The Shining (1980)


Stephen King has famously said that Stanley Kubrick's movie version of The Shining is like a big, beautiful Cadillac that had no engine.  Fun to look at, but goes nowhere.  I have had comments from people watching it with me ranging from "too slow" to, "Is that kid still riding his Big Wheel around in a circle?"  But then, it's a Stanley Kubrick film.  Deliberate pacing and strong visual atmosphere is what he does.  

Stephen King is right to a point.  The Shining was a novel that he wrote while still in the throes of alcoholism.  He had stopped for a while, was trying to break the chains it had on him, but was still largely failing.  There were other substances involved as well, and it was another decade after writing The Shining that he would break free of it all.  It was a personal novel, filled with his fears of what his addiction would do to him and his family.  The fear of hurting them, both figuratively and literally, was quite real when he wrote it.  

That said, Stanley Kubrick was right as well about the changes he made.  In 1980 making moving, threatening fire hoses and having topiary come to life was prohibitively expensive, and, while it was effectively disturbing in the book, would have looked unintentionally comic on film.  This was proven with the remake, directed by Mick Garris, that realized many of these scenes using then-current technology that could overcome much of the expense.  The effects were horrible, completely undercutting the tension they generated in the book.  

My personal belief is that the novel itself, even a modern version with a good director who understands King, is largely unfilmable.  There is so much going on in Jack Torrance's mind, and with the Overlook hotel, that to bring it to life in a visual medium means throwing out a good part of why King wrote it.  So, King is right that Kubrick gutted his story, but Kubrick was also right in doing so. 

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a school teacher that has decided to pursue writing full time, but still needs a day job.  He finds the perfect situation as the off-season caretaker of the Overlook Hotel.  With only his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) with him.  The job of watching the hotel for the winter requires a minimum amount of work, so he hopes to have the peace and quiet to finish his project.  

What his parents don't know is that Danny's imaginary friend Tony is the manifestation of psychic powers he keeps hidden, powers that are quickly detected by the hotel's chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers).  Hallorann becomes concerned about the effect the hotel may have on Danny, but is unable to do much about it.  While Danny is able to see, and sometimes interact, with the ghosts that inhabit the hotel, the Overlook's biggest pull is on his father, who becomes increasingly hostile toward his family to the point that their lives are in danger.

The Shining is Stanley Kubrick's only horror film, and I have to agree with another thing that King and some critics have said: Kubrick doesn't understand how to make a horror film.  This is apparent in his handling the core idea of a haunted hotel.  The woman in room 237 (Lia Beldam / Billie Gibson) and the twin girls (Lisa and Louise Burns) are the exceptions to the rule, but by and large he fumbles in his portrayal of the other ghosts.  There is a little bit of history provided on the Overlook in the beginning, but no information on who these ghosts are.  There is no way to understand that the "Injured Guest" was the guy who originally built and owned the hotel, nor the backstory on why some guy in a dog costume is orally pleasuring another man.  These are not just weird things that pop up in the book, but former inhabitants of the hotel that are trapped there, decade after decade, and contribute to the evil entity that the Overlook is.  

What Kubrick does understand is that the Overlook is as much a character in the movie as the Torrance family, and the set he built for it is glorious in its ugliness.  Native American motifs clash with sprawling early 20th century design and '70s pastels, with a 1920s art-deco ballroom stuck in the middle of all of it.  It is a giant, garish tomb, but it makes those it selects love it.  Jack Torrance, in the movie, is barely stable at the time he moves his family into the hotel, and the hotel easily works his way into his brain, preying on his insecurities and his own anger to bring out the violence that has been boiling beneath the surface for years.  For Jack, it is more of a nudge than a push, and Jack Nicholson's signature performance in this role is more frightening than any ghost that Kubrick decides to throw at us.  

While Kubrick may not strictly know how to make a horror film, he does know suspense and how to get the most out of actors, and between Nicholson portraying Torrance as on the edge of madness, and Shelley Duvall giving an amazing performance as a woman suddenly watching her life turn upside down, the second half of the film is a masterpiece when it comes to making the viewer feel uneasy.  This also gets into what Kubrick is best at - the static, almost photographically perfect shots at the beginning begin to bend, twist and go completely out of control as Jack more and more becomes a victim of the hotel's influence. The music, often using sparse classical elements, screeches and ambient sounds, helps heighten the tension.  Kubrick deploys everything in his vast arsenal to make the viewer feel what the characters are feeling. 

Like most of Kubrick's films, there are parts that could be trimmed that would make it even more of an effective fright film, but then that without that sense of self-indulgence it wouldn't feel like a Stanley Kubrick film.  When considering this and all the changes made, that is really how it must be viewed.  While there are many elements that make the novel more effective, again, it makes it more effective as a book.  As a pure suspense film, and one of the most beautifully shot films of its kind, it is what it is and deserves its reputation.  

The Shining (1980)
Time: 146 minutes
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers
Director: Stanley Kubrick

 

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