Bloody October: The Shining (1980) and Room 237 (2012)

The Shining (1980) and Room 237 (2012)


I’ve decided to combine my reviews of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with Room 237, the 2012 documentary about theories surrounding the meaning of The Shining. This is largely because just about everyone and their mother has written a review of The Shining and I have little new to add to the general consensus that it’s one of the scariest movies ever made.

The Shining (in case you’ve managed to miss both it and The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror sequence “The Shinning”) is about a nuclear family that decides it’s a good idea to hole up in a massive hotel in the mountains of Colorado, where they will see no one else for five months. The last caretaker happened to chop up his entire family into little tiny pieces, but whatever. Five months rent free!

You know the drill. Jack Nicholson goes all kinds of crazy – as if he wasn’t already – and chases Shelley Duvall and the adorable Danny Lloyd around with an axe after his ghostly friends tell him to. Kubrick creates a deep sense of wrong and foreboding from the very beginning. Subtlety is the name of the game in The Shining; the hotel seems off, with winding corridors that don’t quite make sense, offices with windows where there should be none, shifts in decoration that feel unnatural. The Shining trades on peripheral vision, the sense that something is just not quite right. Kubrick pulls this off by introducing or eliminating small elements in a single frame: a chair that’s there one minute and gone the next; a cigarette with smoke circling inward instead of outward. There are undercurrents of abuse – Danny’s shoulder was once dislocated by his father, though this is claimed as an accident – and unnamed violence. Is the hotel really haunted, or is this Jack having a breakdown? Does Danny cause the madness of his father, a mental projection of anger and hatred? It’s a fascinating, labyrinthine film that gives no real answers or explanations. As Scatman Crothers remarks to Danny, there are just traces left over from the past.


If The Shining is indeed a movie about traces, Room 237 spins a few convincing (and less convincing) yarns about those traces. Giving voice to some of the interesting, odd and often outlandish theories about the meaning of The ShiningRoom 237 largely avoids passing judgment on the theorists, allowing them to speak for themselves. And the theories are interesting indeed. One presupposes that the whole story is about the genocide of the American Indians, marking out instances of Native American decorations and photographs that dot the hotel. Oddly, the issue of the Calumet baking soda cans prevalent in several shots is dwelt on more than the fact that the Overlook is built on an ‘ancient Indian burial ground,’ that favorite of horror story tropes.

Another less convincing analysis has a German history scholar examining relations of The Shining to the Holocaust – because all post-war violence has something to do with the Holocaust, and Jack totally uses a GERMAN typewriter. A third theorist tries to claim that Kubrick was using The Shining as a way of telling us all that he was involved in faking the moon landing (what?).

Room 237 is not all crazy, though. Most of these theorists have noticed fascinating elements in the film that might otherwise pass unnoticed. All, however, take their analysis just that one step too far, claiming that the film is ABOUT this and only this, and trying – sometimes in very extreme ways – to prove their case.  What none of them focus on, though, are the very disturbing gender relationships, eliding over Jack’s aggression towards his wife and the notion of ‘correcting’ the bad behavior of women and children through physical violence. I’m amazed that anyone can spend twenty minutes proving the genocide of the American Indians via baking soda cans, but miss the whole “I’m gonna bash your fucking brains in”.

The Shining and Room 237 are fascinating to watch together, however, and well worth the time. While none of the proposed explanations are convincing on final analysis, they all pick up on elements within the film that make it so very fascinating to watch.  The Shining is not just a great horror film; it’s a great film, and still has the power to scare the hell out of you.

Bloody October: The Fog (1980)

The Fog (1980)


There are certain gaps in my horror film education that I have struggled to fill. While I’m very good on Roger Corman, James Whale and Tod Browning, I have missed out on the major works of directors like Wes Craven, Dario Argento and, I realize, John Carpenter. Some of this is due to a total lack of interest in slasher films or most body horror, but as a horror fan I cannot run forever. Some films I simply have to see.

The Fog is one of those Carpenter films that I heard good things about and never got around to watching until now. I’m pleased that I did so. It all begins with Mr. Machen (John Houseman) telling a scary story to kids at a campfire. The story sets up the rest of the film, which plays like an urban legend. The town of Antonio Bay suddenly goes crazy one night, with car alarms going off, pieces of stone falling out of walls, and the ground rattling with an unmeasured earthquake. Meanwhile, a glowing fog rolls in across the water, traveling against the wind. The fog, as Mr. Machen tells us, once caused the deaths of ship full of people, crashing them against the rocks in the Bay 100 years ago on that very night. Now it has returned to Antonio Bay, and it brings with it a strange and terrible vengeance.

The Fog really could have gone either way. The notion is a good one – a traveling fog that envelops and murders – but it could easily have slipped into hokey special effects and people running away from a cloud. Carpenter is a better filmmaker than that, thank God. He instills a sense of otherworldly terror in the fog – there are ghosts that come with it, but for the most part they are glimpsed in shadow and profile, announced by a pounding on the door or wall, proceeded by fog and haze. The horror lies in the build-up, not the execution, and there are few filmmakers from the 1980s so capable of building suspense as John Carpenter.

The cast helps too. Jamie Lee Curtis is on hand as a sweet young hitch-hiker who just happens to wind up in Antonio Bay. Her mother Janet Leigh puts in an amusing appearance as one of the town pillars. Adrienne Barbeau is the local radio DJ and as close to a final girl type as we’re going to get. There’s also Hal Holbrook playing a drunken priest who discovers the true story of the founding of Antonio Bay, and the reason why the fog is … really pissed off.

It’s a simple but effective story told in a simple but effective way, which is what good horror filmmaking is all about. Elaborate backstories, big CGI effects and convoluted character development be damned. Horror is about good scares, and The Fog has that in abundance.

The Avengers: Traitor In Zebra

Traitor In Zebra (Episode 02-11, December 1962)

Steed in Uniform

Traitor In Zebra or, as I like to call it, Steed In Uniform. This episode follows Steed and Cathy as they infiltrate a government facility currently at work on a new satellite tracking system. The system keeps on being jammed, and the Avengers are on hand to ferret out the real traitor. A man has already been arrested for the crime, but Steed’s not certain that he was the one that did it.

Traitor In Zebra is a middling but amusing episode that allows for both Steed and Cathy to step outside of their closed apartments and get to work in a new milieu. There’s an entertaining sequence in the pub, many gratuitous shots of Steed looking truly spectacular in uniform, and some excellent repartee. Macnee and Blackman have hit their stride as partners. Steed and Cathy evidently enjoy each other’s company by now, their earlier conflict turning to good-natured ribbing. Cathy responds to Steed’s insinuations with a well-placed glare, but neither does she seem to feel badly towards him.

I’ve found that I enjoy the Season 2 episodes with Blackman a bit more than the Season 3, when Steed especially begins to iron out his rough edges and the plots grow more and more outlandish. There is a likable noir-ish feeling to Season 2 that all but vanishes later on. Even the rough camerawork and at times stilted dialogue is charming. You can tell when actors miss their queues, contributing more to the sense that the actors embody their characters, and are forced to adapt to changing circumstances. Season 2 might be for the strong-willed Avengers fan, but it’s well-worth a watch, and Traitor in Zebra one of the more enjoyable episodes.

Bloody October: Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator (1985)


I’m a big fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, so it was with a feeling of shock and shame that I realized that I had not seen what’s often considered the greatest adaptation of a Lovecraft story ever: Re-Animator, from 1985. So I queued up my Netflix, popped my popcorn, and settled down for what was sure to be a 1980s schlock-extravaganza.

What had I done? I’d been warned about the grossness of Re-Animator, but I did not expect…this. Granted that Lovecraft adores indulging in oozing viscosity and putrid terrors from the beyond, I still did not expect to be translated so very literally to the screen. But my word it was! Re-Animator is one of the grosser, funnier horror films I’ve seen, and I enjoyed every overblown, overheated minute of it.

Re-Animator tells the story of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a brilliant but quite insane medical student who has created a serum capable of bringing the dead back to life. The problem is that the serum mostly just brings back the primitive instincts, not the higher brain functions, effectively turning reanimated corpses into hyper-strong atavistic zombies. It’s a combination of Frankenstein and a zombie movie by way of Lovecraft.

West goes to Miskatonic University (the site of most of Lovecraft’s educational based narrative), where he connects with fellow medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and his girlfriend Megan (Barbara Halsey). He also runs afoul of Dr. Hill (David Gale), a doctor whose work on brain death West directly challenged. But all the plot machinations are largely excuses for West and Dan to make some zombies, re-animate some corpses, and explode some body parts in a hail of blood and guts.

The first half of Re-Animator plays like a typical camp 80s horror film; the second half is pure insanity. Staff members are murdered, college deans are turned into zombie slaves, Megan (predictably) loses all her clothes, and severed heads return to life in some of the most hilarious, ridiculous and disgusting ways imaginable. It’s nearly impossible to describe what happens in Re-Animator without resorting to noises of shock and horror, not to mention insane laughter.

There are moments in Re-Animator that would be offensive if they did not take place in such an insane film to begin with. The lengths the film goes to get Megan naked is quite remarkable, but it never quite crosses the line into offensive exploitation. The whole film is so mad that it would be impossible to claim that any one scene goes too far. Props to actress Barbara Halsey, though, for being willing to go the extra mile for … art, I guess.

Jeffrey Combs is the mad center of this mad film, his Herbert West fascinating and repellant and, by the end of it, strangely likable. He’s Dr. Frankenstein on acid, dedicated to his cause and completely without morals. I loved him.

No everyone will love this film. Many will be repelled by the sheer amount of blood and gore, or the sight of a headless man attempting to fellate a girl tied to a morgue slab. But it is, indeed, one of the best, maddest Lovecraft adaptations ever likely to be made. Mr. Lovecraft would be incredibly proud.

The House Of The Seven Gables (1940)


Although I am a rather jaded film viewer, there are times when a movie still has the capacity to surprise me. It’s even more remarkable when that movie was made all the way back in 1940, based on a novel written about a hundred years before that.

I really should not have been so surprised at The House of the Seven Gables. After all, it stars two of my favorite sinister gentlemen: Vincent Price and George Sanders. They play brothers (of course they do), one good, the other bad. In the surprise of the century, it’s Mr. Price who gets to be the good guy as Clifford Pyncheon, the eldest son of the Pyncheon family. He resides in the House of the Seven Gables with his father Gerald (Gilbert Emery) and his cousin Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay). Things are not well at Seven Gables, though; Gerald and the younger son Jaffrey (Sanders) have managed to squander the family fortune and Clifford plans to sell Seven Gables and go to New York with his fiancee Hepzibah (this is the Victorian era: that’s totally cool).

Jaffrey’s not a nice man, though – he’s a greedy little rat who believes that there’s a secret treasure hidden somewhere in Seven Gables, and therefore does not want to give up the house. The battle rages between Jaffrey and Clifford, who wants to be out of the house and out from under the weight of his family history. Things go south for poor Clifford when his father suddenly dies during a verbal fight and his brother accuses him of murder.price-gables

The whole of the story is wrapped up in the Pyncheon family history. The first Colonel Pyncheon falsely accused a man of witchcraft in order to obtain his land. Later crimes are committed by the powerful patriarchs of the family – a fact which only Clifford wants to admit to. Clifford and Hepzibah try to escape from the cycle, only to be pulled back in by forces of greed and bitterness.

The actors  anchor The House of the Seven Gables. Price and Sanders are  stars we’re used to seeing in older incarnations, but here (at least at the beginning) they’re young and vibrant. Price especially carries his role off with great aplomb, first as the young joyful Clifford desperate to begin a better life, and then as the down-trodden older man released from prison after almost 20 years.  It’s a testament to Price’s acting ability that this will be the same man who creeps us out in The House on Haunted Hill. In The House of the Seven Gables, he’s never been more likable or attractive.

Sanders has less to do – he does not get to exercise his considerable smarmy charm, although his sardonic baritone is in full force here. He’s an interesting counterpoint to Price’s earnestness, even if the character he plays is largely one-dimensional.

Margaret Lindsay likewise deserves kudos for her role as the patient Hepzibah, who loves Clifford so deeply that she never stops trying to obtain his liberty. Lindsay goes from being a joyous young woman to an embittered matron, but she does not lose either her kindness or her passions. Lindsay gives her a gentility often missing in broader caricatures of the ‘old maid’ – she is a decent, loving person, choosing to live a life of solitude rather than give up on the man she loves. The reunion of Clifford and Hepzibah is perhaps one of the most moving and understated scenes I’ve ever experienced, a result of excellent performances on both the parts of Price and Lindsay. The entire film is worth it just for that one moment of beauty.

I’m surprised and happy that I can recommend this film as highly as I do. While by no means a perfect movie, it’s a remarkably effective one. A Victorian melodrama as only silver-screen Hollywood can make them, it nevertheless transcends the usual sentimental bluster through an excellent cast and a good script. It is moving because it seems so very human.