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What Would People Think?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Heeeere's Benjy!

[Spoiler warning: Do not read if you have not seen, and ever intend to see, The Shining.]

OK, it's been far too long since I've blogged about movies. But Roger Ebert wrote an interesting essay that's got me thinking again.

I'm not always a fan of the horror genre. Too many "horror" films are just gore-fests which inspire more revulsion than fear. (They aim to make my stomach feel sick instead of making my heart pound.) But such films make me all the more grateful for good horror films: The kind that tap into your deepest, darkest childhood fears. The kind that make you identify with characters and then be afraid for & with them as they encounter something truly horrific.

And, in my mind, there is no greater horror film than Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining. Here's a movie that doesn't bother with the high body count. Although blood is copious, it tends to spew from elevators, not teenagers. The film takes its time - is even boring at parts - and slowly builds up tension before finally spiraling into a frenzy of madness and terror.

I still get goosebumps when I think of some of the movie's signatures scenes: "Come play with us Danny. We'll play forever, and ever, and ever." "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Blood from the elevators. The woman in the bathroom. Bye-bye, Scatman Cruthers. What the hell's with the man in a bunny suit? "Redrum."

The stuff of nightmares, man. And of glorious film-making.

So I was excited when Ebert wrote about the Shining in his biweekly (semi-weekly? every other weekly?) "Great Movies" column. He talks about something that never occurred to me. We never really have an objective point of view as to what happens in the movie. I always just assumed it was a haunted hotel creating visions for the slowly unraveling family inhabiting its halls. Perhaps I did that because I connected the film to the Stephen King book upon which it is loosely based. I should know better than that, since I always try to consider books and movies as separate works of art.

Ebert discusses how each of the characters is unreliable as an observer of objective reality. Jack is clearly deranged. Danny.....well, Danny has a "little boy inside his mouth." He's also an abused child with a possibly overactive imagination. Wendy seems the most sane, but Ebert describes a deleted scene which throws into question even her grasp on reality. Chef Hallorann, the doomed outsider to this twisted family drama, gives us some sense that bad things are happening in the hotel (through his communications with Danny and, well, his death). But how much is really happening?

Read Ebert's essay. It puts a whole new twist on the film which I had never considered. How are we to experience or think about a film where reality itself is in question? There's a number of films that mess with the nature of reality (i.e. The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, Identity, Mulholland Drive) but all of them, with the exception of the equally creepy Mulholland Drive, eventually tell us what is reality and what is madness/hallucination/virtual reality. It takes things to a whole different level when we must wonder what is real...when we know at least some of what we see is real.....when our protagonists perceive an awful threat, but can't tell how much of it to fear.

How deliciously twisted. The Shining stands on its own with all this reality-bending, but Ebert's take on it just makes it that much better.

[Note: Ebert reviewed an old silent film based on an Edgar Allen Poe short story that also dealt with the possible insanity of every major character: The Fall of the House of Usher. I'd love to get my hands on that movie at some point. Old silent films are kind of hard to come by.]


  • I just watched the original A Nightmare On Elm Street and was very disappointed. It was laughable, though it did remind me that even bad horror films used to be decent satires.

    By Blogger Barzelay, at 6/26/2006 6:08 AM  

  • Have you ever seen this Shining? It looks pretty good...

    By Blogger Matthew B. Novak, at 6/27/2006 1:16 AM  

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