The Shining and Why Today's Horror Movies Suck
I had the great privilege of seeing Stanley Kubrick's The Shining on the big screen a few weeks ago. It was the first time since the film was released that I saw it in a theater, though I've probably seen it a dozen times since then on VHS and DVD.
I didn't expect to be blown away on this umpteenth viewing of the film, but there was something about seeing it big, as it was meant to be seen, with the incredible score at full volume, that made me fall in love with horror movies all over again.
And it made me realize how uniformly shitty horror movies have become.
First, let's dispense with the fact that Stephen King hates the adaptation. I get it, but I disagree. Kubrick is a singular filmmaker and this is his film with all of his quirks and obsessions folded into it. It is a cold movie (no pun intended) but that is Kubrick's style, as epitomized in earlier gems (2001: A Space Odyssey) through his final work (the widely misunderstood Eyes Wide Shut). If you don't like the way he directs his actors I understand—the stylized, deadpan blandness is not everyone's cup of tea, and his antiseptic aloofness can alienate viewers who want to feel more of a connection to the characters. And yes, Jack Nicholson's craziness is ramped up too early, and his legendary scenery chewing can grate. But we forget that Nicholson's Jack Torrance was new to us in 1980. The Shining has been satirized to and parodied to death, but I remember how people talked about it when it was released—and Nicholson's over-the-top performance was like a jackhammer to the collective forehead. The cinephiles were struck by the technical brilliance (in particular the innovative use of Steadicam) but everyone else was talking about crazy Jack.
When I left the theater the last time I kept thinking that was a perfect horror film. In particular, a perfect ghost story. The oldest horror trope of all—a haunted house—done with exquisite artistry.
So at the risk of being dismissed as an old fart (I plead guilty), I have to say they don't make horror movies like that anymore. And I have some ideas why I have been regularly disappointed by horror films in the past thirty-plus years.
At the top of the list is CGI. Goddamned computer-generated fuckwittery has killed scary movies. Don't believe me? Rent any one of a hundred horror films that has come out in the last twenty years. If it's not a slasher flick, chances are very good the monster or ghost or other bugaboo is something created in an animation program and overlaid with a shit-ton of AfterEffects plug-ins. Does the bazillionth scary little girl with a vibrating head and black, oily shit coming out of her mouth and spraying all over the walls scare you? Me neither.
You know what is fucking scary? Lloyd he bartender. Delbert Grady in the bathroom telling Jack that his son requires a little discipline. Humans as ghosts. People instead of another cgi preteen in goth makeup.
Even scarier? A rubber ball rolling into the frame.
A YELLOW RUBBER BALL is more balls-in-a-vice frightening than every cgi monster cooked up in Hollywood in the past wretched decades. Think about that.
(And if you ever meet the guy who invented the "black fractal stuff spreading like veins along the walls" SFX filter, please kill him. Kill him dead like Jack Torrance killed Dick Halloran.)
And then there is the pacing. If The Shining were made today the first half of the film would be condensed into five minutes. Hey, here's Jack and his family pulling up in front of the Overlook Hotel. Cut those thirty pages of exposition—nobody wants that shit. It's boring! If something doesn't jump out in the first ten minutes—ha, fooled you! It's what we call a "fake scare" and the kids never get tired of it!—you'd better come back with a snappier edit that appeals to the 15-39 demographic.
As I watched the end of the film, when Wendy and Danny escape in the Snowcat, with Jack still wandering in the hedge maze, it struck me: there is no way any studio executive would let that fly today. Jack and his axe would come barreling out of the maze, the Snowcat wouldn't start, Wendy would drop the keys, Jack would smash the window, grab Danny, Wendy would finally get the engine to turn over just as Danny bites into Jack's arm...
Instead, mother and son just drive off. Jack sits down in the maze and freezes to death. No final cranked-up battle, no one literally hanging off a goddamned ledge by his fingertips a la J. J. Abrams. Just a mother and her son driving away through the snow.
Bummer, dude. Can I get my ticket refunded?
Horror films have turned into cartoons. That's okay if you like cartoons. I do—Scooby Doo rocked my seven-year-old world. But like many people, I prefer something that caters to my adult tastes and sensibilities. Something like The Shining, The Exorcist, or Rosemary's Baby. (Notice a trend here? It's called the 70s, when movies—even horror movies—were made for grown-ups.) Hell, Lars von Trier's Antichrist was one of the most deeply unsettling horror films I've seen in ages and one of its best special effects was a freaking stuffed fox that looked like it was stolen from an amateur taxidermist's collection. A stuffed fox that talked. The technical effect was on par with something from H. R. Pufnstuf. It was the story, and its allusions to witch hunts and the torture tools of the inquisition, that nailed that spot deep in the reptile brain that can scare the shit out of an adult. The graphic torture scenes in the film (which, by the way, is a movie I only recommend to the hardiest of viewers) are more of a distraction from the pure horror of a troubled relationship destroyed by tragedy and mired in madness.
What makes horror films scary isn't prepubescent cgi girls crawling like spiders along the ceiling, or the spreading black ick, or any monster made out of electrons. It's people. People are scary, and scared people are scary because we all know and empathize with their fear. Cartoons, no matter how realistic, will never be as scary Lloyd the bartender or that yellow freaking ball rolling across the carpet.
Please, Hollywood. Think about us grownups once in a while.