Thursday, February 2, 2012

Revisiting The Shining Theatrically

I'm not sure how many times I've seen The Shining, but it was one of my favorite horror movies during high school (a time in my life when I was on a serious Kubrick kick). It's also a film that I haven't seen in quite a while, partially due to the fact that it became so familiar that I wanted to give it some space. Having the chance to see it theatrically was too good to pass up though. Retrofantasma's second show of the year was a double-feature of both Kubrick's classic and The Lost Boys, which was also a big hit with my high school D&D group (pardon me if my nerdiness is showing...). Apparently lots of other Triangle-dwellers remembered these films fondly too - the show sold out and played to a completely packed house.

I won't bother recounting the story of The Shining, as I think it's known by more or less everyone by now (and if not, don't read this). I do want to talk about how this particular viewing affected me. It's a testament to its effectiveness that a film that I know so well can still manage to unsettle me this much. Not much about horror movies usually scares me anymore, but one thing that works without fail is the sense that there's something deep, powerful, malicious and irrational working against the characters. The Shining is a perfect example of that. In addition, the complete isolation of the family, the fact that we're deprived of an onscreen antagonist, and the sheer futility in fighting so huge an evil force all add up to make me incredibly uneasy when I watch this film. I tend to grasp for something tangible in a horror story - understanding the bad guy is the first step to defeating it, or at least comprehending its motives. Here we're given almost nothing in the way of exposition. There's a violent backstory set in the Overlook that we're told of again and again, but there's never a single mention of the forces that sparked it. I don't care for the "it's all in their heads" explanation for this film. Every time I watch it I get the impression that there's something massive and vicious lurking in the hotel that's deliberately toying with Jack and using him for its own purposes.

Backing the story up are more subtle technical details - most notably the deliberately impossible geometry of the hotel, fast cuts to disturbing images that are never entirely explained, and the constant use of long shots with vanishing points, giving the sense that we're falling toward a terminus located in hell. Something I always tend to notice more in theatrical screenings is the use of sound, and here the blend of experimental choral recordings and ominous classical music is tuned precisely so that it evokes something otherworldly and primal.

I noticed that in the final act of the film I had a minor case of the shakes. This is usually an indication that a horror film is doing something well. In addition to the reaction that it's able to provoke from me, it's a beautifully constructed film. The Shining has been picked apart many times over, and if you look hard enough, you'll be bound to find some flaws. One of the film's most infamous critics is Stephen King himself, who felt that Kubrick weakened the story by stripping it of many of its supernatural aspects. I haven't read King's novel, so I can't make comparisons, but it's never struck me as being precisely a character-driven story or lacking in the supernatural. At the end of the day, I'm willing to overlook (ha ha) any minor flaws in this film in favor of the gut-level effect that it has on me. I don't often rate things with a perfect score, but the staying power of this film makes it a classic in my mind. This is one I suspect will be as powerful and interesting the next time I see it - however far in the future that might be.

10 / 10 = Classic

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