“The Shining” and slow-burn horror
I realize that I write a lot about horror films. This isn’t a horror film blog and, while I do love the genre, I can’t call myself a horror aficionado.
That out of the way, I want to talk about “The Shining”. It’s one of the most praised horror films of all time. Yet, it’s also one of the most atypical, at least as American horror goes. Its body count is very low, almost absurdly so by 70’s-80’s standards. It has only one “jump” moment that I can think of (those moments that usually feature something suddenly jumping in from off-screen, startling the audience) and it’s a doozy. It’s chapter-based structure, informing the audience of each passing day within the film, is completely at odds with traditional horror structure, which go plot point by plot point, with death set-pieces distributed around generously.
“The Shining” is usually categorized as a descent into madness, but I think that shortchanges what Kubrick accomplished.
The film is actually quite calculated. It knows that gore and shock alone aren’t frightening. However, even the film’s most disturbing scenes wouldn’t be effective if they were just sprinkled throughout like in most horror films.
“The Shining’s” terror is backloaded, but it starts off with a sense of unease. Jack Nicholson never appears to be entirely there. We hear about his injuring his son in a drunken rage early in the film Stephen King allegedly complained that the film was less effective because it hinted that Nicholson’s character was never entirely sane. I think it’s much more effective for that reason. The film is like being thrown onto a wobbly boat with a storm on the horizon. Kubrick spends the bulk of the film establishing visual motifs (the vastness of the hotel’s interior, the claustrophobic hallways), Overlook Hotel’s layout, and the sense that this family is coming apart. The famous fake-trailer for “The Shining,” advertising it as a heartwarming comedy, was actually on to something.
Without the sense of alarm we feel from the first scene, much of “The Shining” could be more “Ordinary People” than horror. Instead, the film’s sense of dread culminates in a cascade of moments and images that rock us. Shelly Duvall’s and Stanley Kubrick’s Razzie nominations for this film are almost unforgivable. With Danny being catatonic much of the film, she’s a conduit of normality in this hell. Nicholson has rarely been so over-the-top, but it’s perfect for this film, where his scenery chewing is a mixture of catharsis and complete mental breakdown.
More than anything, we remember the images. The scenes that we remember from “The Shining” (the discovery of what’s in room 237; the chase up the staircase; the river of blood; and the crown king of WTF horror moments, the man in the dog-suit giving a dapper gent a blow job) don’t have much thematic link to each other. They are Kubrick’s cinematic sledgehammer, attacking the audience’s sanity. Unlike most horror directors, he took the time to tenderize slowly first, making the barrage of terror at the end of the film as disorienting as it is frightening.