The Shining Review


Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic interpretation of Stephen King’s The Shining is … interesting. Technically, he’s on surer footing than perhaps ever before (I’d argue 2001 is a bigger achievement, but in terms of scope, The Shining does more with less). Thematically, some really challenging things are going down. But Kubrick’s ability to tell a coherent story is tested for maybe the first time in his career. I’ve seen this film more than any of Kubrick’s other efforts, and I still don’t know what the fuck is going on. That’s fine to a degree, but for such a long film, it becomes a little grating.

That said, The Shining is a horror film, and if the ultimate goal is to illicit fear in its viewers, mission fucking accomplished. There isn’t a film out there scarier than this one. Even if the story is a little all over the place—and the performances are somewhat lacking—the terror Kubrick builds over 140 minutes is remarkable.

The film takes the simple idea of cabin fever and expands it into something epic and worthy of Kubrick. The Overlook Hotel is the setting for Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) descent into madness. His wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), are the witnesses. In order to foster the flow of his creative juices (he’s trying to write a book), Jack takes a job maintaining the hotel during winter season, when frigid temperatures and heaps of snow make the roads too dangerous to access the Colorado-based lodge.

The family is off from the start. Danny’s only friend is his Tony, an imaginary boy who speaks through his finger. Wendy, meanwhile, clearly longs for a normal family, despite being oddly forthcoming with a doctor about Jack’s past abuse. It’s Jack, perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s the most unsettling, though it’s not immediately clear why. Sure, we learn early on about his drinking and his temper, but even in the film’s opening scene at the hotel, when he’s interviewing for the job, the guy seems like he’s bad news.

In that scene and others over the course the film’s first third, Nicholson plays the part well. He doesn’t exactly hide his character’s true colors, but his flaws are mostly buried, making Wendy’s constant justification of his behavior believable. It turns on a dime, however, and both the character and the actor go way over the edge. Yes, some of Nicholson’s most iconic moments (“Here’s Johnny!”) come during this lengthy portion of the film, but the histrionics show mutes the impact of so much pent-up creepiness. It becomes something driven by shocks and screams, not atmosphere. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, and the scares are definitely still there, but they just aren’t as satisfying.

Danny Lloyd and Shelly Duvall play the film’s two other key roles. The former is great, actually. Kubrick only asks that he look, sound, and act possessed. The kid is masterful on that front (the “REDRUM” scenes are highlights). Duvall, on the other hand, is a bit of a train wreck. Apparently, the actress almost lost her mind working with Nicholson and Kubrick, but it isn’t hard to figure why the two might have been so demanding. Watching her flail around with a baseball bat after her husband in one of the film’s climactic scenes is pretty painful.

What the film lacks in credible performances, however, it more than makes up with brilliant craftsmanship. The cinematography is especially noteworthy (the tracking shots of Danny riding his big wheel around the hotel are the stuff of legend), and the score, despite only being featured in a few brief moments, leaves an indelible mark.

Kubrick made massive changes to King’s text, which led to the author distancing himself greatly from the film. I haven’t read it, nor have I seen King’s 1997 made-for-TV remake, but frankly, I don’t blame him for at least some of his frustration. To interpret another’s work is a tricky thing, but when the end result of the adaptation is incoherent at best (and a total mess at worst), ill feelings shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Why is The Shining‘s narrative problematic? Too much is left unexplained. It’s a weak answer, I admit. And I’m usually pro-ambiguity, but The Shining stretches my patience to its limit at times. All the stuff with Scatman Crothers feels half-baked, and Jack’s frequent forays to the golden ballroom and hotel bar feel never quite go anywhere. The hotel is an imposing enough presence that when ghosts begin to drive the narrative, the film loses a bit of its edge.

But ultimately, Kubrick accomplishes what any horror director sets out to accomplish: Scare the shit out of an audience. His style elevates The Shining above most other films in the genre, but the story goes off the rails too often to put this in the same league as some of Kubrick’s best.

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