect in 1920, and July 4th is of course independance day.