US (1980) Dir. Stanley Kubrick
And here is another late to the party review of a classic film. Like the recent first time review of Carrie – also based on a Stephen King novel – The Shining is another movie perennial with a host of memorable scenes I have seen many times but never in context. Until now of course.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a writer struggling to start his next work, accepts a job as caretaker with the Overlook Hotel in the Rocky Mountains for the quiet winter season, hoping the isolation will help him with his writing. At the interview, Jack is told a former caretaker went mad during the winter and murdered his family before killing himself, but Jack insists that won’t happen to him.
Upon arrival, Jack, wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd), meet the chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who reveals to Danny he shares the same telepathic ability that Danny has – “shining” – and tells Danny to use it to call him if he ever gets into trouble. At first, all is well, until Danny starts seeing strange things around the hotel, and when a snowstorm hits, Jack begins to get a bit tetchy.
The Shining was incisively spoofed by The Simpsons in their Treehouse Of Horror V Halloween episode, and it is only watching the film after the fact that it becomes clear why it is an easy target for lampooning. This is not to lessen its standing as a horror classic, rather the scope of iconic moments lends itself to other to have fun with them.
Stephen King however is said to have been less impressed with Stanley Kubrick’s take on his novel, feeling he diluted the supernatural essence, downplayed the disintegration of the Torrance family caused by Jack’s drinking, and objected to the changes to the story. King also disagreed with the casting of Jack Nicholson because of his Oscar winning role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, implying the audience would know from this that Jack would go insane.
In all fairness, Nicholson does have a naturally “evil” looking face; when he smiles it is difficult not to see it as menacing. This probably telegraphs Jack’s future more than a former acting role, but there is no denying it works so well because of Nicholson’s looks and performance. I’ve not read the book, but like with Carrie, it appears the decision to end the story when it does makes more sense than King’s original protracted codas.
King’s accusation of Kubrick’s sparse focus on the supernatural aspect has some merit however, since the title refers to Danny’s unique telepathic ability which isn’t featured as prominently as it should have been. There is no explanation as to how he got it; even Hallorann says his was something between him and his grandmother and they always believed they were alone in this.
Danny’s power manifests itself as an imaginary friend, Tony, who lives in Danny’s mouth and shows him horrific prescient visions in his sleep, represented by Danny wiggling his finger and speaking in a silly voice – normally be a sign of schizophrenia, not telepathy. If it is explained better in the book, or in the film’s original 2 ½ hour US edit (Kubrick cut 30 minutes for the European release after the poor reception of the full-length version in America), we are at a slight disadvantage here.
Yet this “shining” doesn’t do Danny much good once the madness takes hold, corrupting him at one point as it does his father, though Jack is a recovering alcoholic, a point King is said to have built on in the novel, which might explain Jacks easier slip into lunacy whilst Wendy is unaffected. However, by not blaming the booze, Kubrick leaves it open for the curse of the hotel to be the cause for the mayhem that follows.
Many of the visions are more psychological, explaining why Wendy is the last to succumb to them. Danny spies the ghosts of the Grady Twins (Lisa and Louise Burns) whilst Jack meets their killer father Delbert (Philip Stone) at an imaginary 1920’s party in the hotel bar. This shouldn’t make any sense but Kubrick deftly glides into them as a sign of Jack’s unstable psyche and even fools the audience into believing it is real too.
But the real meat of the film’s cachet arrives in the final act when Jack finally goes full psycho on his family. The classic scene of him chopping a hole in the door with an axe and peering through the splintered cavity is the iconic image, riffing on a similar scene from Victor Sjöström’s 1921’s The Phantom Carriage, which echoed D.W Griffith’s Broken Blossoms from 1919. Not to take away from Kubrick’s it is still a fabulous moment and the most famous of the three.
Creating the eerie foreboding atmosphere is the use of the Steadicam following the cast as they navigate their way round the spacious building. These single-take shots practically put the audience in the actor’s shoes, the fluidity of the movements adding naturalism to the imagery. The Steadicam operator and soundman were sat in a wheeled mount so, for example, when Danny on his tricycle turned a corner, the flow of the motion remained unbroken.
Of course, this is another signature role for Jack Nicholson, though I suspect the tension on set with the exacting and difficult Kubrick helped him find the rage and intensity for his characterisation. In contrast, Shelley Duvall’s Wendy simply whimpers and snivels and has little agency beyond the screaming victim, but she too fell out with Kubrick and become ill as a result of the stress, so perhaps she wasn’t acting after all.
The narrative flaws are evident but the substance in Kubrick’s visionary interpretation of The Shining overrides this. A masterclass in visual immersion through the power of the camera, it is its artistry that cements this stirring psychodrama as a seminal work.