The Shining (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel, Anne Jackson, Tony Burton.
1980 142 minutes
Rated: (for violence, language and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 2013.
When "The Shining" was released in the summer of 1980 to box-office acclaim but split critical reaction, Stephen King spoke out against the creative liberties writer-director Stanley Kubrick and co-scribe Diane Johnson had taken in adapting his work. Claiming that the soul of the story had been lost, King also wasn't thrilled with the casting of Jack Nicholson, whom he said seemed crazy from the beginning rather than an everyman who gradually goes off the deep end. As with many great motion pictures, "The Shining" took some time to receive the praise and respect it deserves, its place in the annals of horror cinema steadfast and undeniable. So what if Kubrick didn't follow King's 1977 novel to the letter? The author wrote his own film version, a 1997 network miniseries starring Steven Weber, and it was a clunky, oft-tacky mess. Any writer should be so lucky as to have a master filmmaker of Kubrick's caliber tackle their work. His obsessively meticulous vision for "The Shining" is what has made the movie what it is today: a terrifically frightening, supernaturally tinged deconstruction of a family in imminent jeopardy.
With the off season approaching, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has been hired as the winter caretaker of Colorado's secluded Overlook Hotel. He, wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and five-year-old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) are looking forward to some quality time together in between the planned writing of Jack's novel. Having free roam of a cavernous hotel in the mountains as snow forever falls outside sounds like a one-of-a-kind adventure. As the days and weeks pass by, however, the solitude slowly starts to eat away at Jack's mind. As Danny rides his little three-wheeler around the maze of hallways throughout the building, his special precognitive abilities open him up to ghostly visions hiding just around the corner. The Torrance family aren't truly alone at the Overlook, and it's only a matter of time before Jack, like a former caretaker who went crazy and slaughtered his family there, snaps.
The opening titles of "The Shining" are heavy with portent, a seamlessly intoxicating precursor to what is to follow. As director of photography John Alcott's camera glides across the water and swoops above the rocky terrain, a car driving on a winding mountain road comes into focus. Underscored by composer Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind's unearthly music, enough to put a chill down anyone's spine, Kubrick's ready vision has already created a uniquely off-kilter tone and a treacherously picturesque sense of location. The pacing is deliberate, to be sure, but under full control as the Torrances arrive at the Overlook and are given a tour of the property as the last of the guests check out and the staff prepare to close down. Once alone, the family's day-to-day routine begins peacefully enough before the snow sets in and Jack grows frustrated over a nasty bout of writer's block. When Wendy finds bruises on Danny, it strikes her as the ultimate betrayal; she cannot believe her husband would hit their little boy, but all signs point to the affirmative. And, when it is revealed what Jack has been spending his days pounding away at the typewriter, the frailest of threads holding these people together breaks. Jack is no longer himself; he is the living embodiment of an extraordinarily sick hotel that has claimed its latest victim.
For all of its methodical build-up, "The Shining" delivers again and again as it enters its third act. If Jack's decision to see what lurks in the off-limits room 237 is a wince-inducing appetizer to the potential carnage to follow, the point of no return, perhaps, is his entry into the Gold Ballroom, where he takes his first drink since going sober. In the restroom, he has a conversation with Delbert Grady (Philip Stone), the ill-fated caretaker from the past who talks in forward, chilling words about "correcting" his wife and daughters. With Wendy and Danny in mortal danger while trapped on the premises with Jack, the malevolent chanting on the soundtrack rises as the Overlook unveils its true macabre nature. The lobby transfers into a cobwebbed catacomb full of skeletons. Jack chops his way through a door as Wendy, knife in hand, screams bloody murder. The rushing elevator of blood that Danny has already imagined comes to fruition. And who, pray tell, are the old man and the figure dressed in the furry dog costume that Wendy spots through an opened doorway?
Does Jack Nicholson play his early scenes as a man who is already simmering with psychopathic tendencies, or does it just come off that way? No matter, there is a weirdly unsettling undercurrent to his Jack Torrance from the start. As his mental state deteriorates, Nicholson pulls off a performance as committed and frantic as it is believably deranged. For all of Stephen King's misgivings over his casting, this is quite possibly the actor's most iconic role. There is a reason for that. As Wendy, Shelley Duvall brings a quirky affableness and vulnerability to her part, facing a calamity she is not at all prepared for as she struggles to protect her son. In his only feature film, a mop-topped Danny Lloyd is just right as Danny Torrance, still too young to quite grasp what his special ability signifies and how he can control it. Finally, Scatman Crothers emanates wisdom and kindness as Overlook chef Dick Hallorann, who notices right away that Danny shares his gift of "shining."
"The Shining" has earned a feverish following over the years, the kind that has elicited so many theories and personal readings into Stanley Kubrick's underlying themes and subliminal messaging that it has spawned its own movie, a boundlessly fascinating 2012 documentary from director Rodney Ascher called "Room 237." From the semi-convincing notion that the story is an allegory about the genocide of Native Americans, to the belief that the auteur is copping to the rumor that he was responsible for faking the moon landing, to the discovery that the serpentine floor plan of the hotel (which was shot on a soundstage) doesn't make any conceivable sense, "The Shining" eerily consumes the viewer as its multilayered narrative plays out. Proving even more captivating to discuss and debate after the fact, the film is in clearly in the hands of a master at every turn. Kubrick may have tried to drive his actors and crew crazy as he demanded upwards of one hundred takes of certain shots, but his perfectionism paid off. Nothing in front of the camera happens by chance, and it is this painstaking attention to detail that keeps drawing audiences back into its labyrinth of familial crisis and paranormal madness.
© by Dustin Putman