Every so often, I decide to plug one of the many holes in my pop-culture awareness. This week, I decided to finally watch the classic Stanley Kubrick horror movie The Shining, after I encountered more than a few mentions of it in conversation and reading over the course of a few days.
My horror-movie watching résumé is not much longer than my classic-movie watching résumé: I’ve seen a few of the mainstays (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Psycho), but almost no horror of any recency (The Blair Witch Project being the exception). And I didn’t find any of these flicks very scary – with the partial exception of The Exorcist. I watched that just as I was abandoning Catholicism, which somehow made me more receptive to the whole head-spinning thing.
And but so, I wasn’t sure what to expect in watching The Shining. I kinda wanted to be scared by it, both because it’s a classic and because a number of people warned me that I’d be terrified.
Unfortunately or not, I didn’t find the movie scary in any way. It was absorbing, for sure, and I did enjoy watching it. Kubrick’s direction and John Alcott’s cinematography were both astounding. The opening shot of Jack Torrance driving up to the hotel was incredible (despite a couple seconds when the shadow of the helicopter was visible at lower right!), the scenes in the main reception area were gorgeous (especially when the movie turned dark), and the famous tracking shots of Danny riding his trike through the deserted halls turned out to deserve all of their influence.
But those scenes, and others like them – Danny conversing with "Tony," the reappearances of the dead sisters, the torrents (Torrance?) of blood in the hallway, Nicholson’s ad-libbed "Heeeeere’s Johnny!" – lost a lot of their terrifying punch for having turned, in the 33 years since the movie came out, into clichés. It’s hard to be frightened by the girls inviting Danny to play with them "forever" when I’ve seen that same scenario played for laughs.
The movie’s passage into a collection of clichés only accounts for part of why I didn’t find it scary, though. Much of the rest of the explanation comes from not thinking that there are any supernatural forces at work in the world. I don’t think there are ghosts (much less gods), so I found it hard to be frightened by the ghosts (if they were ghosts) of the ballroom revelers, the enabling bartender, or the caretaker/waiter who encourages Jack to solve the problem of his family.
I suppose you don’t need to believe in ghosts (or God) to find the movie scary in another way – as an allegory of human evil, with Jack inventing stories (his day job, after all!) to explain why he needs to kill his wife and child. But Danny’s seeming paranormal powers have to be stripped out of the story, then, too, which removes a major part of the plot…
In short, The Shining left me shrugging. I could appreciate it as a cinematic achievement, but I couldn’t get into the idea of the film enough to get scared by that idea.