I don’t have a particular fondness for the horror genre. I don’t like excessive gore and I’m kind of bored of the jump-scares and predictable plotting in most horror films. Especially the recently popular subgenre of Torture-horror, led by films like Saw and Hostel, really rubbed me the wrong way. In general, I tend to avoid horror movies, or at the least not actively seek them out.
Yet, when I look over my list of favorite films, it always surprises me how many horror- or scary-movies are present. I love Sci-fi horror like the Alien franchise or The Thing. I enjoyed the pulp-brilliance of The Evil Dead 2, and really appreciate a good told ghost-story like in the recent The Conjuring or Insidious. Also, tv-series like Twin Peaks and The X-files are undeniable favorites of mine.
So apparently there is something that I like about scary movies. And I think, in general, it has to do with a kind of weirdness or surrealism which I find to be both enticing, tempting and scary. I don’t like the straight-up slasher movies, but when horror is distilled from a dreamlike, psychological source, when it is linked to other themes and looks beyond the goal of simply scaring you; then I do become engaged.
One of the most famous horror movies of all time does exactly that, thereby becoming endlessly entertaining to watch to me. I’m talking about The Shining (1983) by the legendary Stanley Kubrick.
The Shining is a clear classic. It contains a legendary performance by Jack Nicholson, revolutionary cinematography using the steadicam system and is generally considered a masterclass in building suspense and unnerving the viewer in many subtle ways.
Before I get to my One Shot, I want to work through some of the amazing elements of its cinematography in general first. Because the movie is meticulously crafted, so filled with details, meanings and subtle hints and techniques, it’s as great to analyze as it is to just watch it.
A few years ago a documentary about the film was released, Room 237, which directed me to many of the intricacies of the film, so I recommend watching that film if my blogpost intrigues you.
So let’s sum up some fantastic visual forms of storytelling and manipulation contained in the film.
Notice how in this shot above, where Danny is conversing with hotel janitor mr. Halloran, the shot is framed in such a way that tons of knives are hanging just above Danny’s head, pointing towards him. A hint of the danger he’s in.
And look at these two shots of Jack. In between we reverse to Wendy and then cut back to Jack, and suddenly there is a chair present in the background. I tend to accept the belief that this is not an error of props, it’s too prominent an error, especially for a perfectionist like Kubrick. As it turns out; all throughout the film there are inconsistencies in prop-placement and even set-design. Furniture moves between cuts, and corridors have windows to the outside world where there should be another corridor beyond it. The reality of the hotel just doesn’t make sense. It reshapes it’s interiors, it’s very space. And this really works in a sub-conscience way to make everything feel a bit off. A bit unnatural.
Then look at this shot-reverse shot of Jack conversing with the -apparent- ghost of Grady, the previous caretaker of the hotel. The film suggests a murky overlap between the two, and the things they did (or are going to do). Notice how the camera breaks the 180 degree rule (which states that you cannot cut through the axis between two characters and have to keep your camera positioned on one side). Breaking the rule makes Grady form cut into Jack and vise versa, as if their bodies are intercutting, suggesting their overlapping existence.
The Shining is filled with these brilliant manipulations of framing and composition that I really, really love. It’s horror of a different kind. It makes you doubt reality, because it feels illogical, weird and surreal. It creates fear because it becomes unpredictable. It’s more unsettling that it is outright scary. Maybe more mysterious even than scary. And I love mystery.
The terror of Jack Nicholson
Beyond the mysteriously weird mise-en-scene and shot-design, I also have to give credit to Kubrick, and his cinematographer John Alcott for their work on framing Jack and making him look menacing. After all; as the horror surfaces towards the end of the film, it’s clear that the most immediate danger is coming from Jack. And Alcott and Kubrick succeed in really making Jack Nicholson look the scariest he’s ever been. From the cool and weirdly spaced out close ups early on, to the classic door-crashing ‘Here’s Johnny!’ and ultimately his bitter frozen face, Jack Nicholson never looked more terrifying.
His ‘Here’s Johnny!’ moment may be the most famous one, but there is a close up of his which I like better as a piece of creative cinematography. It’s from a scene where he converses with his wife who has just locked him up in the freezer. In a way, this scene creates some quiet in the film, because -for now- the danger of Jack is locked away safely behind a locked door. But we are of course suspicious about the presumed safety and Jack becomes even more menacing becomes he appears no less determined to kill his family, no less convinced he cannot be caged. During the conversation his wife, Wendy, the camera frames Jack from the ground up. He hovers over the image, and of course, Us.
I always loved this shot, and the way it contradicts the presumed safety of Wendy and her son. We should feel safe because Jack is trapped, but he looms over us as if he has full control, as if we’re completely at his mercy.
It’s such a simple thing; drop the camera to the floor and tilt up, yet it turns the scene on its head and makes -what could have been- a regular objective shot an engaging subjective one.
The Shining is a great horror movie for many reasons, but for me, above all, it’s a treasure of visual weirdness. It’s a film in which every shot is worth looking at, to search for things that are off. It’s certainly not consistently terrifying, but it is consistently mysterious and engaging, and the moments it pulls us in for a scare, it feels like you are being scared by the hands of a master.