The Shining (1980). Film review of the classic horror directed by Stanley Kubrick

Still from The Shining showing blood pouring out of a hotel's elevators
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Horror

image four star rating very good lots to enjoy

Film review, by Jason Day, of The Shining the classic, chilling horror movie about a hotel’s caretaker descending into madness after being visited by sinister spirits. Starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.

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Synopsis

Based in Boulder, Colorado Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) is a teacher who fancies himself as a writer. Stuck in a writing rut, he applies for a job as a caretaker and handyman at the Overlook Hotel which closes each winter for several months.

Despite being briefed by the hotel’s manager (Barry Nelson) about a previous tragedy at the Overlook, in which another caretaker called Grady (Philip Stone) murdered his wife and children before committing suicide, Jack signs on for the role and brings with him wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd).

Danny has a unique side he has kept secret from his parents: psychic abilities that, when the move in, enable him to see into the hotel’s horrific past. The kindly chef (Scatman Crothers) who shares this skill calls it ‘Shining’.

As winter comes, Jack communicates with the ghosts of the Overlook’s past and descends into madness, compounded by his own inner torment that his family are actively conspiring to ruin his nascent writing career.

Review, by Jason Day

The Shining poster by Chungkong Art
Poster for The Shining (1980), by Chungkong Art (Insta: @chungkong_art)

…at times a virtual advert for Steadicam…was overwhelmed by the degeneration of Jack Nicholson’s characterisation into a prime display of ham, as if the increasingly reclusive director had forgotten what real human behaviour was like.

Quoted review of The Shining (1980) in Who’s Who in Hollywood (1993).

Die hard Stephen King fans might lap up that quote. At the time of the film’s release, many weren’t impressed with the liberties writer/director Stanley Kubrick took with the source for his one and only ‘axe swing’ at the horror genre.

King’s was one of many books Kubrick poured over when he was looking for a hot hit, licking his wounds after the critical and commercial failure of his stunningly cold and dreamlike period drama Barry Lyndon (1975). He plumped for modern horror, then in vogue after the successes of Carrie (1976), Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) but King’s book was the only one he stuck with for more than a few pages.

I love horror movies and being scared witless, but horror novels have never appealed to me. I’ve never read one so I can’t compare the two here but, as a cinematic piece, Kubrick’s emotionless void of a film is a fabulously, inscrutably, frigid thing.

Like his other films, the emphasis for Kubrick is less what is going on and who we see, but more how this action is created. Talk about a kid in a toy shop – sod the story and actors, what Stan the man really loved was gadgetry and techy innovation.

The cinematography does not just capture ravishing beauty and horror – in a famous sequence, the hotel’s elevator doors open to disgorge a tsunami of blood – but was created around the need to create particular shots.

Kubrick employs ‘Steadicam’, a relatively new (funnily enough, it launched the same year as Lyndon) set-up that saw the camera securely ‘bracketed’ in a harness strapped around the operator. This isolated the cameraman’s movements, allowing for smooth and steady filming, even as the operator runs around.

Fantastic when the camera operator is required to run around behind a child trundling around the set on his bike or chasing him through a snow covered maze – Steadicam had to be adapted here so the action was captured at a child’s eye level – but you see the point the reviewer made in the opening quote. As the movie progresses, it becomes overdone.

Another technical thing that’s worth noting is the sound editing and production design. Danny’s bike trundles loudly over the wooden floors, then is muffled when the wheels run over a rug or carpet. A bored Jack loudly chucking a rubber ball against the hotel’s walls, the dull sound that reverberates reminds us he has writer’s block which this sport will not relieve.

The sets – built from scratch at Elstree studios in England, with a few exterior shots of real hotels – features some eye-opening, brightly coloured, geometric designs (look at the carpets that Danny plays with his cars on). The Overlook is nearly 70 years old but, for 1980, its design is funky and on-trend.

Kubrick, as ever, is consumed by the capabilities of cinema, rather than story or people.

Especially people. The script, co-written by Kubrick and Diane Johnson, is as bleak and cold as the winter that envelops and isolates the Overlook. The creeping fingers of another Jack (Frost) fiddle with the couple’s relationship, but our perception of them is skewed by Kubrick’s incessant, behind the scenes tinkering with the writing (often, the cast had the final version minutes before the camera rolled).

Kubrick chopped out most of Duvall’s dialogue and the two clashed over his direction of her. Her Wendy is passive and annoying, chirping away in a high-pitched, sing-song accent and sniffling and snuckling with a cold during the later scenes. It’s as if Kubrick wants us to identify with her husband wanting to “bash her brains the fuck in”, as if we are willing him on to do her in.

The script is segmented into a neat sequential order and on screen, they are spelled out in Brechtian title cards, the first being ‘The Interview’ in which all of the principle characters face a grilling of one type or another.

Jack has the strangest one. Ullman, the slick manager of the Overlook (Barry Nelson) holds the most perfunctory job interview ever, a sort of “Can you spell your name? Yes, well your a bit over qualified but can you start tomorrow?”

Then it’s on to the nub of the issue. A detailed discussion about a previous caretaker who bludgeoned his family to death before blowing his brains out, all spoken about in a matter of fact way.

Meanwhile, Wendy and Danny also have interviews, from a doctor who has been called to the house after Danny has had a seizure of some description. The doctor quickly establishes Danny is emotionally troubled following his father seriously assaulting him in a drunken rage. It’s implied Wendy might be a battered wife as she goes to lengths to explain and downplay the incident. This is about the only character exposition in the movie.

Nicholson’s scream of “Herrre’s Johnny!” after smashing his was into the bathroom where a suitably terrified Wendy shivers in a corner, has entered cinematic legend and certainly helped in terms of marketing as it gives the trailer a real manic edge.

But like all of the performances in The Shining, it is an oddly artificial and contrived turn. There’s something almost amateurish about Nicholson here, as if it’s his first time in front of a camera.

It’s a criticism I have of any Kubrick movie – beautiful to look at, technically superior to anything by any other director, but achingly empty on the inside.

NB: released later this week – on 31 October – is the sequel, Doctor Sleep. For more about it, see the official website.

Cast & credits

Director: Stanley Kubrick. 2hr 24mins/144 mins. Hawk Films/Peregrine/Producers Circle/Warner Bros. (15)

Producer: Stanley Kubrick.
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson.
Camera: John Alcott.
Music: Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind.
Sets: Roy Walker.

Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel, Anne Jackson, Tony Burton.

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