This round: Horror


The challenger: Portland, Oregon


In this round, Pittsburgh is arguably in its strongest element, with a long history of horror films that includes George Romero’s “Living Dead” series. And last week, Pittsburgh put its best foot forward with “Dawn of the Dead,” (1978) which won me over as one of the best of its kind. But Oregon is no slouch in the film department, with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” (1975), “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978), and “Stand By Me” (1986) on its record.


Portland seems to be where the more commercial, mediocre movies are shot – “Twilight” (2008) had some of its scenes filmed there – but, actually, what we’re focusing on specifically is Mount Hood, just a little to the east of Portland. On Mount Hood sits the famous Timberline Lodge, which boasts an impressive history as a filming location. But there’s only one movie that tourists ever want to know about, because it’s one of the most unforgettable cinematic experiences in history.


Portland’s entry: “The Shining” (1980)






The Movie:
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.





You get a lot to wrap your head around in “The Shining” and still more under the surface that might not register at first. And if that sounds tedious, let me add up front that its bizarre, unrivaled style of presentation will nail you to the screen. (This is Stanley Kubrick in the director’s chair after all.) It was either one of the best and scariest horror movies I’ve ever seen, or I was too swept away by it all to tell the difference.


The movie begins with a presentation that, while featuring excellent cinematography, can’t help but feel a bit off. The acting, the distance from which the camera follows the actors, and some of the dialogue are just a few of the aspects that give you pause. But then, maybe it’s supposed to. Something about these people’s lives, their world, is a bit off.


Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), an ex-teacher, struggling writer, recovering alcoholic, and married father of one, is offered a job, moving into the fancy but isolated Overlook Hotel as its caretaker for five winter months, during which the snow storms force the owners to close it. They warn him that the isolation can get to people, causing a former caretaker named Charles Grady to lose his mind and kill both his family and himself. But even then, Jack and his employers insist on the usual BS, declaring everything in their arrangement is “good” and “swell” and “nifty,” until you may wonder if they can’t wait to be rid of each other. Not everything in this first act draws your attention for the better (in the opening sequence, it’s a little too apparent that we’re following Jack’s car from inside a helicopter, which, at one point, even veers off the winding mountain path to give us a look at the scenery), but through it all, it’s clear that something disturbing is simmering beneath the surface, some sort of energy that boils over in moments of shocking tension. Where do I even begin?


Jack swore off alcohol after he accidently dislocated the arm of his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) while drunk. For this reason, and a few more, Danny is a source of tension between his parents. But Danny himself is a bit harder to understand; he has an imaginary friend named Tony, who he describes as “a little boy that lives in my mouth.” Danny provides Tony with a low, croaking version of his own voice, which his mom, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), encourages, as it seems to help Danny say what’s on his mind. Then, while Danny is pondering his dad’s job interview, Tony correctly predicts that he already got the job and adds that he doesn’t want to go to the hotel. When Danny asks why, he receives a vision that renders him unconscious.


At the hotel, one of the staff packing up to leave speaks to Danny in a way that only Danny can hear, then takes him aside and tells him that they share a psychic gift, the ability to “shine.” He doesn’t share Danny’s fear that something is wrong with the Overlook Hotel but notes that, like people, some places shine and some don’t. The degree of truth in this, the real meaning, is not entirely clear; it’s been noted many times that “The Shining,” doesn’t really provide us with a reliable narrator or a firm look at what’s actually happening. What is clear is that Danny, as afraid as he becomes, is able to process what afflicts him, comparing it to “pictures in a book,” even as figures that the audience may recognize bid him to “Come play with us Danny! Forever, and ever, and ever…” The same is not true for Jack.


Jack spends each day in the hotel alone, claiming to use the time as a chance to write his manuscript and make something of himself. At first, it seems this is true approximately half the time. Otherwise, he spends his days behaving strangely, trying to cope with something that he pretends isn’t there when he talks to his family. Then his wife comes to check on him, and he curses her out, belittles her, and sends her away. He becomes controlling and aggressive, and when we finally get to see his manuscript, we identify the force that he has been trying to deal with: Madness.


But sometimes, it seems something akin to it is afflicting every member of the family. The glimpses into each point of view are masterful, disturbing to an almost unexplainable extent, from following Danny down the long hallways on his tricycle to the forbidden room 237, to watching Wendy tiptoe around Jack, who gradually singles her out as his tormenter. And when Jack breaks down, venting and explaining himself to an imaginary bartender, our sympathy only adds to our fear of him. Sometimes the shifts feel a little too radical, but that may be the point. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Jack is not dangerous, and someone is projecting onto him.


But reality or not, Jack and the forces compelling him are the antagonists of what we see, and when Jack gives in to them, taking his first drink in years from the bartender, they’re almost comforting. In one scene, Jack walks in on a ball full of guests and is greeted as the caretaker, and next to what we’ve seen already, it feels welcoming. We study Jack’s descent a bit; this can’t possibly be what he thinks it is, but he still maintains a degree of logic, until a certain Mr. Grady wins him over to a different perspective. When we next see him from someone else’s point of view, he is the most horrifying character of Jack Nicholson’s career, if he wasn’t already.


At the end of “Dawn of the Dead,” I felt that I’d been well entertained and engaged. At the end of “The Shining,” I felt exhausted. I was overwhelmed and unsettled in a way that didn’t fade immediately. It’s no decision. As great as both movies are, the sheer visceral level achieved by “The Shining” is something you’re lucky to catch in a handful of movies. “The Shining” is one of my new favorite horror movies, and it has beaten Pittsburgh at its own game. (Maybe Oregon has earned another appearance somewhere down the line.) And if you aren’t convinced it could really be that effective, let me offer one last thought: While slasher film buffs like to prove that the terrible imagery does not bother them in horror movies, the reality is that we aren’t facing the physical horrors inflicted on the people we see. We callously separate ourselves from them. “The Shining” offers us something that we can, and do, face while watching it: horrors of the mind.

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