Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Shining

The opening scene is a small car driving on a curvy mountain road as seen from a helicopter. This match-cuts to long shots of characters moving through the cavernous rooms of a hotel as seen from a steadi-cam that is moving at the approximate relative speed as the helicopter. The effect is dwarfing; the character we're following is a small man in big world he can't control. He's there to interview for a job as a caretaker for a hotel that's closed and isolated from civilization over the harsh winters. He's a writer that plans to spend the winter there with his wife and son and use the isolation to focus on his writing.

While there, he goes a little crazy from the isolation (and perhaps the ghosts).

Director Stanley Kubrick maintains unnerving balances between sanity and madness, and between the real and the supernatural. The writer, Jack (played by Jack Nicholson) seems a little off even at his most sane, making it difficult to tell exactly when he becomes unhinged. Although there are definitely supernatural elements - the son, Danny, and the hotel cook (played by Scatman Cruthers) can communicate telepathically, and Danny has visions of the hotel's violent history - it's not entirely clear whether there are actually ghosts, or if these ghosts can physically harm anyone. Somebody does rip Danny's sweater, and somebody does unlock a door or two, but we never actually see these things happen. Every time Jack holds a conversation with a ghost, there's a mirror or reflective surface in front of him - might he actually be talking to himself?

Unlike other horror movies, the characters actually behave in a ways that real people might if they were in a similar situation - they make smart, well-reasoned decisions in their attempts to escape from harm. Also unlike other horror movies, the tension ratchets up higher than the body count. The Shining is a rare horror movie that stays with you for days after you've seen it, and is as frightening today as was 30 years ago.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday the 13th

It's easy to understand why a formula would start to get stale after a dozen sequels, but how did they manage to make it seem so tired the first time out? The trailer tells you what to expect: 8 teenagers are isolated alone in the woods while an unknown psycho murders them one by one. The movie meets that expectation, and nothing more.

Perhaps if the characters had been interesting, I would have cared about whatever it was they were doing before they got killed, but they are all amiable-but-bland samey-looking stiffly-acted teenagers. Only one is given a personality - Ned, the goofy prankster - but it's such an annoying personality that I found myself hoping he would be the first one offed. I assumed the pranks were introduced to set up some misdirection and I waited for an actual death to be laughed off as a prank or a faked death to be mistaken for a real one, but nothing ever came of it. There're no interesting characters, no misdirection, just 8 kids getting murdered one by one, and nothing more.

I also hoped that there would be some mystery. Who was this killer? Was it someone we met? It seemed like they wanted to throw in some red herrings: The camp boss leaves the camp just before the teenagers start to die, maybe it's him? No, the very next scene establishes that the killer is driving a jeep different from the one the boss drove out on. The town crazy shows up at camp shouting that they are all doomed, maybe it's him? No, we see him in the very next scene getting away on a bicycle, not a jeep. Maybe one of the kids is actually the killer? No, the very first kill happens far away from any of them establishing all their alibis. There's no mystery to figure out, just 8 kids getting murdered one by one, and nothing more.

Strangely, nobody even realizes there's a psycho killer on the loose until moments before they're killed. The last two alive are the first to suspect something's happening when they can't find their friends, but nobody ever witnessed a murder or found a body until there was only one left alive. It wasn't 8 kids trying to outwit a psycho killer in the wilderness, it was just 8 kids getting murdered one by one, and nothing more (well, maybe the last one was trying to outwit a psycho killer).

The movie even fails at being just a shameless excuse to show nudity and gore. Only one couple has a very tame sex scene were very little is exposed. The others engage in a very PG game of strip Monopoly that ends before they get very far. There are two or three gruesome images, but half the murders take place off-screen.

There was only one scene that gave me a genuine fright. It was a tacked on bit at the end, and even though I'd seen the movie before and knew what was about to happen, it still got me. But one well-executed scene doesn't justify the rest of the surprisingly boring, mostly un-scary movie. It certainly doesn't justify its dozen sequels.