Lock the doors, turn down the lights, and open your mind
Lock the doors, turn down the lights, and open your mind
I think I might have said before on this site that truly suspenseful horror movies are hard to come by in the past few years. If I didn’t, well now I have. What are even more rare are horror movies that not only build suspense, but also play with our minds in ways that confuse, disturb and stimulate. One of the best of this breed of horror is The Shining, an adaptation of the Stephen King novel that makes more than a few changes to its source material. Chief among these is changing the pulpy ghost story of King’s book into an eerily realistic descent into madness. In the book, it was obvious that poltergeists and other supernatural specters were the cause of Jack Torrence’s change into a madman. In the movie, things are not as crystal clear, and the “ghosts” could very well be just figments of his imagination created by the feeling of isolation (cabin fever as it is called) and the character’s inner demons. Psychological horror is the name of the game, and it makes a strong return with Shutter Island.
Plot Synopsis: New partners Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule are Federal marshals sent to investigate a mysterious disappearance on Shutter Island, which houses the Ashcliffe hospital for the criminally insane. It seems that Rachel Solando, one of the patients, has escaped from her room without any trace or damage and the doctors cannot explain this. When Teddy and Chuck try to question the doctors and patients, the doctors are strangely uncooperative and the patients appear to know more than they are letting on. Dr. Cawley, the head of the facility, acts as if he is trying to cooperate as much as possible, but the marshals can see that there is more going on at the hospital than a simple disappearance. Soon, Chuck learns that Teddy purposely chose this assignment because he believes that Andrew Laeddis, the man who caused the fire in his home that killed his wife, is one of the patients at Ashcliffe and he wants to find him. During his stay though, Teddy is beginning to experience headaches, hallucinations, and nightmares of his wife that are pushing him to the limits of his ability to finish the investigation, and maybe even his sanity.
Shutter Island, despite what you may believe, is more than just a simple haunted house mystery thriller. It is also about the mental deterioration of its main protagonist, Teddy Daniels, and how his disturbing past comes into play with the plot. The movie features a tour-de-force performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, most definitely one of his best. With DiCaprio, Teddy is full of inner rage, cocksure confidence, sternness, and a whole lot of sadness. The hallucinogenic nightmares that come to him are both stunning in their visual beauty and emotional whirlwinds that he is subjected to (not to mention they’re pretty damn creepy in most cases). And while DiCaprio takes clear command of the screen, his co-stars have some considerable presence too. Mark Ruffalo, despite playing the usual partner role, does fine work as Chuck and makes the character more engaging than if a lesser actor had played the role. Ben Kingsley, who seemingly hasn’t had a juicy role in a while, exudes quiet creepiness as Dr. Cawley. Despite that weird feeling, Kingsley layers Cawley’s personality by showing a paternal-esque love and caring for the treatment of his patients. Also showing up for several key scenes are Max Von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Ted Levine, Patricia Clarkson, and Jackie Earle Haley especially.
But as great as DiCaprio and the rest of the ensemble cast is, Martin Scorsese is the one having the most fun with Shutter Island. Scorsese hasn’t directed a horror-thriller since his remake of Cape Fear, and while Shutter is in the horror realm for the most part, it is also a missing persons mystery, a conspiracy thriller, and a psychological mind game…but the genres are blended so effortlessly that everything comes together as a whole. The psychological aspect is the one that gets the most attention, delving into Daniels’ damaged psychosis by way of hauntingly beautiful yet disturbing dreams that come to him. Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson have created one of the most visually stunning films in Marty’s filmography, juxtaposing the grungy moodiness and grit of the island sequences with the boldly bright colors of the surreal parts. And while the mix may seem jarring at first, I believe that is the point. Scorsese wants to put us into Teddy’s shoes by disorienting us with his arresting visuals and most likely intentional erratic editing, which makes much more sense by the end.
Because of this, the movie is not your typical horror show. There are very few of the typical jump scares that are a staple (or cliché if you will) of the genre. Instead, we are drawn into the story and creep moments by the moody atmosphere and plot suspense as we await the next clue or unreal moment. It is a film that, instead of bombarding you with obvious jolts (except the music score, which got annoying in parts), wants to disturb and crawl under your skin. There are scenes that appear peaceful at first, and then yank those moments of relief away; the nightmares, are great examples of this. Where the movie slightly falters is in its slow burn pacing. Now don’t get me wrong, I love it when a horror movie takes its time to set itself up and build steadily, but Shutter runs a little too long at two hours and twenty minutes. Tightening some of the scenes, mostly in the last act, could have bolstered their impact and wouldn’t make them feel drawn out.
The movie’s ending will also be a point of contention between audiences. Some will go along for the ride and others will look at it and be confused. I fall into the former category, believing that the conclusion to be an extension of many of the story’s themes and asks the audience to view the movie in a new light for their second viewing. Many of the unexplainable events that came before are given some clarification, while there are other aspects that require a little thinking in order to get a grasp on them. And I appreciate that. It’s nice to able to use the old noggin to figure out answers rather than being spoon-fed them. That said, while I think it is a very good and thought-provoking ending, it does feel a little anti-climatic and didn’t have to be this convoluted. On the other hand though, I have a big feeling that Shutter Island will only get stronger with repeat viewings and will return to it as soon as possible.