not in our stars, but in ourselves
It’s the first snowpocalypse of the new year, and I thought there was no better way to commemorate it than with The Shining (1980). I know, I know: what an original thinker I am. Shuddup.
In case you somehow haven’t seen it yet, The Shining is a happy little story about a family being torn apart by ghosts, by snow, and by isolation. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a struggling writer who has accepted a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. He brings his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) with him to the enormous hotel, high in the Rocky Mountains. Danny experiences traumatic visions of past horrors at the Overlook, and realizes that things ain’t right. Jack starts drifting off into strange trances, and grows increasingly verbally abusive with Wendy. Things escalate quickly.
A few things struck me about the film this time – not necessarily anything new or original, of course, but here goes:
– For much of the first part of the film, maybe half, there’s hardly any music. There are weird, synthy drones, but mostly eerie silence. In horror movies, this is almost always one of the creepiest possible things to do. When you watch a movie, you expect music to help direct your emotions and reactions. Silence is creepy. Silence gives you too much space to fill in with your imagination. Silence makes you listen closer for any sound, any footstep or heartbeat or growl. The first hour or so of The Shining is largely music-free. As the Torrances become acquainted with the sprawling Overlook Hotel, the hotel’s very silence becomes unnerving for the viewer as well as for the players. And of course, the music used most frequently is the incredibly creepy Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by Béla Bartók. When those drums start thundering – yikes.
– There was, I think, some criticism from Stephen King about the casting of Nicholson. Not for his performance, but for the fact that Nicholson had played McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). The audience expected him to go crazy, and boy did he ever. However, I – as someone who has seen both films many many times – would like to make it clear that Nicholson is hitting completely different notes in each performance. As McMurphy, he’s aware. He’s in control. He’s not actually crazy at all; he just fucks and fights too much. Don’t we all. As Jack, though, he’s lost. This is a game I like to play: when you’re in public, on a train or what-have-you, look at the way people look around. Do they seem to observe things sharply? Do external stimuli catch their attention and imagination? Or do they seem to have glazed eyes, lost in some sort of fog, not noticing or understanding what’s happening beyond their noses? Jack Torrance is, until he gets completely lost in the Overlook’s world of vengeful ghosts, very much in the second category. The first half (or so) of Nicholson’s performance is like an extended version of McMurphy-as-lobotomy-victim. The contrast between his passivity at first and then his aggressive, ravenous animal at the end is quite something.
– Poor Shelley Duvall. Rumor has it that she and Stanley Kubrick didn’t get along at all, and there does seem to be an element of reality to her portrait of a terrified wife. She is so tightly wound, so hypersensitive, so out of her element. Is she annoying? Yes. Can you understand how she would drive any husband up a wall, with her sunny words of hippie wisdom? Of course. You would probably yell at her, too. But where Nicholson’s characterization of Jack is that of a predatory (and rabid) animal, Duvall’s Wendy is a rabbit in mortal dread. So to speak, anyway.
– Full disclosure: as a child, I looked exactly like Danny.
Ahem. So if you’re looking for a great movie to watch while you’re snowed in, or suffering any kind of cabin fever, The Shining will do the trick.
Meanwhile, back at my own private Overlook, the snow isn’t nearly as bad; there is plenty of alcohol on the premises; and while the rotten infrastructure in the Greater Boston area can often resemble a labyrinth, we do not have any hedge mazes in our immediate vicinity. The windows would definitely open enough to permit a grown-up body to get through – and of course, I could defenestrate by smashing through in an emergency. I’ve done that before. If any horror movie fate is likely to befall me, it’s not going to be The Shining. Not yet.