Martin Scorsese. Stanley Kubrick. Two masters of cinema direction, both with distinguished careers making films in multiple genres. But what happens when they square off outside their comfort zones and try to serve up dread and terror? Well, for starters, either one could make you question what it means to be sane.
As Martin Scorsese’s much-hyped Shutter Island hit the theaters, the ad campaigns promised us the arrival of a “new vision of fear.” Maybe, we thought, or maybe it’s just more hype for a delayed film in trouble. But that hype-raising catch-phrase also raised a question about the “old vision of fear,” like Stanley Kubrick’s maniacal masterpiece, The Shining.
On the most basic level, both Shutter Island and The Shining are haunted house stories. Both revolve around a protagonist entering into a strange world full of dark secrets. Watching either one could make for a sleepless night and should probably come with a viewer’s caution. So now we enter our own world of dark secrets, the Smackdown ring. Be afraid, be very afraid…
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A psychological thriller and throwback to old-school noir, Shutter Island focuses on Teddy Daniels (played by Scorsese muse Leo DiCaprio), a US Marshall sent to investigate the infamous Shutter Island mental institution, an asylum-island off the coast of Boston specifically designed to house the criminally insane. One of the inmates there has gone missing and it is Teddy’s job to unlock the mystery of her disappearance. But things are not as they seem on Shutter Island and soon Teddy begins to question the motivations and perceptions of everyone involved, including himself.
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The Defending Champion
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece of fear. Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) is a former school teacher and wannabe writer who agrees to become the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, a mammoth estate isolated in the mountains of Colorado that shuts down during the winter and needs a bit of looking after. Jack’s working on a new writing project and is looking forward to spending the next five months with his wife and son in complete isolation, finally giving him the time to get some real work done. Jack’s also a recovering alcoholic that once accidentally dislocated his son’s shoulder during a bender. But hey, that could happen to anybody.
Unbenknownst to Jack, his young son Danny happens to have a sort of psychic ability known as “shining” that allows him to see into both the past and future and communicate mentally with other “shiners”. Danny also spends much of his time talking to Tony, the imaginary boy that lives inside his mouth and tells him secrets. Tony doesn’t want Danny’s family to go to the Overlook Hotel. Why? Probably because the last caretaker went insane and murdered his entire family with an axe before killing himself. Creeped out yet?
This Smack really comes down to the ability of two legendary directors to execute in genres that are very much new waters to them. Scorsese, known largely for his gangster/crime epics, really hasn’t done a horror/thriller since Cape Fear and certainly nothing as psychologically fractured as Shutter Island. Stanley Kubrick stunned both critics and audiences alike when he followed up Barry Lyndon with The Shining, opening to very mixed reviews and lackluster box-office numbers.
As we noted, both films are by-and-large Haunted House stories. However, their worlds are presented in markedly different ways. Shutter Island is a shadowy, rain soaked, low-key lighted tomb. Its walls are jagged concrete lined with electric wire. Iron bars cover its windows. Grim-looking guards wield rifles around every corner. Dilapidated convicts trudge in chains through the yards and reach out at us from their cells. There is a sense that dread has taken up residence on this property. Redesigned out of an old Civil War fort, even its most lavish fixtures harken back to some secret, darker history. In a story that questions everything and everyone, the island itself is an immediate warning sign that something is terribly wrong.
The Shining’s Overlook Hotel is just as dreadful as Scorsese’s island. And yet it doesn’t have the rain, or smoke, or darkness of the insane asylum. Everything at the hotel is brightly lit, carpeted and luxuriously patterned. It is massive and labrynthine. And perhaps what makes it feel even creepier than Scorsese’s island is how alone you feel in it. While it contains its fair share of ghosts and hellish imagery, its doom comes with the isolation of its characters and the audience. They are alone here. There is no one to help them from each other. You hold your breath as you race behind a young boy on his tricycle through the long hallways of the hotel, making dizzying circles through its wings, bracing yourself for whatever nightmare waits around the next turn. Kubrick, like Scorsese in Shutter Island, understands that horror is in what is left unseen. He moves the camera almost constantly, employing a steadicam unlike any you’ve seen before, making a walk through shelves of canned goods seem like a tip-toe through hell.
Try to get a sense of the layout of the Overlook. You won’t. While Shutter Island is neatly partitioned between three houses – the first two cater to the more docile convicts while the fortress-like third structure houses the more violent ones – the Overlook Hotel is a labyrinth, with no discernible exit. It’s fitting that the film ends outdoors in a literal maze, since we already spent much of our time unwittingly inside one. We are never meant to get our bearings here. We are meant to always feel lost and alone, with no idea of where to run to for help.
Another evident similarity between the two films comes in the form of their scores. Dark, foreboding and booming, they hit you from the opening credits and never let up. There will be no happiness here and their notes let you know it. I have to give preference to the score of The Shining as it likely does more for the project than does that of Shutter Island. Since it is such a brightly lit, deeply-spaced film, it relies heavily on the creepiness of its music to create atmosphere. Shutter Island’s score is impressive and does its fair share to add to the tone of the project, but Scorsese also had a lot more of the natural conventions of the genre with which to manipulate his audience. The Shining is anything but conventional.
Both Shutter Island and The Shining revolve around unreliable protagonists. We watch as the directors masterfully introduce us to our “heroes” and then proceed to break apart their sanity. Teddy Daniels’ investigation begins before he even reaches the island’s shores. He’s questioning everything from the start, and he’s right to. Everyone seems to be holding back, hiding something. But what of himself? We are just as alone as he is. Leonardo DiCaprio does an excellent job as the spiraling anti-hero. He is, as one character tells him, “A rat in a maze,” scrambling to find his way out. And if nothing else, his performance in the film’s last sequence is well worth the price of admission.
With The Shining, we get to bear witness to one of the greatest transformations in cinema history. Jack Torrance’s descent into madness is indescribable. And you’re never really sure when it starts. Does Jack ever tell his wife about the brutal murder at the hotel after his interview? Is he lying to us from the start? Is he really speaking to these “ghosts” or is he just talking to himself? Does Jack unwittingly share in Danny’s talent? The Shining’s questions may have answers, but the film isn’t necessarily going to give us any. Like Shutter Island, we question everyone at the Overlook Hotel. What is real? Who can we trust? Everyone seems to be skewed by insanity or supernatural projections or old, reopened wounds. They are all pale shades, locked in their own fear. And so are we. We are truly alone at the Overlook Hotel. And we’re just as damned as they are.
It isn’t until the end of Shutter Island that all the pieces finally fit together, though anyone hoping for a revelatory moment may feel a bit of a let-down. I’ve heard a lot of people complain that they saw the ending coming, that the trailers gave everything away. Maybe they did. But Scorsese isn’t necessarily being that coy. If you’re looking for it, he gives you everything from the opening frame. And then over and over again. The film isn’t even always terribly suspenseful — and maybe that is its biggest flaw. For a psychological thriller, the film seems to focus a lot more on “psychology” and less on “thrilling.” It cares much more about depicting the psychology of its protagonist and the thematics of its metaphors than taking audiences’ breaths away.
If you’re not resting the whole experience on whether or not you get to be surprised, it should be a very enjoyable ride. The film is a tone piece, an epic of mood. And very much a love letter to film from one of its greatest enthusiasts. But is that enough?
Martin Scorsese once said that any one of Kubrick’s films is equivalent to ten of another’s. As least this time, that statement holds true. While Shutter Island does its best to get us lost within its maze, The Shining throws us in and blockades the exit.