Sinister Summer: Kubrick’s “The Shining” film review

“Here’s Johnny!” Arguably one of the most quoted lines in, not only the horror genre, but in all of cinema! Widely considered one of the greatest horror films of all time, it stands as a testament to what an innovative, pioneering director can do with the genre. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining based upon the best-selling novel by Stephen King is a cinematic masterpiece that continues to be studied and terrify audiences today. You’ll find TV shows and even movies paying homage to it through clever references to famous scenes in the film. The Shining is an incredible source of inspiration for visual storytelling and the horror genre. Much like Hitchcock radically altered the landscape of suspense and horror, Kubrick is regarded as a director who also dramatically changed filmmaking and broke ground for directing, cinematography, editing, and more! He took the medium of film to new levels that are still studied today. He is infamous for his acute perfectionism that often required dozens of retakes for the same scene, which made him a terror to work with. He was giving his best, so he demanded that you give your best in turn. It’s this approach that has made his films withstand the test of time. Beyond the silver screen, last year Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights made it possible for you to check into the infamous Overlook to face your fears as you meander the corridors lined with the famous carpet that leads to bloody elevators, terrifying twins, and Jack Torrance wielding his fire axe (although it’s supposed to be a croquet mallet). As part of my Sinister Summer series, this article explores just what makes The Shining such a timeless horror film and example of excellence in the art and science of motion pictures.

With the recent news regarding the casting and upcoming production of the sequel to The Shining titled Doctor Sleep, I thought that an analysis of this iconic film was appropriate! Although the 1997 3-part mini-series was a closer screen interpretation of the novel and took place in the very hotel (The Stanley in Estes Park, CO) that inspired Kubrick to write the terrifying tale, it’s the Kubrick film that continues to be the favorite among cinephiles and horror fans. Furthermore, it’s the film that is a testament to the power of visual storytelling and ability to evoke strong emotion, and is simply more memorable because of the depth and complexity of the film that begs for analysis. As a member of the audience, you are forcibly pulled into the story; you can feel the trauma, tension, and emotion of the characters. While Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the greatest horror films of all time, it is not and should not be thought of one of the scariest movies of all time. For one, Kubrick never stated that The Shining was a scary movie nor did he, through his control of the public relations and marketing material, imply that it was a scary movie. However, he did imply that it was more of a conventional horror film in order to capitalize on the popularity of the genre; but initial responses to the film were not overly positive because some interpreted the publicity as a bait’n switch. It does a lot of things, but “scaring” the audience is not one of them.

As I’ve written before, horror films are not synonymous with scary movies. Are many, if not most, horror films also scary? Yes. But some of the best ones focus more on the drama, themes, and subtext. That focus gives the film depth. And through the drama and cinematography, tension is built, suspense is drawn out, and strategically placed glimpses of visceral horror, nightmare-inducing imagery, and uncanny moments are revealed that generate terror in the mind that evokes a physiological response to the motion picture. Beyond the physiological realm, The Shining also taps into the psychology of the audience as the events unfold through the various traumas on screen. In retrospect, The Shining is a dark, traumatic family drama disguised as a horror film. The action sequences in the film certainly lend themselves to the horror genre, but the family drama paired with the brilliant cinematography and editing is what gives the film critical value. On the surface, it is very much a horror film, but beneath beats the heart of a dark melodrama with terrifying glimpses into psychotic breakdowns and schizophrenic delusions.

The Shining is one of those films that has been and continues to be analyzed to discern the meaning behind the images and writing. In addition to directing, Kubrick also co-wrote the screenplay with Diane Johnson. As one of the writers, he was often asked about the meaning of the various sequences or moment in the film, and in mysterious fashion, he was reluctant to clarify the meaning. Instead, he preferred to leave it up to the individual audience members to decide. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll note that there are many differences between the Kubrick film and book. Most notably the weapon of choice for Jack. A axe in the movie and a croquet mallet in the novel. There are also character traits that were lost in translation. In the book, Wendy is a strong female whereas in the film she is incredibly mousey. And the hotel itself. The hotel described in the novel is clearly The Stanley in Estes Park, CO but it was the Timberline Lodge in Oregon that was used for the exterior shots. Why would Kubrick make these obvious changes? Not limited to The Shining, Kubrick often–in Kubrick fashion–adapted novels to screenplays in a manner that it made them more cinematic and less literary. The film certainly has a literary quality about it, but the changes implemented were in an effort–and successfully so–to make the story more cinematic. One visual way Kubrick adapted the novel in order to make the film memorable was to invert colors from the novel (i.e. yellow VW bug instead of the red one from the novel). Furthermore, he looked at the meaning behind the hotel’s design in the novel, and interpreted the meaning for the screen, not the objects themselves. It’s this cinematic quality that contributes to the masterpiece status of the film.

More than a ghost story in an isolated location, more than haunted magnificent hotel with a sordid, tragic past, The Shining derives its brand of horror through the twisted, dark family drama with a touch of the supernatural. I love how Kubrick uses what may appear to be beautiful imagery and juxtapose it against the macabre. Often there are innocent or majestic images used in the film that are undercut by dark subtext, uncomfortable music, or superimposed on that which removes any positive potential from the sequence. It keeps you from being too comfortable or perhaps it pains your mind. While one may expect a haunted hotel to appear in a more conventional or traditional fashion (gothic, rundown, tired, antiquated), this hotel is brightly lit, well-kept, and modern. But through Kubrick’s brilliant direction, despite the hotel’s outward appearance, it also feels evil from the onset. Frame by frame, Kubrick paints an entire portrait, writes an entire story. Each scene is as though it is a word in a larger paragraph. Much like the scenes in Barry Lyndon are ostensibly taken directly from an oil painting, the shapes, colors, and frames of The Shining communicate through extensively showing that which would have lost critical value if it was told. Show don’t tell (I say to my students all the time). Visually, the film builds tension throughout every moment from the beginning to the end. Because Kubrick exerted extreme perfectionism in direction, cinematography, and editing, one could remove all the dialogue from the film, and it would still play out just as powerfully. But of course, we would lose that famous line as Jack comes crashing through the apartment door.

Some of what Kubrick left out of the novel was due to logistical reasons. Visual FX that would allow for increased ectoplasmic apparitions, menacing hedge animals, and more was still limited. At least, limited to the extent that they did not meet the demands of Kubrick. He exchanged the more traditional horror imagery for something with far more intrinsic value–and thankfully so. Let’s concentrate on the three principle characters for a moment. Just like the Overlook Hotel is one location, one building with many spaces or rooms, we can apply that illustration to the Torrance family. Imagine the Torrance family as one unit, one unit with three different spaces. Perhaps this is a bit of an abstract thought, but the film’s content supports the focus on the central three as abstract spaces within the larger whole more so than the haunts around them. When analyzing the family in such a manner, the viewer can then see how elements of the hotel are extensions of the individual family members. You can read the family like you read the hotel. I also liken The Shining to Edgar Allan Pot’s The Fall of the House of Usher because the Overlook is a direct representation of the psyche of Jack, just like the house in Poe’s story. On one hand, the hotel is exquisite and expansive but on the other, it’s a claustrophobic prison, a grave. It exists on a serene landscape of beautiful snow-capped mountains but it also exists in a state of hell. It’s that identify crisis that mirrors Jack’s duality of mind and behavior. The famous carpet pattern, arrangement of corridors, impossible windows, lonely hallways with skeletons in the closets–or bathtub in this case–are all representative of the bizarre, bewildering mazes of Jacks mind that slowly drive him insane.

Kubrick also plays around with the idea of time, repressed memories, the uncanny through the revealing of that which should have remained hidden or buried. In my article The Psychology of Horror: An Exploration of Freud’s Uncanny through Psycho, I explain that the uncanny is The word uncanny comes from the German word unheimlich, which is literally translated as something unfamiliar. However, that which is unfamiliar is not necessarily uncanny. By the same toke, that which is uncanny is not necessarily completely unfamiliar either. In particular, he was interested in the return of the repressed. And, in this return of the repressed, “other” scenes, to which we do not have direct access, would reveal themselves. It is this revelation that is what Freud terms the uncanny. According to Freud, “unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden, but has come into the light.” The famous bathroom scene with the ghoulish bathing beauty, the bloody elevator (which Universal achieved so brilliantly at last year’s Halloween Horror Nights), and the twins that beg Danny to play with them forever, these are all repressed memories of the hotel’s past that have come into the present to disrupt the natural order of time, space, and dimension. It’s this disorder that directly impacts the ability for the family to function normally. And therefore contributes to the psychological breakdown of Jack, Wendy, and even Danny. These images and experiences distort reality, causing those of weak minds (Jack) to question everything around them, to behave hostilely in the face of an inability to discern reality from imagination.

Many critics and fans have written that the chief theme of The Shining is an exploration of America and her troubled, violent past. Mainly the massacre and displacement of the natives but can be applied to slavery, the Civil War, and where I’m choosing to go: socioeconomic class. I find that this is an important theme to discuss and may provide further insight into the meanings of the film because we learn that Jack is unemployed but finds himself in the grandest of hotels. Evidence of socioeconomic class can be seen through Jack’s words and behavior. Although he’s issued the title caretaker, he quickly asserts himself as a writer during his interview. How many of us have modified our profession or self image to impress more. It’s out defensive pretense to make ourself appear more successful or more intellectual than we actually are, for fear of what others may think. We are our own caretakers and public relations professionals.

Jack quickly associates the hotel with luxury, but is reminded of his lowly status during the course of his interview. He can temporarily live like the elite, but knows that he is still a working class schlub. Seeing this position at The Overlook as a way to gain prestige, he takes the position. I imagine he took the position so he could say to his friends that he spent the winter at the Overlook in order to write on his novel. During the tour, Wendy often remarks that they’ve never been anywhere like this before, drawing attention to the family’s provincial status. Several times during the film, Wendy urges Jack to resign as caretaker and return to Boulder. He refuses, stating that if he went back, he would be reduced to working menial jobs. The irony is that he is already working a menial job as a caretaker at a shuttered hotel. He exists in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance, demonstrated an inability to reconcile what his role actually is. Again, we witness the film displaying someone who cannot discern reality from imagination.

And on the topic of the real versus imagined, another theme I’d like to highlight in the film is madness versus possession. We may never truly now if Jack was simply mad or was truly possessed by the spirits in the hotel. In the TV version, it is far easier to surmise that Jack IS possessed by the hotel, not so much in the more artistic film. We know that Jack has a violent history of alcoholism that led to Danny’s arm breaking and that he resents Wendy for refusing to forgive him for the accident. Furthermore, Jack demonstrates anger and resentment for Wendy not fully supporting his aspirations for a writing career. The presence of ghosts and other evils lends support to the possible possession of Jack. He certainly does change during his short tenure as the caretaker. Perhaps it’s a combination. Danny’s ability to shine and Jack’s sensitivity to objects and people who shine creates quite the conundrum. It’s entirely possible that Danny insisting that Jack is possessed drives him mad. There is evidence in the film that Jack may be legitimately schizophrenic because of his visions of Lloyd, the Gold Room bartender and the New Years party guests. But because Wendy eventually sees these same ghosts, that supports the hypothesis that Jack is possessed by the hotel. Does Jack have free will or is he fated to a pre-determined destiny? You be the judge.

That’s what makes the writing and visuals of this film so great! There are many interpretations, and I feel strongly that is what Kubrick wanted. This film causes us to think and discuss. So, I am glad it doesn’t just have one metaphor or meaning. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece of a film that deserves all the accolades that it has ever received. The supporting evidence outlined in this article merely touch the surface of the depth and breadth of discussions that can be had about this film. The bar set by the atmosphere of dread in this film is incredibly high, and few films even encroach upon the level of cinematic excellence.

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“Annihilation” film review

Outstanding craftsmanship that provides a trippy, surrealist experience! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a horror science-fiction film like this one–one that harkens back to the manner in which Stanley Kubrick terrified audiences with his cinematic masterpieces. The brilliance of this film is the visually disturbing storytelling that’s built upon metaphysical and philosophical queries as well as Freud’s uncanny. Written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina) and based upon the Southern Reach book series by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation boasts an all-female lead cast that takes the audience on a gripping, nail-biting adventure into the unknown that is frocked with wonder and tragedy. Falling in line with extraterrestrial films, this one exists somewhere between Alien and Arrival with influences from Kubrick and even Salvador Dali. Don’t wait for it to be released on Netflix internationally to avoid watching it at your local cinema; this IS a film best viewed, experienced, and enjoyed on the BIG screen–and not the 65in in your living room. For those who look for and appreciate science-fiction and/or horror films that explore psycho-social and institutional themes, then this is truly a film for you. Cognitively engaging and physiologically disturbing, Annihilation is a turbulent, horrific adventure.

After a mysterious meteor-like object strikes a lighthouse in Area X (most likely the swamplands of northwestern Florida), an increasingly growing membrane-like phenomenon is slowly swallowing up the land around it. When several paramilitary and scientific expeditions do not return from exploring the anomaly, biology professor Lena Kane (Natalie Portman) is aggressively recruited to work on the next team of scientists to track, report, analyze and potentially rescue former teams from what’s being called “the shimmer.” Professor Kane and her team have no idea that they will be facing their worst nightmares inside the shimmer as they explore this unknown world filled with dangerous opposition from the creatures that live within and the psychosis-like tension between the team members themselves.

Definitely not a film for the general masses. And you know what??? That is perfectly fine. In fact, that’s why this film works so incredibly well as an avant-garde-like science-fiction horror film. Had it directed for the masses, the film would not be nearly as stimulating psychologically and physiologically. Much like Garland did with the Oscar-winning Ex Machina, he crafts a world based on the best-selling series that takes the audience on a disturbing journey into the macabre, which juxtaposes the physical and metaphysical dimensions. Garland’s Annihilation is a masterful cinematic work that combines excellent writing with exceptional imagery and stunning practical effects. If Dali were alive today, this is the kind of film that he would have wanted to work on because there is such a heavy surrealist approach to the production design and visual effects. But this film is so much more than just the cinematic beauty of the motion picture. There are philosophical questions that one may ask oneself that create an added dimension of engagement that further immerses the audience into the world of the film.

Much like with Ex Machina, Garland shows an obsession with the need to see and see through when observing an unknown entity that may or may not be sentient. Paralleling how he set up the glass wall between Caleb and Ava (the AI) in the compound/lab designed by Nathan (Oscar Isaac, who is also in Annihilation), Garland sets up the interrogation room in which we are first introduced to Lena while she is being interviewed by the team in hazmat suits. I love the play on perspectives, vantage points if you will in both movies. That fluctuation between a filtered and unfiltered view of the phenomenon under observation offers much depth to the storytelling. In Annihilation, we are initially introduced to the shimmer, and world within, through sensors, readouts, and other “filters” but then we are thrust into the horrifying flora, fauna, and animal life without any type of protective boundary. Freud refers to the revealing of that which should remain hidden or the return of the repressed (which we literally get to witness in this film) as that which is uncanny (click for article). Just as our characters are constantly searching for clarity, you will find yourself paying close attention to the unknown to gain an unhindered understanding of what you are witnessing.

Not your average science-fiction horror film, this one will truly get under your skin–much like The Shimmer invades the bodies of those who choose to enter the dark twisted, refracted world of that which lies beyond our senses. Truly terrifying, this film is one for those who love a sci-fi horror that will prompt you to contemplate the themes and subtext of the movie. One of the quandaries that face the characters, and by extension, the audience is the idea of self-destruction versus suicide–the physiological versus the psychological components. For those who may worry that the film is “too intellectual,” the story is told in such a way that it not only appeals to film critics, academics, or horror aficionados but can be enjoyed by those who like a good, disturbing scare. The fact that there is the “intellectual” dimension to the film adds to the experience for those who appreciate that element in visual storytelling.

Reimagining Halloween in the Parks this Year: the Mind of Horror v. the Eye of Terror

After taking break from posting last week, as it was a holiday, I am happy to provide you with another stimulating article once again on the themed entertainment industry! All week long, I have been thinking about what to write this week. I’ve covered some of the recently opened or previews of attractions and theme parks opening soon; but, I thought that I would take a slightly different approach this week. Over the last year, the United States and other countries have been experiencing a rise in violence. Whether that violence has (1) always been there, but because of the great mediation of society (a proliferation of media capturing devices and distribution outlets), we simply see it more often or (2) if there truly is a signifiant rise in mass violence compared to past decades, is not what I am here to discuss. I would, however, like to discuss the upcoming Halloween events in the parks this year, and specifically, how they might have to adapt or change as a result of the recent mass shootings.

HHN2016Already, Universal Orlando has alluded to the fact that it may be revisiting some of its offerings for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights (HHN), and it would not surprise me if Busch Gardens Tampa Bay makes a similar decision with Howl-O-Scream (HOS), as both parks primarily draw from the Central Florida area and of course tourists still flock to the parks for the annual celebration of the macabre. The recent massacre at the Pulse Night Club will undoubtedly have an affect upon the planning and logistics of primarily HHN followed by HOS to a lesser extent. Since the horror film, and by extension the haunted house attraction (or scare zone) are both grounded in the same anthropological (inclusive of sociology) and psychological theories, there is definitely an opportunity to explore this area of themed entertainment. As Disney’s Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and SeaWorld’s Spook-tacular do not include glorified violence or death, I will not spend time analyzing how those events may change, because they are mostly benign. Suffice it to say, there will likely be some changes coming to HHN and HOS this year. What are those changes? Well, I am not prevued to those decisions; but can extrapolate from logic and theory what may happen in light of recent events in Orlando and beyond. It is important to note that both Universal Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay mostly likely have to revisit some of the scare zones or houses this year but not implement changes that may have a negative affect upon drawing from guests outside the Central Florida area. Striking a balance between curtailing some of the violence in respect to those who died and still satisfying those who were not emotionally or psychologically impacted is the key.

HOS2016The events certainly still have to feel like Halloween but perhaps reimagining some of the offerings will aid in finding that delicate balance. It is entirely possible that many who have enjoyed going to HHN and HOS in the past may back off this year in an effort not to come face-to-face with violence as it has greatly impacted many people. Here’s an interesting question: does horror have to be violent? Yes and no. Some of the greatest horror movies of all time are not terribly violent at all, but the eye witnessing violent acts certainly creates terror in the minds and bodies of the audience (or park guest). Alfred Hitchcock once said, “there is no greater threat than an unopened door.” This is indicative of the master of suspense’s ability to generate the fear of something or someone that may not even be a threat. There is another Hitchcock quote (or, at least I believe it’s Hitch) to the effect of “greater is the fear that’s in the mind than on the screen” (if you know of this exact quote, please let me know). That being said, likewise, seeing Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, or Michael is equally terrifying because of the trademark violence they have displayed on the screen over the years. It is important to year-round or seasonally operating Halloween-themed attractions to include both the physical and psychological/emotional aspects of horror in order for the guests to have a dynamic and full experience facing that which terrifies them and from which guests would otherwise run away.

unheimlichThroughout history, from the fights in the Roman Coliseum to Michael Myers’ slaying of people in Halloween, audiences have been both entertained and repeatedly drawn to stories and shows that highlight horrific acts of violence or feelings of terror and anxiety. Perhaps there is a deep seeded reason as to why millions of people find entertainment value in horror films. This question has been tackled by many psychiatrists and psychologists, each has come up with a different explanation as to “why horror?” Most notably, famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud provided great insight into an explanation of why people find horror films fascinating in his essay on the Uncanny.  In his study on the uncanny, Freud takes on the literary imagination (this same literary analysis can and is used to analyze film and themed entertainment) by dividing his theory up into three sections. He first defines the concept of the uncanny, then performs an examination of the context required for understanding the experience of the uncanny, and finally explores the affects of the uncanny on the psyche through literature and fiction. Some of the running themes throughout his essay are loss of eyes, castration, the double-ego, and self-reflexivity. Through the framework laid out by Freud, scholars and film critics can explore the themes in horror film as it relates to the human subconscious; and for purposes of our discussion, the horror attraction.

Freud explains the realm of the uncanny as the place at which aesthetics and psychoanalysis merge, because it deals with a particular feeling or sensation combined with emotional impulses. The substances or manifestations of the uncanny are elements that are fearful and frightening. Proceeding with Freud’s definition of the uncanny being a class of frightening elements, plaguing the psyche, ushering an individual back to what is familiar (heimlich) and known (as opposed to what is unknown). Freud refers to the uncanny as that “which should have remained secret and hidden, but has come to the light.” Furthermore, he goes on to further describe the uncanny as the “mark of the return of the repressed.” The concept of the uncanny is a type of unwilling or mistaken exposure to something surprising, unexpected, or horrific. Freud claims that the source of the uncanny in literature is the recurrence of something long forgotten and repressed. However, not everything that returns from the psychic depths of repression is uncanny. The mere return of repressed feelings and experiences is not sufficient for the uncanny to occur. It requires something repressed having returned but represented by an unexpected and outside the realm of reality. This is easily accomplished in literature (and by extension, movies, theme park attractions, and plays) because fantasy is different from reality.

Just because something works as uncanny in a work of literature doesn’t mean it can work in real-life as well. During times of tragedy felt by an entire group of people or nation, the same concepts which work in literature and film may not work as well, for a period of time anyway, in themed entertainment. Within literature, if the author makes a pretense to realism, then he or she opens the door to supplying the story with the uncanny. Often times, the uncanny in literature and film is the projection of the psyche of the central character on another object or person combined with a warped view of the objective and subjective of a given situation. It’s like something within the fictional world creeps into the real world. Within the horror genre, there are many different stories or narratives that exist. And, each type of horror film tells its story in different ways; however, they are all concerned with getting the same emotional response from the “people out there in the dark,” as famously stated by Norma Desmond in the timeless film noir classic Sunset Blvd. Sometimes the audience will go on a journey into the crazed mind of a psychopathic serial killer or they may witness a supernatural monster terrorizing a small Bavarian village. In either case, Freud believes that the writers of horror, and by extension themed entertainment designers, are concerned with exposing the audience to “other” scenes. And, these “other” scenes are rooted in the subconscious.

eyeofhorrorMoreover, Carol Clover also provides insight into the fascination with the horror theme park attraction. After all, horror films and theme park attractions are mostly concerned with what you actually see. Horror attractions, much like their movie counterparts, are visual stories that are translated into experiential narratives. The Halloween themed attractions in the parks have to include different eyes. The three principle types of eyes used in horror attractions are the assaultive gaze (active, penetrating), reactive gaze (passive, penetrated, the most common in horror storytelling), and repeated gaze (masochism for characters and spectators alike). This is one reason why extreme closeups (ECU) of the eye are popular in horror films turned attractions. The eye is extremely symbolic in narratives driven by fear. The design of horror attractions and films is extremely fascinating because of the convergence of visual storytelling and engineering. It’s more than blood, gore, screams, and knives; there is almost a poetry behind it. A brilliantly insightful quote from Clover is, “Inasmuch as the vision of the subjective camera calls attention to what it cannot see–to dark corners and recesses of its vision … and what might be … just off-frame–it gives rise to the sense not of mastery but of vulnerability.” At the end of the day, both HHN and HOS highlight our vulnerability and prey on our fears of that which assaults the eye and should remain hidden.

corridorBut what about HHN and HOS this year? Looking to the past, and how Universal Orlando handled mass violence in society that had a profound impact on a group or whole culture of people may help shed light on what might be expected this year. During HHN XI (2001), Universal Creative pulled Eddie, the chainsaw wielding maniac with a complex and fascinating backstory, from the lineup after the attacks on 9/11/2001. It was decided that the mood of the United States was such that it would have been in poor taste to include such a violent icon in the theming. In addition to the removal of the HHN icon, most signs of blood, gore, and the glorification of violence were removed–even names of characters and zones were modified. Because of the recent deaths of nearly 50 people (some of whom were connected to the parks as employees, bloggers, or past performers), we might witness a similar reimagination of events at Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream this season. Hopefully, I have been able to open a discussion on how things could be reimagined at the annual Halloween events this year. An attraction can be equally terrifying even if there is no violence to be seen. However, the inclusion of cliche horror film violence is an integral part of the modern Halloween attraction experience. Even Carol Clover explores the importance of men, women, and chainsaws in horror storytelling. Perhaps the creative engineers and designers at the parks will look beyond what has typically been a staple of these events and embrace other avenues of terror that will still prompt screams. In all likelihood, we will probably see the dial turned back on the knives and guns during HHN and HOS but that certainly does not mean that the attractions will be any less terrifying. It’s entirely possible that the mind of horror will outweigh the eye of terror in the theming, planning, and design of HHN and HOS this year.

“Skull Island: Reign of Kong” Theme Park Attraction Review

IMG_5531“What’ve they got in there…King Kong?” (Malcolm, Dr. Ian 1993). That is precisely who you will encounter on your expedition into the jungles of Skull Island at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure this summer! Fortunately, I was able to take part in a soft opening on Saturday afternoon and am able to share my thoughts with you. The presence of King Kong at Universal Orlando Resort represents a long awaited triumphant return ever since Revenge of the Mummy took the place of Kongfrontation at Universal Studios Florida (original park). Although the ride design is completely different than the previous attraction, it is exquisitely designed and integrates trending themed entertainment attraction technology with practical effects and animatronics. From the queue to the ride path itself, you will be completely immersed into the dark and frightening world of Skull Island. Along your expedition, you may encounter prehistoric-sized creatures, the dead, and maybe even the undead.

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IMG_5512For those who have been hanging in and around Islands of Adventure for the last week, you may have had the opportunity to partake in a soft opening of the highly anticipated attraction. If not, definitely plan a trip to the park soon in order to experience the newest attraction (although, the Hulk coaster is reopening soon). What I appreciate most about Skull Island: Reign of Kong is the attention to detail, experiential storytelling, and production design. As an entertainment scholar, I was incredibly impressed with the ability to see horror film theories and frameworks woven throughout the experience. Now, is that something that the typical park guest is going to notice? Probably not. However, the fact that feel that I am going through the diegesis of a horror film serves as empirically-based observational evidence that the ride meets the expectations of both spectacle and narrative. As I mentioned on Twitter, the writings of Freud, Carol Clover, Geoff King, and Linda Williams are alive and well!

IMG_5445The experience of the attraction begins even before you enter the queue. As you gaze upon the exterior design of the attraction, you will begin to feel drawn into the world of Skull Island. What lies beyond the massive 100% to scale gate? Once the thoughts of feeling compelled to venture into the jungles behind the gate enter you mind, you will have no choice but to sign up for the next expedition. If you have been to a Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, or Busch Gardens theme park, you are already familiar with the theme and story of the attraction beginning at the queue. The Reign of Kong queue is full of creative design to capture your attention and compel you to further descend into the dark catacombs. Prior to entering the indoor part of the queue, the outside is lightly themed with bamboo, greenery, and some rock formations. Thankfully, you have a great view of Kong’s massive stone gates. The heaviest of the queue theming begins once you enter the catacombs.

IMG_5515It’s not called Skull Island for nothing. Between the entrance to the catacombs and the loading platform, there are hundreds if not thousands of skulls within the rock walls and openings. This is where I can really infer the adherence to horror film theories explored and defined by the scholars I referenced earlier. Just like going to see a horror film with the foreknowledge that voluntarily subjecting oneself to terror is part of the experience, the same can be said about this attraction. In Freud’s writings on the principle of unheimlich or what we refer to as the uncanny, he explains that we are psychologically drawn to that which should otherwise remain hidden. Certainly skulls of the dead are items that should remain hidden beneath the earth; however, they possess an attraction that begs for one’s attention. Moreover, scholar Carol Clover writes prolifically on the concept of the unpleasurable pleasure. What does she mean by that? This concept is a framework through which to view why we are drawn to that which would otherwise terrify us. In real life, if you were to see a foreboding cavern filled with low-key lighting and the remains of the dead, you would most likely run IMG_5526away. But since we know that this is a ride at a theme park, we are totally okay with venting further and further into the dark now knowing what awaits. Because we are aware that we are in a safe zone, it’s okay to experience otherwise unpleasurable sights and sounds. Just like going to see a horror movie. Both Linda Williams and Geoff King write on similar topics and theoretical frameworks that deal with spectacle, pleasure, and attraction. The sheer spectacle of the queue is enough to beckon anyone; and from the radio announcer, 1930s music, and witch/priestess’ frightening words, there is a coherent and steadily flowing narrative throughout the attraction queue. Even if you have never heard of King Kong (I know, that is doubtful), after passing thousands of skulls and listening to the witch-priestess chant in an unknown language about Kong, that plus the fire and cavernous rumblings tell you that Kong must be powerful and terrifying. Even after the witch-priestess causes fire and darkness, do you turn back? Of course, not!

IMG_5528One of the most interesting additions to the queue concept that has never been done before, except during Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) is including entertainment team members commonly known as scare-actors. Scare-actors are entertainment cast, in themed costume, whose goal is to frighten you with a classic jump-scare. Ordinarily, this is something that is only done during HHN since everyone who has come to the event is there with the intention of being scared. Interesting to use the same concept on a daily operations attraction. But, this is a frightening attraction and setup very similarly to a horror film. So, looking at it that way, it is a logical progression in queue development to include live performers who can increase the scare factor. IMG_5527Additional animatronics are also integrated into the queue in order to heighten the sensations of terror among the park guests. After meandering and wandering through the catacombs of Skull Island, you finally locate your ride vehicle and driver who is going to take you on an expedition beyond the stone gate. Following picking up safety glasses in order to protect your eyes from harm–oh the irony–you board the expedition vehicle. After riding in the front row on the the truck, I would advise not sitting there. So often, row one on a ride is the best no matter what is said about every seat providing an equal experience; however, on this attraction, I would advise sitting in the middle or back if at all possible.

KongVehicleThe ride vehicle at Reign of Kong is massive. It seats up to 78 park guests. So, the benefit to that is moving large crowds efficiently and quickly. Of course, there was no Express Pass queue during the soft opening, so that will definitely mitigate the efficiency and speed of loading standby (or standard queue) guests once it officially opens. At first, I thought the driver was real! The driver moved naturally and in a non-robotic fashion. Turns out that the drivers are, in fact, animatronics! Just goes to show the quality of immersion, storytelling, and theming went into Kong. The image in this paragraph is from publicity photos and shows a real driver; but the animatronic driver sits right up front behind the wheel. So Cool! Once you leave the IMG_5510loading dock, you proceed through the catacombs and outside to the pathway leading to the colossal stone gate. Unlike the forced perspective that is often found in the Disney and Universal parks out of logistic and engineering necessity usually, the King Kong gate is full scale. In many ways, you will feel just like Jurassic Park’s Malcolm when the doors open and you venture out into the wilds of Skull Island. During rainy weather, the attraction designers paved a way for the vehicles to bypass the gate which does take away from some of the initial impression but ultimately will not negatively affect the park guests’ experience on the ride.

SkullIslandBatHaving experienced the Kong attraction as part of the famous studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood, I was very interested to see how that same technology was integrated into this stand alone attraction in Florida. Although the rides are not identical, Skull Island: Reign of Kong at Islands of Adventure borrows heavily from the Universal Studios Hollywood counterpart. After proceeding through the stone gate, you will encounter prehistoric sized creatures over head and on the ground. You won’t be able to ignore the giant gorilla skull and bones just inside the gate. As your driver is working on his or her PhD, you will have the opportunity to Kong_T-Rexmeet some of his or her colleagues in the field along the expedition. As to not spoil the actual ride portion of the attraction, I will not go into too much detail but provide more of an overall analysis of the storytelling. As I have written in previous articles, a theme park attraction based on a work of literature or creative media is essentially a short film. It has, say 3-5mins (sometimes longer if it’s a show) to take the park guest through a three-act story. Paralleling the plot structure of a movie, Reign of Kong provides an exciting story for those who dare to explore the jungles of Skull Kong_AnimatronicIsland. You have a well-defined beginning, rising action, crisis, showdown, and denouement. Although my ride experienced a technical glitch on one of the 3D screens, it did not significantly take away from the enjoyment and thrill. There are many elements I like about the attraction, but I was hoping for more practical effects and animatronics than proliferated 3D screens. Still, the visuals are fantastic and do an excellent job of immersing you into the wilds of the ancient jungle. I cannot be certain, but I believe one of the video sequences is taken from the Hollywood counterpart attraction.

IMG_5519Best part of the experience awaits explorers just before disembarking. I won’t tell you what it is because it will ruin the surprise. But, I will tell you that it is truly a welcoming and beloved echo from the past. Theme park technology and what the modern guest is looking for may change over the years, but some things remain a constant. Being a fan of theme parks turned scholar, I greatly appreciate the closing scene on the ride. I was even a little teary-eyed when I rounded the final corner. Whether analyzing Skull Island: Reign of Kong from an objective or subjective perspective, it is clear that the attraction is and will continue to be a huge success for Universal Orlando Resort. Excited to ride it again!

The “Attraction” of Horror: a ‘Psycho’analysis (part 1 of 2)

HitchcockAttractionJust as audiences are fascinated by horror movies and seek to watch that which would be repulsive in real-life, they are equally fascinated in immersing themselves into the experience by way of a theme park attraction. This phenomenon is not limited to horror movies, because rides like Jurassic Park the Ride (Jurassic Park River Adventure in Florida), Revenge of the Mummy, and Pirates of the Caribbean beckon millions of guests a year. In addition to attractions based on the movies, movie studio executives and theme park engineers created attractions that embody what Carl Leammle first envisioned, by taking the audience behind the magic of the movies. This is the case with the (now closed) Backlot Tour at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies at Universal Studios Florida (Murdy, 2002). The relationship between the cinema and theme parks is a strong one and creates an energetic synergy that entertains millions of people each year by eliciting laugher, screams, tears, and smiles.

BatesMotelFloridaThe most admired and revered part on the famous studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood is the Bates House and Motel. As the tram passes the iconic motel and house that set the bar against which all other slasher films would be judged, an actor portraying Norman Bates charges toward the tram wielding the famous butcher’s knife (Murdy, 2002). Even though the audience knows this is a tour behind the scenes of the most utilized backlot and studio in the world (Milman, 2001), there is something uniquely special about this chance encounter on the tour. And, that something is what the designers of the guest experience on the studio tour use to bring about the successful convergence combining both the original movie and the live experience. In order to successfully complete the transposition from the movie to the live experience, the attraction designers tapped into the uncanny or unheimlich (Freud, 1919) of Psycho and utilized the elements of terror and shock to facilitate the aura of horror that exists just by looking upon the timeless motel and house.

Psycho_SoundstageCentral to Psycho and the single most famous scene in cinema history (Cosgrove, 2013) is the groundbreaking shower scene. And, it is the highlighted element at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. One of the opening day attractions located in the former Production Central area of the park (Singer, 2013), this attraction took park guests into the world of suspense and horror as meticulously crafted and defined by Alfred Hitchcock (ThePsychoMovies.com). Although it was replaced with a less critically important and pivotal movie themed attraction in 2002 (mostly to attract younger audiences), it is an excellent example of the fusion of horror cinema and themed entertainment attractions. In addition to the Art of Making Movies attraction, there was a recreation of the infamous motel and house in the park built for the filming of Psycho IV: The Beginning in 1989-90 (MovieMassacre.com, 2014). For those who have seen Psycho, the very sight of the motel and house is enough to strike fear into the mind and bloodstream. It is representative of the very best that horror cinema is able to offer society. In no attraction, based off a work of horror, is there a better example of the very essence of horror films than in the synergistic experience of beholding the four-fold elemental process of the Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies attraction (Singer, 2013).

PsychoShowerClensePrior to ‘psycho’analyzing  the attraction of horror, it is imperative to understand why the shower scene is the single most famous scene in all cinema. The shower scene is a roller-coaster of emotions; and, in many ways, this scene in and of itself follows the basic structure of a story (introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement). The scene begins with Marion closing the shower curtain as we get a closeup shot of her face as the shower turns on.  Given this closeup, the facial expressions are easily denoted on her face. The flows of emotions on her face resemble the face of someone who is being cleansed from or baptized for their transgressions. This emotional transition is made more clear when comparing this scene to the earlier one with Marion and Norman in the office when she suddenly feels as if she “stepped into a private trap” and wants to see if she “can step back out of it” (Psycho, 1960). In addition to the metaphoric sin cleansing affect of the shower, Marion is also physically and emotionally exposed and vulnerable. And, what about that showerhead? Throughout the movie, there are eyes on Marion (real estate buyer, boss, police officer, mother’s eye, etc…). The frequent cuts to the showerhead essentially imply the showerhead as yet another eye watching Marion. Furthermore, the frequent cuts to the showerhead also help to create the sensation that something is not right.

Following the symbolic cleansing in the shower, the audience witnesses the shadowy figure emerging from the bathroom door and walking up to the infamous shower. Due to Hitchcock’s use of the cinematic rule of thirds, we are already expecting the entrance of someone before the door ever opens. Through the eyes of the camera, we see Marion’s private space is violated by this shadowy figure. The camera slowly zooms in to the figure through the opaque curtain until the moment when the shadow throws open the curtain and there is a closeup of Marion’s face exhibiting total terror as the knife is raised against her.

PsychoShowerScreamImmediately after the shots of Marion’s iconic scream and the knife, the speed of the cuts increases exponentially. Aside from having to creatively cut the film in such a way that neither Marion’s naked body nor a knife officially penetrating her body is seen, the speed was necessary to enhance the disorientation and violence of the relatively short montage. Through both objective and subjective shots, we are both mother and Marion within hundredths of seconds of one another. The precise cuts in the film give the illusion that Marion is being stabbed multiples times; however, there is only one shot that captures the knife barely penetrating Marion’s vulnerable and exposed flesh. The terrifying key to this scene is the fact that very little violence is actually seen; most of what is shock-inducing is what is not seen and implied through the artful use of music, cuts, and angles. Hitchcock once said, “there’s nothing more frightening than an unopened door.” This implies that there is a greater fear of what in unseen than that which is visible in the diegesis on the screen.

MarionCraneEyeIt is nearly impossible to closely read this scene without acknowledging the most famous orchestral screeches in cinema history. Those famous screeches greatly enhance the disorientation and terror of the scene. Coming out of nowhere, the terrifying sounds from the orchestra create the sound design for the knife penetrating Marion and slashing her to death. One could cut to black and allow the music to be heard throughout this iconic scene, and the audience would still feel anxious, macabre feelings and shock. Interestingly, this same action would also reveal how short the shower scene really is. Regarding the sound design, there is much more of the water heard than the sounds of murder. Following the murder, the score greatly slows down and deepens. This musical movement allows the audience to reflect upon what has just occurred and begin to contemplate the various consequences of mother’s actions.  Lastly, the camera slowly spirals out from Marion’s eyes symbolizing that everything Marion planned has just gone down the drain through this seemingly random act of violence, and then there is a cut to the drain of the bathtub itself cementing this metaphoric notion. Keeping with the reoccurring theme of eyes, this also reinforces the fact that the eye is the window to the soul and someone is always watching.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK. Check back next Monday 🙂

BatesMotelAETVDon’t forget to watch Bates Motel on A&E tonight! It’s the season finale and it’s going to be intense!