Stanley Kubricks’s The Shining and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho are two of the most well-known horror films in cinematic history. Both directors are also widely recognized for their excellent work in direction. Being such chilling classics, these two films are often compared to one another. Some critics prefer The Shining because it is more developed and not so “old fashioned”, but we have to keep into consideration that Psycho was released in 1960 and The Shining in 1980. Film technology greatly advanced in those twenty years, making The Shining seem visually more progressive. However, critics should look past this difference and compare the two movies for their individual quality. Two main aspects I will analyze are acting and mise-en-scène.
First off, both films fall into the horror category. However, in Psycho, the audience can see where the drama and mystery genres come into play as well, whereas The Shining was more fixated on the horror genre. Psycho does not contain much graphic violence but is still effective at the same time. Psycho had its viewers on the edge of their seats throughout the film due to the constant suspenseful events. In The Shining, the development to reach that bloodcurdling point took longer, therefore making it a bit dull and boring at times. But The Shining was able to successfully create fear for its audience when the time came, and it was very, very frightening. Overall, I would say that The Shining had a greater scare factor than Psycho. As for the setting, The Overlook, being the terrifying psychological maze, is more haunting than the Bates Motel. The Overlook was able to develop a sense of imprisonment for its viewers, making them feel as if they would never be able to escape from the horror. The Bates Motel was indeed creepy with its dark and high-contrast lighting, but had less of an impact on its audience.
The main characters in each film play the role of a psychologically disturbed man. In both movies, we see their decline into mental insanity. Anthony Perkins who portrayed Norman Bates in executed a superb performance and in my opinion, was snubbed an Oscar. His role in Psycho was definitely different than his previous work. An article published at the time of the movie’s release stated, “instead of the rather wooden person we have seen in Desire under the Elms or On the Beach, Perkins here gives us first a charming, shy, lonely boy; then a lecherous, dangerous, frustrated youth.” In the first scene of Psycho, we see how Perkins successfully makes Norman seem as if there’s nothing seriously wrong with him. Perkins doesn’t make Norman come off as a completely normal, since he does make his character appear nervous and shy at first, but there is just the right amount of nervousness in his performance. Perkins made sure that the turn of events would seem shocking to the audience, since initially there is no evident problem with Bates. He suitably gives no reason to suggest that Norman is a murderer. One would’ve never thought that Norman would turn out to be a psychopathic killer with mommy issues, but that’s the brilliancy of Perkins work. When Norman sits down with Marino for a meal after having a fight with his “mother” is when Perkins does give us more of Norman’s character. Perkins does an outstanding job with his delivery of Norman’s discussion about his hobby of taxidermy as well as his feelings about his mother. When he discusses taxidermy, Perkins has an eerie glint in his eyes, which makes the whole experience a bit strange for the viewer. But Perkins is remarkable in the fact that he still doesn’t suggest that Bates is dangerous. However, it’s when he starts talking about his mother that we see Bate’s creepy side immerge.
Perkins was utterly brilliant by portraying the darkness that exists in Norman due to his unhealthy relationship with his mother. Perkins shows that Norman is very much her mother’s son and loves her deeply, but at the same time there is spite to the way he speaks about her that appears hateful. The mix of feelings he is able to create is exceptional. Perkins is never just a villain in his role as Norman, at times he even makes the audience feel sympathetic in the scenes where Norman discovers that his “mother” was a killer. Perkins is genuine in portraying Norman’s fear over what his “mother” has done and worrying about the police coming after her. Another scene where we get clues to Norman’s odd behavior is when he invites Marion Crane for dinner. Perceptive viewers can pick up some major clues about the story’s secrets in this scene, simply by noting Perkins’ schizophrenic body language. Perkins is perfect in his depiction of a man who has a killer within him, which later arises and creates an unforgettable psychopath. His performance left such an impact in cinema that he was never able to move on from this role in Hollywood. He was always seen as Norman Bates, which only reassures how well of a performance he gave.
Along with Anthony Perkins, Jack Nicholson also was able to successfully depict the downfall of a man’s mental stability. A scene that shows Nicholson’s talent is the famous “Here’s Johnny!” scene. This is the moment where the actor truly explodes and where the violence that has been seething beneath the surface for the whole film finally arises. The scene begins with Nicholson walking up the steps to reach the bathroom where the frightful Wendy, played by Shelley Duvall, is trying to escape from her husband. As he walks up those steps, he has the most evil smirk on his face. The viewer can see by his expression that he is indisputably excited to catch and harm his family. As soon as he reaches the bathroom where Wendy is, his eyes and smile widen. His eyes repeatedly move side to side as he bites his tongue. Nicholson is brilliantly portraying the insanity of his character. His gestures are those of a complete maniac who is obviously not right in the head. He is entirely engrossed in his insane character and his lunacy is visible through his facial expressions including the way he moves his eyebrows and mouth, and his body language. Jack Nicholson not only kept audiences at the edge of their seats but also blew them away with his excellent acting in The Shining.
The mise-en-scène in both movies in not only remarkable but also very similar to each other at times. We see how the directors incorporate dark lighting to set an intense mood. In Psycho, color plays a huge role in the mise-en-scène. The film was shot in black and white, even when color was an option at that time. One of the reasons Hitchcock chose Psycho to be black and white was to give the film a darker atmosphere. Being black and white, the movie produces shadows, which gives a scarier effect than if it had been in color. For example, Norman Bate’s motel is seen as creepy and mysterious due to the darkness that fills the screen; caused by the lack of color. The black and white adds major composition to the cinematography. The director also believed that since the film wasn’t in color, it didn’t seem as gory. The amount of blood would have shocked the audience, especially in the shower scene. Hitchcock’s intention was to certainly generate fear; not to repulse his audience. Black and white has the unique ability of depicting emotions in a raw manner, an element that colored films often lack. The black and white also further emphasized the film’s theme of good vs. evil, as depicted by sharp contrasts of light and dark. A scene that highlights incredible mise-en-scène is the legendary shower scene. When Marion is entering the shower, Hitchcock chooses to add no music. The only sounds we hear are from Marion’s movements. This lack of noise only intensifies the moment, creating suspense for the viewer since we expect something to happen when things are awfully quiet. While Crane is showering, the camera angles are focused on her and the showerhead. We soon see a shadow appear through the shower curtain, another lighting technique. It’s when Norman opens the shadow curtain that the dramatic music begins to play. The cuts of different camera angles while the murder is happening disorient the viewer. “He forced the viewer right into the middle of the violence as both the person suffering and the person inflicting the pain”, writes Kendrick in Psycho and the Priming of the Audience when discussing Hitchcock’s purpose for the shower scene. It is with lighting and camera angles that Hitchcock develops outstanding mise-en-scène.
Kubrick was also able to use mise-en-scène to intensify the viewer’s experience. For example, Kubrick selected music that gradually builds up speed as a scary scene is about occur. Not only does it grab the audience’s full attention but it also creates suspense like no other. The way Kubrick included areal views of the hotel gives the film a spooky feel since it is expected for horror scenes to happen there as the film continues. At times the director plays with lighting to create a dark, eerie mood that also generates shadows, giving the viewer a sensation that something bad is going to happen. The theme of childhood and curiosity is exemplified through mise-en-scène. There are several scenes where Danny is riding his toy wheels around the hotel. A film critic stated that “the point of view for much of the supercautious scanning of the hotel’s tense environment belongs to Jack’s son, Danny.” The angle Hitchcock chooses during these scenes is behind Danny, so the viewer’s perspective is parallel to his. This angle creates suspense for the viewer since it is unknown what might pop up before him. The trips Danny takes on his wheels gives the audience a sense of youth and curiosity as he navigates through the corridors. The director also uses color to foreshadow upcoming events. Red is a reoccurring color in The Shining. In our minds, the color is associated with violence, blood, and horror, which appropriately fit the movie. The Overlook Hotel does have a history of murders, and the red is an indication of that bloody history which still continues on. The bright red carpets that Danny bikes around, the red walls, the reddish photography in certain scenes, the red bathroom walls, Wendy’s red skirt, along with the red opening and ending credits, all have been intentionally placed to further accentuate the theme of blood. The red that we see from the start of the film signifies that we will only continue to see it, and probably in greater amounts (like the elevator scene with gushing red blood). The overall music, color, lighting, and camera shots make the mise-en-scène in The Shining noteworthy.
It is crucial to acknowledge the acting and mise-en-scène of these films when critiquing them. Both components hold so much power, and contribute to why the films are so revolutionary. I believe that without Anthony Perkins and Jack Nicholson, these movies wouldn’t have been such hits. The directors did a fantastic job selecting them to portray psychopathic killers. In addition, the mise-en-scène is what gave both movies the ability to create unforgettable suspense. The innovative approach that the directors took to produce such significant mise-en-scène has forever made a mark in film history.
Beebe, John. “The Shining by Stanley Kubrick.” The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal 1.4 (1980): 57-61. The C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.
Ernest, Callenbach. “Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock.” Film Quarterly 14.1 (1906): 47-49. University of California Press. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.
Kendrick, James. “Disturbing New Pathways: Psycho and the Priming of the Audience..” Journal of Popular Film & Television 38.1 (2010): 2-9. EbcoHost. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.