The high art of ‘The Shining’: A guest essay by ‘Horns’ director Alexandre Aja

Oct. 29, 2014 | 6:31 p.m.

In the spirit of Halloween, Hero Complex reached out to select filmmakers to solicit their fondest memories of classic horror. Below, Alexandre Aja, whose new Joe Hill adaptation “Horns” starring Daniel Radcliffe opens Friday, fondly recalls the influence that Stanley Kubrick’s iconic take on Stephen King’s “The Shining” has exerted over his own work.  

The first time I saw “The Shining” it changed my life.

There was a video club right down the street from us, a two- or three-minute walk from our house. As soon as I was old enough, my mother gave me permission to go to the video club and rent films. Even then I loved movies. I knew there was that section at the end of the store where they had all the horror movies. I remember the poster for “Evil Dead II” was the scariest thing I’d seen. I knew I was too young, I was kind of a scared kid and I had big nightmares so I didn’t even want to try to rent one of those.

Jack Nicholson in "The Shining." (Warner Bros.)

Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” (Warner Bros.)

One day when I was about 7, I went to the video store. I was supposed to rent “Superman 2” and I don’t know what happened, there was some mistake that the video club guy made. I ended up taking “The Shining” without knowing it.

When I put the tape in the VCR, from the first shot, I knew I wasn’t watching “Superman 2.” I knew something weird and special was about to happen. I couldn’t move. I was like maybe 4 or 5 feet away from the TV, but I couldn’t walk towards it to stop it. I was fully mesmerized.

I watched maybe a half an hour but it was enough time to present the twin sisters and a vision of the elevator with all the blood floating out. I talk a lot about the immersive experience as the ultimate quest in making all my movies, but I think my desire to be INTO a movie, living it and not just watching it, came from that first experience of being sucked into that flow of images that Stanley Kubrick put together, where each element, from the music to the sound design to the choice of focal length, everything created an experience from which there was no escape. It was way beyond my expectations.

I finally managed to step forward to stop the VCR and for years after that, I kept thinking about “The Shining.” I couldn’t get it out of my mind and then it became one of my all-time favorite movies, one of the films I consider to be the most perfect. It’s a movie I watch often and every time I do I realize how different the interpretation of the movie can be, going from a thrilling horror ride to a deep reflection on the human soul and who we are.

Years later I was researching a project about the Minotaur/labyrinth mythology. I came across this explanation — what if the Minotaur didn’t actually exist? What if after days of starving and being lost and dirty and wondering, you would end up seeing yourself in a mirror and that mirror would reveal a monster you were not expecting and that monster is you. You are the Minotaur. And that interpretation also fits “The Shining.” The labyrinth and the monster are of course very present in “The Shining.” That idea fascinated me and became a very influential theme in all of my movies. Facing an extreme situation, how we can turn into the worst or we can turn into the best?

The other huge influence is the mix of different genres within the same movie. When I first watched “The Shining,” I was of course scared to death. And years later I was still super scared but also appreciated Jack Nicholson’s operatic approach to the role. His portrayal of Jack Torrance was so over the top and crazy that it became one of the best dark humor moments in film history. It’s shocking AND funny. I love that black comedy and I tried to bring it to my first short film and “Piranha” and even more so in “Horns.” It comes from my love for and appreciation of “The Shining” and Jack Nicholson’s performance.

Jack Nicholson and Stanley Kubrick on the set of "The Shining." (Warner Bros. / Los Angeles Times Archive)

Jack Nicholson and Stanley Kubrick on the set of “The Shining.” (Warner Bros.)

Years after I saw the movie I discovered the book. It is so different from the Kubrick movie, but it’s also a fascinating example of adaptation. Apparently Stephen King never really liked the movie. I understand that, because the movie diverges from the novel so much. But I think the Kubrick movie and the book can exist side by side. I think you can appreciate the Stephen King masterpiece as well as the ultimate movie masterpiece that Kubrick made.

It showed me a way to approach book adaptations, not to just do a word-for-word retelling but something that would be self-sufficient, that could exist as a companion to the book. From remaking “Maniac” or “The Hills Have Eyes” or adapting “Horns” from the novel, I feel that each of these movies can be enjoyed and still let the audience appreciate the original movie or novel as well.

Perhaps my favorite shot of all time is Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel sitting at the bar rubbing his face in his hands, saying, “My soul for a beer” and the camera reversing to show Lloyd the barman entering from hell  — at least that’s my interpretation — and serving him a whiskey on the house.

There are many analyses of the movie and ultimately everyone brings their own interpretation to it. There isn’t just one explanation. It isn’t often that several people watching the same movie will have a completely different evaluation of it. That’s a great definition of art.

— Alexandre Aja

Follow us on Twitter: @LATherocomplex


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