The Shining (1980)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel, Anne Jackson
(out of 4)
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Jack Torrance: Mr. Grady, You were the caretaker here.
Delbert Grady: I’m sorry to differ with you sir, but you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know sir. I’ve always been here.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, his own interpretation of the Stephen King novel, is truly macabre, spooky, and mysterious. It’s been called “the first epic horror film” by Jack Kroll; I think he’s onto something. It’s not “epic” in terms of carnage, body count, or action, but in mood and setting. The Shining simultaneously seems grandiose and claustrophobic – a paradox pulled off by the skills of an auteur director, excellent acting, and jaw-dropping sets. The Overlook Hotel, central to the story, is truly something to behold, a work of art. It’s some fine anthropomorphism Kubrick has created here – I can’t remember many other films where I consider a building as a major character. I don’t know how much I can really write about The Shining that hasn’t already been covered by other reviewers, authors, and documentarians. But I’ll try.
You talkin’ to me?
In case you’re not familiar, the story of The Shining centers around schoolteacher-turned-writer Jack Torrance, who lands a job as winter caretaker for the isolated Overlook Hotel in Colorado (the outside shots are actually of the Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood, Oregon). Jack brings along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny has an imaginary friend called Tony, who manifests himself as a funny finger-wag and gravelly voice (the kid sure has imagination). Unbeknownst to Danny’s parents, however, Tony is really just a way for Danny to cope with his psychic abilities, which enable him to see past and future events, and other supernatural phenomena. There’s a great sequence (in a movie filled with great sequences) where the hotel cook Mr. Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) reveals his own psychic abilities to Danny, which he calls “Shining.” Danny wonders aloud about whether “something bad” lives in the hotel and what exactly went down in room 237, which causes a suddenly agitated Hallorann to warn Danny to stay out of there.
After a month goes by, we see violent changes in Jack’s behavior (it’s already been established that he lost his temper once and accidentally hurt Danny) as he is unable to make any headway on his writing project. In the meantime, Danny keeps having horrible visions of blood flowing down hotel corridors and the remains of two girls cut up with an ax. His curiosity gets the better of him and he goes into room 237, while Jack himself is visited by spirits of the hotel who tempt him with drink (since he’s a teetotaler). It just goes downhill from there; soon Wendy and Danny are in real danger. It turns out there is indeed something bad living in the hotel, and through Jack it intends to tear the Torrance family apart. But more than that, the spirits of the hotel intend to claim Jack as their own (and because of Jack’s moments of déjà vu and the surprising ending-reveal, their claim may be legitimate).
The Shining perfects the concept of the slow-burn. It takes its time, but nothing in the film seems padded. The horrors are mostly psychological; this is a film about the destruction of a man (or, his emasculation, at least) and destruction of the family unit. Jack Torrance’s weaknesses are easily exploited by the ghostly residents of the Overlook – his fear that he is losing his manhood, his purpose, his status as head of the family. You get the sense that his job prospects as a teacher didn’t pan out in Denver. He can’t seem to get past his writers block (and a scene later in the film where Wendy stumbles across his work is both frightening and funny). He probably feels weak because of his alcoholism. In the end, the hotel is all he has left (when Wendy asks to take Danny and leave the hotel, he rages at her, concerned about his “responsibility to his employers.”)
Good thing we asked for late checkout
The Shining is a film filled with iconic scenes – even those who haven’t seen the film are probably familiar with certain images. The axe-through-the-door (“Here’s Johnny!”), the twin girls, the blood in the hallway, Room 237, Danny driving his tricycle through the corridors, Jack’s confrontation with Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) in the bathroom, Lloyd the Bartender (Joe Turkel), the great hedge maze, Jack and Wendy’s fight in the lounge (“I’m not gonna hurt ya.. I’m just gonna bash your brains in!”), and of course, the REDRUM scene. Visuals alone make The Shining required viewing, but Nicholson’s performance is a tour-de-force. I also liked Duvall’s performance alot – she plays Wendy with just the right mix of vulnerability and resourcefulness. Danny Lloyd is also such a cute kid in this, but he plays the character with the right amount of reserve (and his ability to switch between “Danny” and “Tony” at will is amazing for a young actor). Scatman Crothers is also wonderful.
You can’t handle the truth!
The Shining also raises a lot of interesting questions and opportunities for analysis. Notice the Native American decor and the story that Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) tells the Torrances about the Overlook hotel being built over an Indian burial ground (“I believe they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building it.”). Is The Shining really a story about the unspoken genocide of the natives that paved the way for the rise of America? Take Jack’s racism (“White man’s burden”) and the killing of a key character, Ullman’s description of former Presidents being “all the best people”, Grady’s insults at Hallorann (a minority), the final shot of a photo from a July 4th ball. (Check out Bill Blakemore’s essay for more). Then there’s the duality theme – Jack meets a butler named “Delbert” Grady who looks much like Charles Grady, the former caretaker who killed his family with an axe. Many clues suggest Jack himself has been at the hotel before (reincarnation?) Does the Overlook have control over its guests for all eternity? Then there’s the discovery that much of the layout of the Overlook hotel is spatially impossible. Like the hedge maze outside, the hotel is a ghostly labyrinth.
The Shining came out in 1980 and the movie has remarkable staying power. Like Carpenter’s The Thing, I never seem to tire of watching it. Kubrick approaches the material with a certain cold, clinical style, but it works within the context of the film, giving a sense of isolation and dread. His camerawork here is fluid and precise. There’s also something to be said for the soundtrack, which splits between Krzysztof Penderecki’s creepy compositions and Ray Noble/Al Bowlly’s 30s jazz numbers. The Shining is required viewing and still remains one of my favorite horror films.
- Bill Gordon
Waiting for an invitation to arrive. Goin’ to a party where no one’s still alive
Also must read: Rob Ager’s in-depth analysis of the film.
A Note On The Aspect Ratio
There has been widespread discussion on Kubrick’s original “intended” aspect ratio for the film. The short answer: 1.85 to 1. The long answer: Kubrick didn’t want the film to be modified via Pan-and-Scan for television showings, so he insisted that the unmatted 1:33 version be released untouched. Lots of films (like The Shining) are shot in 1:33 and matted for widescreen. For example, the Stanley Kubrick collection DVD is in 1.33:1. But because of that, the parts of the left and right side of the screen will be missing. In comparison, the 2-disc special edition DVD is in 1.78:1, which means parts of the top and bottom of the screen are missing. In my opinion, the Blu-ray (which is in 1.85:1) is the proper way to view the film. The stuff missing from the top and bottom of the screen was never really intended to be viewed in the theater.
Are we ever gonna get served?