Until last night that is! For no apparent reason, I’m starting a new series where I embarrassingly confess classic/popular movies that I’ve never watched (until now).
The Shining (1980) has been recognised as a classic horror film only rather recently. When it was released in 1980, it received mixed reviews and 2 Razzie nominations for Worst Director (!) and Worst Actress. Stephen King even notoriously claimed his dislike for Kubrick’s adaption. It’s pretty surprising since today, it’s often acknowledged in countless “Best Movies” Lists and is considered one of Kubrick’s finest works. It’s hard to pinpoint or prophecize which “bad” films of today will be deemed as classics only decades later. The Big Lebowski is certainly on its way, but what about Razzie winners like Cat Woman or that movie which had Nicole Kidman pee on Zac Efron (The Paperboy)? It certainly is difficult to tell.
I’ve never read King’s The Shining but I did watch the mini-series adaptation when I was about 11. I don’t remember much of it, except that it was very scary. Watching Kubrick’s The Shining as a 21-year-old, I confess I didn’t find it scary per se, but rather eerie. I don’t think it’s The Scariest Move of All Time (that title belongs to Shutter – because no one can do horror like us Asians), but, like any good movie, it does have certain distinct features that makes you just think.
The constant antagonism between whether there are ghosts or it’s all in the protagonist’s head is a tried and tested formula. Yet, the ambiguity and struggle between the two opposing stances is simply delicious. The Shining really keeps you guessing. I honestly thought the scenes with Jack in the ballroom during a 1920s era party was all in his head (possibly from Jack reading The Great Gatsby — I kid). It’s not only during the scene where Jack is locked inside in the store room, and that ghost helps to unlock, it becomes clear that there are ghosts after all…
Speaking of ghosts, the bathroom scene is one that really gets people. Maybe it’s just me, but I literally laughed out loud in the bathroom scene. Its sexist vibes kind of irked me, but I found it Jack’s reaction so amusing. He becomes so horrified when he realised who he actually made out with. It doesn’t matter she’s a supernatural being – she’s no longer hot! She’s ugly and hideous! Aaaaah!
The set design and interior decor of the film is purely mesmerising as well. The distinct colours, geometric shapes and 1970s décor has such a menacing vibe in this film. Another important thing about horror films is that they are heavily reliant on their soundtrack. It has to be appropriately tense at times, or provide some monumental climax when a ghost appears. The Shining’s nail-biting soundtrack ticks all the boxes. It consists of screeching synthesisers that hardly ever take a break – it plays out at a raging, zealous momentum that propels the film forward, even through “breather” scenes. A loud gong sounds when inter-titles are displayed, which never fails to startle me.
When Jack Nicholson plays crazy, he can really play crazy. King himself even mentioned Nicholson has that underlying hint of madness when the film first begins, which (to King) kind of ruins it. I have to disagree here, I think it just makes the inevitable all the more exciting to look forward to. Knowing he’s bound to be crazy so early on in the film (I mean it’s even in the poster), like when the interviewer asks if he’s sane is just brilliant. It’s dramatic irony at work, it’s so Shakespearean and I adore it. Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack’s downward descent into insanity is remarkably enthralling. I couldn’t stop looking away from his deranged behaviour, it’s utterly magnetic.
Kubrick was also said to have trouble working with Shelley Duvall, but I found her performance to be quite absorbing. Judging from the past decades of horror films, Duvall doesn’t fit the conventional passive housewife role. Her gawky frame doesn’t fit Hollywood’s standard of “pretty”, and at times, her line delivery can be quite awkwardly forced. But to me, her piercing scream and her animated, bulging eyes that never ceased to fascinate me. In particular, this scene is just so bizarre, and I love Duvall’s reaction. I mean, is she screaming because it’s her first time seeing people other than her family in the Overlook Hotel or because she’s interrupting some rich guy’s demented foreplay session? Lastly, Danny Lloyd is so very cute, and yet so very creepy. He’s got some vibes of The Omen, but he still displays signs of heroism and bravery. On a side note: his sweaters are absolutely adorable.
Not kidding, during the ending, when the camera zoomed into the photograph of Jack at a 1921 party, I cried, “So he’s a time-traveller?!” (perhaps from watching too much Doctor Who). Contemporary Jack is actually a reincarnation of 1920s Jack, but I think this theory is really dissatisfying. When knife-welding Duvall was running around the hotel, she runs into the lounge room filled with cobwebs, deserted furniture and 1920s-dressed corpses. Please bear with me: I like to think that maybe the family’s spatially trapped and time-trapped in an abandoned hotel since the 1920s, due to a time warp (welded by the ghosts perhaps), and they’re just reliving or replaying this scenario over and over again. They get glimpses into the real 1920s era that’s actually occurring, but they can never escape. That’s why Jack has “always been the caretaker here” /end theory.
The Shining is also (embarrassingly) the first and only Kubrick film I’ve watched, so I’m really no expert at all. The only thing I can say is – I’m intrigued, and I can’t wait to check out more of his stuff.
What do you think of The Shining? Did I join the party too late? What other classics have you also embarrassingly not watched (so I don’t feel so alone)? Would you ever become a caretaker of a huge, empty hotel for five months?