A Crash Course in Horror is a weekly column by our self-proclaimed horror movie noob, Noémi Pomerleau. She reviews a classic (or even “new classic”) horror movie from the viewpoint of someone who has never seen it (because, well, she hasn’t).
Stephen King’s novels have inspired some of the scariest movies in existence. Carrie traumatized me as a teenager and was the reason I swore off horror movies until this project began. I’ve grown up surrounded by references from Misery, Cujo, Pet Sematary, and Children of the Corn — but none of them are as legendary as the subject of today’s Crash Course in Horror. I knew that at some point I would have to confront The Shining, which many of my friends and family describe as the scariest movie they’ve ever seen. This week I decided to stop putting it off, settled in with some popcorn, and generated a few years worth of nightmares.
Due to the fact that this film came out in 1980 and is probably the most famous horror film of all time, I am going to go ahead and assume that most people reading this review will have seen it. Accordingly, I’m not going to be shy about spoilers. If somehow you don’t know anything about The Shining, go ahead and watch it and come back later. Although chances are that even if you haven’t seen it, you’re like me and you’ve spent your entire life being exposed to clips and parodies and references about this movie. I think I was about as spoiled for it as I could have been.
The Shining is about Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) moving to Colorado in order to be the live-in caretakers for the Outlook Hotel while the hotel is closed for the winter season.
Right off the bat, the family has a load of problems which make you wonder why they would ever agree to being snowed in for months. Danny has an “imaginary friend” named Tony who reportedly lives in his mouth and tells Danny all sorts of things he isn’t permitted to repeat. Jack is a recovering alcoholic who once “accidentally” injured his son in a fit of rage. Wendy — actually, Wendy’s alright, except that she thinks that being trapped at the end of a long road with no help available to her is a great idea, considering her husband’s anger issues.
It’s also surprising considering that Danny passes out and has a seizure shortly after the start of the movie. As the audience, we know that it’s because he had a vision of a famous pair of creepy twins and bloody elevator, but Wendy doesn’t know that. So I guess Wendy’s problem is her terrible judgment.
Danny has these visions because he has a power that a friendly cook at the hotel (Scatman Crothers) calls “Shining”. It’s basically the power to see the future and ghosts and other spooky things. This means that poor Danny can see exactly how wrong this is going to go far ahead of time, even though he can’t quite make sense of it.
If you didn’t already know where this movie was going before you hit the ‘play’ button, by the time the Torrence family is left alone in the hotel, it is clear that Jack’s going to try to kill everyone before the winter’s over.
Frankly, I was only surprised that it took him a month and a half before he lost it.
I was surprised to find that this rendition of The Shining was controversial when it first came out, because it’s aged extremely well. Sure, Stanley Kubrick makes weird, weird movies — but the weirdness really helps make this one particularly creepy. You aren’t sure what’s real and what isn’t. You aren’t sure why everything is happening. You aren’t sure why people are behaving the way they are. Normally, these are things that would drive me insane, but the film provides enough information to allow you to fill in the blanks yourself. The remaining mystery only makes it more scary.
And let’s be clear: this film is TERRIFYING! The music, script, and acting is all intentionally directed to put you on edge at all times.
In my mind, the film could almost be split into two halves: before Jack Torrence goes completely insane, and after he goes completely insane. Both halves are disturbing, but for very different reasons.
Before Jack goes insane, the dialogue in the film feels very unnatural. Everybody speaks in precise, complete sentences. It makes everything feel off-kilter, like all of the characters are involved are in some kind of hostage situation and are trying to speak formally to keep themselves calm. The music also rarely makes an appearance. Although the soundtrack might cut in with some screaming string instruments to assure you that something disturbing is going to happen in a moment — it’s mostly silent. Scenes might be absent of anything but the sound of characters walking around or typing, allowing you to appreciate how truly unsettling a huge, empty hotel can be.
Funny enough, AFTER Jack goes insane, the dialogue becomes a lot more natural. Jack Nicholson is known for chewing scenery, but that actually works for him in this role. Even when Torrence is trying to be friendly and endear himself to his wife and son to coax them out of safety, he comes across as somebody who could snap at a moment’s notice. Wendy’s terror seems genuine, and her inability to put together a coherent sentence when faced with her homicidal husband feels like a perfect contrast to the controlled language she was using earlier.
The music also rushes in like it’s been waiting for this all along — every time there’s a chase or an attack scene, it assaults your senses and heightens your terror.
Some of the most iconic moments in cinematic history come from The Shining, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t spending most of the movie waiting for them. The bloody elevator, the Grady sisters, Jack Torrence’s frozen face and the “Here’s Johnny!” moment were imprinted in my brain long before I watched this movie. Spoilers can ruin the tension of a movie sometimes (I had that experience with Aliens) but The Shining didn’t suffer for it. It was still a tense, thought-provoking film that’s well-deserving of its fame. I sincerely regret not having seen this movie before now.
Come back next Friday, December 25th for a very special Christmas edition of A Crash Course in Horror. Are Christmas-themed horror movies as terrible an idea as they sound? I’ll find out first hand!