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Iconic films are not always good. Just saying.

Take Avatar, for instance. Perhaps an icon in the world of CG animation (read: pretty, pretty, pretty 3D computer aliens) but boasting what has to be the worst (mass-produced, over-used, stereotypical) storyline ever written, not to mention the complete absence of original characters or character development… But I digress.

Today, let’s talk about Kubrick’s horror film, The Shining. I’ve come to realise that in order to fully appreciate the glory of an ‘iconic’ film such as this one, you have to have established a relationship with said film from the get-go. You had to have seen it: (a) when you were a kid, and you’d stayed up late to sneakily watch it when your parents weren’t around; (b) when you were out on a first date with your future spouse, and thus the positive (albeit horrified) memories you have of the story conjure up the relative nervousness/horror/uneasiness you felt then; (c) when you were a strung-out film student, exhausted from analysing 8mm frames all night and jacked up on a mixture of caffeine pills and the 1980s equivalent of Red Bull. In other words, in order to truly love this movie, you have to have some sort of nostalgic association, a memory of the horror/wonder/suspense you originally felt, whenever you think about or re-watch it.

Otherwise, like me, you will find yourself either laughing (out loud, I might add; long and hard) in parts of the film that scare the proverbial pants off other people, or yelling (loud and long) at the story’s inadequacies.

Before we go there, though, let’s talk about what’s awesome in The Shining:

 OK, the creepy twins rocked. Maybe I’m a sicko, but I didn’t find them the slightest bit scary. They were perhaps chilling, but a kind of ‘oooh, it’s summer and I’ve just had a lick of refreshing ice cream’ chilling. All good on the disappearing, hand-holding, knee sock-wearing ugly twins front.

Also freaking fantastic:

The cinematography, the location, and the kid who played ‘Danny’. In terms of location, I’m not talking “it’s an isolated hotel in the mountains — oooh, how scary“. I’m talking: this 20th century gargantuan beast of a hotel, with its gaudy 1970s interior mixed with a healthy dash of Navajo print and, just for fun, 1920s flair. I’m talking endless corridors, gold ballrooms, labyrinthine kitchens (the actual labyrinth, unfortunately, was a bit cheesy for my liking even though I have a fondness for labyrinths. The minute Danny and his mother took a stroll through the labyrinth, my internal editor screamed “OBVIOUS FORESHADOWING!!!) I adored the place’s emptiness more than its isolation. You could plunk that hotel down in the middle of Central Park and I couldn’t have cared less, so long as the hallways remained empty. The grand vacant rooms, the wide-angle shots, the sound of Danny’s three-wheeler rolling over the carpets/floorboards/carpets/floorboards echoing off the walls — brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Danny’s acting — his insane index finger — absolutely brilliant.

Aesthetically, this movie is a knock-out.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where the love-fest ends for me.

If I’d seen this as a kid, Jack Nicholson would’ve had me flicking the lights on twenty times a night, just to be sure he wasn’t in my room. Wendy, the pathetic wife, wouldn’t have seemed so pathetic to me — her fear, perhaps, would’ve been more convincing. The disintegrating lady in the bathtub (why is it always an old lady in the bathtub? Didn’t that happen in Psycho? Perhaps in The Omen? Some other movie where the old mother is practically melting into the tub, she’s disintegrated that badly?) would’ve been the stuff of nightmares — if I was eight.

I avoided this film until this weekend because I’d heard about how scary it was, and I am notoriously lily-livered when it comes to horror films. I’d worked myself up to be terrified, and needn’t have wasted the energy. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but methinks it also makes him inclined to overact. As Jack’s mania sets in, he was compellingly crazy. Just a bit off, not quite loonie tunes. This portrayal of madness/possession by an unrestful spirit was convincing and interesting. But in what is meant to be the moment of greatest tension — Jack chasing Danny through the labyrinth — the father’s insane bellowing was laughable. It completely undermined all the suspense generated by the setting, the child’s fear, and the big-ass axe in Jack’s hands and turned the scene into a farce. This grand climactic flop was reinforced by the ludicrous ending: I laughed until tears flowed at the sight of frozen Jack in the snowbank.

More irritating: the portrayal of Wendy, Jack’s wife. I’m perfectly aware that her characterisation is perhaps an outdated “sign of the times” that we can’t quite fault for its quaint (read: sexist) depiction of the 1970s American housewife. Perhaps King/Kubrick tried to use Wendy as a cipher for a whole gamut of emotions associated with spousal abuse and/or neglect. Fine. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept that she wouldn’t have jammed that knife into Jack’s face when he poked it through the hole he’d chopped in the bathroom door. “Heeeere’s Johnny,” should’ve been swiftly followed with a large blade slamming into his eye socket. End of movie. A lame slash across his wrist as he’s trying to unlock the door just won’t cut it, Wendy.

Furthermore, as far as I’m concerned, incessant screaming does not convey fear the same way that paralysed silence does. Wendy wastes so much energy wailing like a banshee — or running down the hallway, flapping her arms and legs like some demented Muppet — that it’s exhausting (not terrifying) to watch. If you’re trying to hide from an axe-wielding psychopath, methinks that screaming is the best way to give away your position.

Also, what the hell happened to their car? The family drove to the hotel, but when the snows set in, and crazy Jack puts the snowmobile out of commission, Wendy is beside herself with fear: “Oh no, I’m trapped here forever!” she says. “Better scream and run for the next 45 minutes!” when, right then, she should’ve buckled Danny into the car and driven off that mountain. (The film’s defenders will undoubtedly raise the whole blizzard issue right about now. All I can say is that, at that stage, the snow wasn’t impassable. If she’d been decisive instead of a blithering idiot, she could’ve made it to the highway before the roads were buried.)

The purpose of this rant? To say that, in many ways, this film was stunning and in too many ways it was disappointing. If I had a time machine, perhaps I’d go back and watch it twenty years ago, which might’ve changed the opinions I’ve shared here. (But who am I kidding? If I had a time machine, I’d be going back to the year 1000 and working my way through to the future in 200-year jumps. By the time I reached twenty years ago, I probably wouldn’t care less about The Shining than I do now, so what’s the use?)

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2 thoughts on “Iconic films are not always good. Just saying.

  1. You are right about a lot of things on this. Have you read the book yet? Kubrick’s version of the Shining is a lot different than King’s. For me, books don’t ever frighten me. For scares, the movie was better just for the visuals. The book blows about five pages on a creepy firehose, whereas the movie has those long shots of the twins. The book has a creepy incident with a hornet nest, and the movie has the corpse woman chasing Jack out of room 409. But the book also has a better ending, more explanation of why things are how they are, Wendy’s character is not remotely as milquetoast, and the cook doesn’t get an axe in the chest for the greatest anti-climax of movie history. The way the hotel gets into Jack’s mind is much better, as is the creepy topiary scene. The maze was indeed lame. Somewhere between the two is the scariest thing ever made.

    Also, a footnote, I grew up just over the mountains from the Stanley hotel, on which the book was based. Back in the 70’s it wasn’t uncommon to have remote areas in the mountains snowed in for months on end (which the Stanley isn’t). In the book, they had been snowbound for weeks and the VW they drove in with died just as they pulled up to the hotel. It was a neat juxtaposition of isolation and desperation the novel which the movie barely grazed.

  2. I must admit, I haven’t read the book because it was reputed to be scary — and I get just as frightened from books as I do from films. Just as, if not more so. So I’ve avoided it. But it’s great to hear that Wendy isn’t so insipid in the book (and I love the word ‘milquetoast’, by the way) and that there is a logical reason why they don’t drive away in the car. Having said that, and having only recently seen the film, I don’t really think I’ll be delving into the novel any time soon. The aesthetics of the film were really what grabbed me — I would revisit it for that, if nothing else. But I’m not so fussed about seeing a different version of the story at this stage. There are too many other books I’m dying to read! 🙂

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