REVIEW BASED UPON THE WARNER DVD RELEASE
Verdict: 10 out of 10
At the time he made “The Shining”, Stanley Kubrick had a reputation as one of the most daring and extraordinary directors of his age. He’d constantly courted outrage and pushed the limits of good taste with works like “Lolita” about paedophilia; “Dr Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” which turned nuclear war and the end of the world into a grotesque black comedy; and “A Clockwork Orange” which shocked everybody by choreographing rape and ultra-violence to classical music, supposedly inspiring real-life hooliganism. All of his works had been acclaimed for their directorial virtuoso and groundbreaking technical brilliance, most especially “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which is widely considered not only one of the best Science Fiction films ever made, but a landmark of cinema itself.
“The Shining” came at the time when Kubrick’s reputation was mellowing from brilliant young artist into middle age, and where stories of him as an eccentric recluse and a harsh and exacting control freak were beginning to emerge. This also became the point from which his projects took increasing longer times to be completed; between “The Shining” in 1980 and his death in 1999, Kubrick would only make a total of two other films, “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut”. Nevertheless, “The Shining” would be the director’s only real foray into the horror genre, and one that’s rightly considered today to be an out-and-out classic.
The story of “The Shining” opens with writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) taking a job as winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the remote Colorado Mountains. He moves in along with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), in the hope that the isolation will cure his writer’s block. But as the weather isolates them, he descends into madness when the apparitions from the hotel’s past appear, imploring him to kill his family…
Despite everything, “The Shining” is one of the more divided films in Kubrick’s collection of work. It was a big hit, but received mixed reviews when it was originally released. Kubrick adapted a novel from Stephen King (in fact “The Shining” was only King’s third novel), and in either liking or hating “The Shining” audiences seem divided between whether they’re Kubrick or King fans. The Kubrick fans appreciate the master’s skill, but the King fans deplore Kubrick’s dumping of substantial parts of the story and the substitution of a more enigmatic, elliptical plot where things aren’t always clear. King himself has ambiguous feelings about the film, although denotes “The Shining” with a special asterisk in his list of Top 100 horror films in his genre study “Danse Macabre”.
Scrutinising “The Shining” carefully, there are some minor negative elements to consider. For instance, why Kubrick decided to buy the rights to the book at all is a bit of a mystery. He appears to have wanted to make something quite different from the more straightforward ghost story that King told. Many aspects of the novel remain, but only in a partial form that perhaps don’t quite make full sense on screen. In the book Jack is a recovering alcoholic, which the hotel comes to play upon in seducing his mind. But in the film we receive no explanation of his drinking problem, which makes Nicholson’s line “I’d give anything for a drink” (which is really the equivalent of someone idly wishing to sell their soul to the Devil) confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the book, and in one swipe could be seen to cut out all the underlying character tensions. Nor is Kubrick interested in the shining itself. In the book the hotel wanted the shining (Danny’s natural clairvoyant gifts), and sought to add his considerable power to its own. Again this is not clear in the film, with the shining being of almost no relevance to the story. As such, the scenes where Danny Lloyd uses a talking finger to demonstrate the shining could be seen as a little silly.
On the positive side, Kubrick has thankfully thrown out King’s menagerie of sinister hedge animals at the end of the story. This was decided upon as the picture was made well before the CGI revolution, and Kubrick believed the technical feasibility of creating such animals was beyond him. In their place he substitutes a brilliant and far better sustained climax, following a demented axe-wielding Jack Nicholson through a snowbound hedge maze with superb use of the Steadicam.
On screen “The Shining” is no longer a story about a haunted hotel; it’s more one about writer’s block. Of all the themes in the book this was the one that Kubrick chose to bring out and amplify. Perhaps this is because writer’s block was clearly the issue closest to his own heart. Kubrick took years, sometimes decades, to make films. He spent 15 years on “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and never completed it in his lifetime. It was seven years between “The Shining” and his next film “Full Metal Jacket”, and twelve years between “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut”. He was relentless in the pursuit of perfection, taking a world record 160 takes of one shot with Scatman Crothers in this film. You could maybe even draw a connection between Kubrick’s 160 takes of a single shot and the scene where Shelley Duvall finds Nicholson has written hundreds and hundreds of pages all saying “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Indeed, put a pair of glasses and a beard on Jack Nicholson in this movie, and he’d be a dead ringer for Kubrick himself.
Kubrick’s films all have an underlying sense of people encountering an insanely rational world; the cool and patient but murderous logic of HAL in “2001”, the Cold War political machine strangling in its own machinations in “Dr Strangelove”, the cruelty of the psychologists attempting to alter behaviour in “A Clockwork Orange”, the authoritarianism of a military boot camp exploding into violence in “Full Metal Jacket”, the innocent Tom Cruise stumbling out beyond the confines of his marriage and into a conspiracy in “Eyes Wide Shut”. Kubrick’s fear is that lunatics and madmen, who mouth the most insane sentiments with calm rationalism, are running the very systems we live in. In “The Shining” we see his vision of true horror as Kubrick’s sentiments are undoubtedly at their blackest. His vision of insanity unleashed is at its most malevolent in the scenes with a definitely out-of-control Nicholson running amok with an axe: “Honey, I’m home… I’ll huff and I’ll puff”.
As a horror film, Kubrick has made a concerted effort to take the haunted house story away from all Gothic associations to break convention. The hotel and corridors are brightly lit and ultra-modern instead of Gothic and shadowy, and there are none of the usual bumps in the night or busty heroines in night-gowns. Instead the film almost entirely consists of brooding ominousness and palpable tension. Few horror films loom with such a threatening sense of bad things on the verge of erupting. There’s a marvellously foreboding opening, with Kubrick’s camera serenely gliding through the air over the Colorado mountains and eventually closing in on Jack Nicholson’s tiny VW Beetle, all to the menacing thunder of Ligeti on the soundtrack.
Kubrick constantly maintains a sense of unease throughout – the appearances of the mystery twin girls, the never-explained vision of an elevator unleashing a river of blood (a single image that featured prominently in the promotional trailer), the echoing emptiness of the hotel and its giant main hall, the Steadicam shots prowling through the hallways at shin height following Danny’s tricycle, and the rather unsettling effect on the soundtrack as its wheels alternately rattle across wood and then find the deafening silence of carpeting.
When the director does eventually deliver his punches, they come with a real jolt. There’s a quite unearthly scene where a beautiful naked woman gets out of the bath and comes and kisses Nicholson, only for her to turn into a hideous old hag. There’s also the shock dispatch of Scatman Crothers with an axe in his chest.
Perhaps Kubrick’s main problem as a filmmaker was that he had a misanthrope’s view of the human condition, and was indifferent to ordinary human sympathy. The arguable failing of “The Shining” is that it lacks a sense of normality; everybody behaves rather strangely. Brilliant as he undeniably is, Nicholson did the Jack Nicholson thing of playing aspects of the same wild and crazy guy he did in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, something he pretty much continued for the rest of his career. Kubrick’s oversight was to let Nicholson lose his head and not rein him in a bit more. Where the character of Jack Torrance should have gone from normalcy to insanity, Nicholson starts off bonkers as even in the very first scene we see him behave very oddly in the job interview. Kubrick establishes no normality from the outset, so there’s no sense of an average man going over the edge. The horror in this film could’ve perhaps benefitted from an ordinary actor playing the part; imagine how much scarier it might’ve been if Jack Torrance had started out with someone like Dustin Hoffman or Martin Sheen playing him, with the performance working its way up from there to the full dementia that Nicholson unleashes.
The rest of the cast are equally brilliant, despite the fact that Shelley Duval spends most of her time perpetually on the verge of hysterics. The warmest character is Scatman Crothers – and where in the book King casts him as the cavalry arriving to save the day, Kubrick instead plays a black joke on the character, having him trek all the way through the snow only to get butchered the moment he arrives.
“The Shining” is a rare beast in horror, and one that should certainly be admired for Kubrick’s technical perfection. The photography is beautiful – there’s one gorgeous shot in the bar, showing a perfectly normal foreground and the background of an empty ballroom that suddenly becomes filled with a crowd all lit in sepia-tone. There’s also the breathtaking shot which flawlessly cuts from Nicholson looking down on the model of the maze to the tiny figures of Duvall and Lloyd walking through it as seen from above. The sets are also amazing; the giant-size hall and the interconnectedness of all the rooms were all built on a single soundstage, and the effect gives a colossal echoing emptiness. Kubrick often enjoyed making films for the sheer technical flourish that new techniques offered him, such as shooting by candlelight in “Barry Lyndon”, or the construction of giant-sized rotating sets for the simulation of artificial gravity in “2001”. “The Shining” offered him the opportunity to exploit the then just emerging Steadicam technology; the use of an ultra-light camera mounted on a frame that doesn’t bounce during movement, thus creating a steady and fluid tracking shot. Kubrick employs the Steadicam with dazzling regard during the long sinister floor-level tracking shots following Danny riding his tricycle through the hotel, as well as Nicholson’s run through the maze.
“The Shining” is a modern masterpiece of both the horror genre and cinema itself. It may have some fundamental flaws, but this movie shows a true auteur at work through a piece that challenges the audience at almost every turn. It gives away little and leaves a great deal of unanswered psychological questions, something that most writers and directors are afraid to tackle. It’s a lush and claustrophobic experience, accentuated by Kubrick’s insistence to shoot in 4:3 ratio instead of letterbox, meaning that each set had to have ceilings (especially evident in the tricycle sequences). One of the best movies of all time despite some minor gripes with performances and scripting, “The Shining” deserves its reputation wholeheartedly. This is truly a powerhouse of modern cinema, which should be watched over and over again.
The Last Word:
An incredibly powerful and terrifying work almost 30 years later… one that works on multiple levels in a way that only Kubrick could