#76 The Shining

(1980, Stanley Kubrick)

“All work and no play make Jack a dull boy”

Stephen King is possibly the most successful horror novelist of the last 100 years. Not only are his books consistently popular, but pretty much every single one of them has been adapted. One of the more successful of these was The Shining, based on one of King’s most successful and well-received novels. Working from good source material in the first place was always going to help, but with a director as well-established as Stanley Kubrick behind it, it was pretty much guaranteed to produce good results.

Jack Nicholson is Jack Torrance, a writer (if you’re playing the Stephen King drinking game, take one drink now) who takes a job as winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in Boulder, Colorado (it’s not Maine, so don’t take a drink). This allows him the time and space to think and work on his new writing project – an extreme writers’ retreat, if you like. However, the Overlook isn’t exactly the cosiest of places. A terrible murder happened there years ago, and soon Jack begins seeing visions, while his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) becomes withdrawn as his special abilities to sense the supernatural go haywire.

The Shining is everything that a horror movie should be. I decided to mention that straight away, since I have very little bad to say about it. King made a great decision by basing an entire novel around the isolation of a writers’ retreat in the mountains, and Kubrick followed it up perfectly in his directorial decisions in this adaptation. The horror of the movie comes not from jump scares or gore, but from the general sense of unease that filters through the whole thing.

The emptiness of the hotel is highlighted frequently, particularly through extensive uses of Kubrick’s beloved wide angle shot (also seen in A Clockwork Orange). There are tons of shots of this kind taking in huge ballrooms and endless corridors, often with one cast member dwarfed by the scenery. We get a real sense of space in the hotel, and creepily the wide spaces actually feel claustrophobic due to their emptiness. It’s also near-impossible to figure out the actual layout of the hotel, adding to a further sense of dread.

It’s also really unclear whether or not the ghosts of the hotel are real or imagined by Jack and his family. It’s been noted that there’s always a mirror in scenes where Jack is seeing things, and indeed our first shot of Jack in “hotel life” is shot via a mirror’s reflection. Does this mean that Jack’s really talking to himself for the entire movie or are these figures really there? It’s never explained, and the movie works even better for it. It allows the viewer to make up their own minds, and stick with the explanation that feels creepiest to them. A man driven mad by cabin fever or a man possessed by spirits? Take your pick.

There are two issues with the movie though. One is minor, the other is kind of a big one. The minor issue is the casting of Nicholson as Jack Torrance. As mentioned in my Dark Knight review (while comparing the Jokers of 1989 and 2008), Jack Nicholson is brilliant at playing deranged characters – he simply needs to turn up and smile and he fits the part – and in a way, that spoils the fact he goes insane later on. It’s an assessment that even Stephen King himself seemed to agree with, since he tried to persuade Kubrick to change this casting decision. And it’s notable that there are numerous moments before the insanity kicks in that Nicholson just looks…off. We can tell he’s going to fly off the handle eventually, it’s just a matter of when. However, this is minor, since it never once spoils the tension of the movie.

However, the bigger issue is that of the score. Dear god, the score. I love The Shining, but if I could change anything, I’d completely swap out that soundtrack. Largely consisting of shrill, tuneless tones, usually sounding like someone struggling to play the violin properly, it succeeds at being creepy occasionally, but mostly grates and makes me wish I could mute it somehow. It seems to invade the entire scene too, sounding far too loud in comparison to the actual action in the scenes. It’s the only serious complaint I have for a very good movie.

So yeah, The Shining. A book adaptation done right (I’m looking disappointedly at you, Blade Runner), but also a fantastic horror movie in its own right. It’s a shame that Kubrick never made more horrors, since his style was absolutely perfect for it.

Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers & Danny Lloyd
Written by Stephen King (novel), Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson
Produced by Stanley Kubrick
Music score by Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind
Cinematography by John Alcott
Edited by Ray Lovejoy

Favourite Scene: “I’m not gonna hurt ya, I’m just gonna bash your brains in!” Nicholson at his deranged best
Scene That Bugged Me: So…Wendy Torrance walks in on two men…sharing an intimate moment together…while one is dressed as a bear…dog…pig? Thanks for explaining that one, Kubrick…

Watch it if: You’ve always been the caretaker
Avoid it if: You don’t wanna go there, Mrs Torrance

Originally posted on Blogspot Thursday 5 April 2012

Posted on April 15, 2012, in 1980s, Horror, Mystery. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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