Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson (screenplay), Stephen King (novel)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Some places are like people: some shine and some don't."
If you look back over horror history, you wonít find too many incidents that resemble The Shining. Oh, sure, there are tons of spooky haunted buildings and axe murders, but how many of them came courtesy of a cinematic legend? By 1980, Stanley Kubrick had already crafted several bona-fide masterpieces, and itís almost inconceivable that someone of his immense talents would ďstoopĒ to adapting a pulpy Stephen King tale. But thatís exactly what happened--sort of. Kubrick infamously took Kingís original story and molded it into something almost altogether different, something that is ultimately wholly Kubrickís alone and stands as one masterful and mesmerizing trip to the mountains of madness.
The kernel of Kingís novel is there--Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a recovering alcoholic who has left his teaching post to chase his dream to be a writer. He takes a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in Denver and brings his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd) along as he holes himself up to write his novel. Unbeknownst to him, his son has developed the gift of ESP that allows him to tap into the hotelís lurid history; the previous caretaker axed his family to death after a bout of cabin fever. Soon, Jack begins to lose grip on reality himself, as the ghosts haunting the establishment goad him to follow in his predecessorís footsteps.
It goes without saying that The Shining is one of the finest horror films of all time; you likely know that, so Iíll avoid the obvious. However, it strikes me that this film almost succeeds despite itself. Its plot is wildly simple and is doused in the supernatural/haunted house trappings that defined many horror outings during the previous decade, but Kubrick seemingly doesnít care. How else do you explain his insistence at making such a film 140 minutes long, if not for utter indifference at playing by the rules? In many ways, The Shining is the ultimate testament to the directorís tendency towards excess, as it captures moments that are both frantic and tedious. Remarkably, the film itself never feels tedious; instead, Kurbrick is constantly pulling strings and pushing buttons to create a haunting tension that rarely eases up.
The contradiction of excess and simplicity is not the only one at play here. As a film, The Shining is rife with contradictions--it often purports at presenting reality through an objective lens, yet it feels like itís being filtered through Jackís eyes. A deep schism runs throughout, as the whole thing always feels a little askew, from the dream-like opening sequence that presents the landscape to the sequences where Jack is haunted by the apparent spirits of the dead. Even simple, seemingly static shots are captured with odd zooms, as if Kubrick never wants his viewers to be comfortable. Such dilations are akin to a yo-yo, which is appropriate. Above all, Kubrick has his audience on a string--heíll occasionally dangle them down into some serene moments before jerking them back up with some horrific images (a torrential river of blood flowing through the hotel, the famous spectral twins, etc.) and startling sounds (the score often resembles a hysterical update of Hermannís shrieking Psycho strings).
Perhaps the biggest contradiction of all emerges in the Overlook Hotel itself. An enduring Kubrick image will always be the sleek monolith from 2001, a simple form seemingly without reason, and the Overlook is practically its antithesis that points to the importance of setting (particularly when said setting is supposed to be haunted). A stunning achievement in set design, itís a massive, overwrought, overbearing presence that swallows both the characters and the audience, both of whom eventually get lost in its labyrinthine architecture. Itís both a cavernous and claustrophobic place, all at once; sometimes its vastness is revealed in long, tracking shots, while other shots reveal a cramped frame. The Shining sometimes feels like a film thatís both literally and figuratively about the walls closing in, right down to the visual level. The Overlook is also defined by impossible space, as its design is theoretically unfeasible; those familiar with Kubrickís perfectionist tendencies will know that this was likely an intentional, subtle reinforcement of the filmís nightmarish quality.
That labyrinthine architecture also extends to the filmís other famous set-piece, the literal maze that sprawls outside the hotel. A thrilling climax with one of horrorís most suspenseful chase scenes occurs there. Some of the best camerawork youíll ever witness is on display during this sequence; this was one of the first films to utilize Steadicam and still stands as one of the most definitive uses of the technique. The lens work is remarkably fluid and invasive, not only during that climactic scene, but also throughout the picture. Almost without trying, Kubrick makes even mundane sequences (such as following Danny on his tricycle) into a sinister proposition--just what awaits around those corridors? Such manipulation of space is a key component; one particularly subtle example occurs late in the film when Danny escapes around a corner in the background, out of the sight of both his homicidal father and the audience. We donít follow him around that corner; instead, he remains out of the picture (quite literally), leaving us uneasy of his fate. This is just one of many examples of the filmís tendency towards delaying events--Kubrickís editing is truly bizarre, as seemingly urgent moments are sometimes undercut by other scenes first.
All of these brilliant technical aspects and trappings would be quite empty without memorable characters populating them. The Shining avoids this fate by featuring two remarkable performances. Nicholsonís is obviously one, as Jack Torrance is a wickedly interesting man; Nicholson is a naturally charismatic individual, but Torrance is never quite an affable, accessible lead. One senses that heís just ďgood enoughĒ as a person, and his descent into madness is fascinating to watch. If one were so inclined, it wouldnít be a stretch to read The Shining as a tale about a delusional man who is deeply disappointed with life; Iíd say heís at the end of his rope, but itís more apt to say heís wound the rope into the noose and is looking to hang someone for his own frustrations.
That target is often his wife; Duvall likewise gives an interesting performance that directly opposes Nicholsonís. Whereas he is perpetually high-strung and brimming with aggression, she is passive and doe-eyed; she even offers a visual contrast, as her round, soft features counter her husbandís sharp, angular face. The filmís other remarkable performance is turned in by Danny Lloyd; Linda Blair often takes the crown as horrorís child-actor prodigy, but Lloydís work in The Shining is just as impressive. Like many boys his age, Danny Torrance has an imaginary friend (named Tony). The key difference here is that his actually possesses him from time to time, and when he speaks in Tonyís voice, it is quite frightening. An eerie, vacant quality comes over him, leaving him almost lifeless; itís a very convincing performance that also serves as the filmís lynchpin--so much could have been undone by a less resonant turn.
Beneath this colossal technical masterwork lies a spectacular horror show that represents the culmination of the 70s supernatural cycle. Punctuated by eerie visuals and dread atmosphere, The Shining is arguably the most ornate haunted house film of all time. Itís also one of the most creepy, moody examinations of paranoia and madness ever committed to film; taken simply as a story about (extreme) cabin fever and distrust, itís perhaps only outdone by Carpenterís The Thing, if only because the film does occasionally open up to reveal the outside world. Still, those moments hardly dilute the snowbound, nearly impenetrable isolation our characters get tucked into; we as an audience get lulled in as well. Title cards periodically alert us to what day of the week it is, but it almost feels like useless information, especially when the days begin to repeat. We know itís ďWednesday,Ē but thereís no sense of actual time passing, making it easy to see how one might lose their mind to such inanity.
Above all, The Shining is a deeply unsettling film that isnít the least bit comforting; even its ending resists the usual conventions of a conclusion. Fraught with ambiguity, it opens yet another door, perhaps leading you down yet another spooky corridor that ends in The Twilight Zone. Or maybe the film has been stuck there the whole time; the opposite, too, is perhaps true--maybe the whole thing has just been a delusion of a madman (Iím inclined to say that the presence of that objective camera and the outside world resist this reading). Either way, that uncertainty lingers as a somewhat cheeky reminder that Kubrick still has us dangling by his string.
Obviously, this is a film that should be in every collection, and itís seen about a half-dozen incarnations during the digital age. Since Kubrick is one of the greats from an aesthetic perspective, Blu-ray is preferable; the disc released back in 2007 is a fine release that features a crisp, noise-free transfer and a dynamic, lossless PCM track. Itís also packed with special features; among the offerings are Vivian Kubrickís fly-on-the-wall making of documentary (ďThe Making of The ShiningĒ), three featurettes on the set design and score, a theatrical trailer, and an audio commentary with Steadicam operator Garrett Brown and historian John Baxter. Few horror films are as legitimately fascinating and as great as The Shining; it presents new revelations at every turn, perhaps not unlike The Overlook itself. It's also a fine place to get lost in over and over again. Essential!
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