Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrance), Shelley Duvall (Wendy Torrance), Danny Lloyd (Danny Torrance), Scatman Crothers (Mr Halloran)
The 1970s were a revolutionary decade for horror. Arguably the last revolutionary decade the genre had. Horror became the genre for young upstart directors to make their mark in, and, with its frequently dreamlike narratives, one of the best vehicles for pushing barriers and experimentation. A decade which gave us such upstarts as David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, David Lynch and Dario Argento. Even more commercially accepted directors (William Friedkin) or more high-brow names (Nicolas Roeg) had dipped their toe in horror’s scarlet waters. And then, at the tail end of this fruitful time, there stands Kubrick’s The Shining. A huge hulking monolith in the genre, as striking and oppressive as Kubrick’s own monolith in 2001.
Based on Stephen King’s best* novel, Kubrick’s movie tells the tale of teacher turned odd-job man Jack Torrance, who takes up a position maintaining a remote hotel in the Colorado mountains over the off-season, moving into isolation and taking his wife Wendy and their young son Danny with him. Cooped up together, and failing to make headway on a writing venture, Jack begins to succumb to cabin fever. He becomes a threat to his family, helped in no small part by ghosts from the hotel’s own chequered past.
In truth, Kubrick’s movie bares slim resemblance to the source text, ditching about two thirds of the narrative and scrubbing the original’s ending altogether. A wise move. King’s novel includes chilling sequences of topiary animals springing to life and attacking the Torrance family. In the open worlds of the imagination a fantastic image of horror. With the special effects available in 1980? An embarrassment waiting to happen. King was so disheartened by what Kubrick had done to his book that he had his name removed from the film’s title, though his credit for source material remains. He would later spearhead a more faithful but completely inferior TV miniseries in the late 90s.
But despite Kubrick changing the story (and lopping off the entire first third, actually), it’s difficult to side with King’s disappointment. Faithful or not, The Shining is still a masterwork in the horror genre. A massive oddity quite unlike anything before or since. Most horror pictures, especially nowadays, are deeply indebted to horror pictures of the past. Hell, it’s hard to find an original horror film these days. The Shining however is fiercely distinctive, and owes few if any debts to other movies in the genre. The only thing Kubrick appears to have referenced in The Shining is himself. The film is arguably his signature piece, built from the DNA of his other movies; obsessed with symmetry, governed by a sense of heightened reality, chillingly distant and memorable for it’s larger-than-life performances.
Nicholson for one has rarely been more kabuki. His Jack Torrance might not be his best screen work (see Chinatown or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), but it is by far his most iconic. It’s a performance on a knife edge, always one step away from tumbling over into a drooling clown routine, but it’s carefully sustained and managed, until yes, his terrible descent into murderous madness. However, if you look at him at the start of the picture, it’s already bubbling away. Check the twisted grin on his face as the family drive to the Overlook Hotel, young Danny informing his parents about cannibalism. That famous shot of Jack staring dementedly out of the window? That’s only 32 minutes into the film. There’s a strong argument to say that Jack Torrance is pretty fucking batshit crazy at the start of Kubrick’s story, the Overlook Hotel just brings it out of him.
Arguably more credit should be given to Shelley Duvall for her performance as the increasingly highly-strung Wendy. Her hysteria escalates at a much more measured pace, is much more naturalistic and, crucially, doesn’t at any point get cloying or irritating for the audience. Her battle for survival is one we share through the dramatic plunge of the final act.
And when they come, The Shining’s scares fly in the face of what we’ve been led to expect from horror. Sinister ghostly apparitions appear to the characters out of nowhere in the middle of the day, they don’t tumble spookily out of the dark. It is this disquieting matter-of-factness that gives them such extraordinary power. No one image is terrifying in itself (though the flashes of the murdered twins are definitely unpleasant), but rather the slow cranking up of the tension combined with the surreal entities appearing seemingly at their own convenience make for a palpable sense of unease as Jack goes out of control. As Wendy’s odyssey at the end of the film illustrates, anything could come from anywhere.
As ever with Kubrick films, and especially in the genre of horror, music is also key. From that oppressive funeral march over the opening credits, through Krzystof Penderecki’s caterwauling avant-garde orchestrations, to the movie’s eerie end credits cue (“Midnight, the Stars and You” by Ray Noble and His Orchestra) the main intent is always unease. Not to mention the sound design within the film itself. Danny’s tricycle moving from floorboards to carpet and back again remains one of the most strangely uncomfortable sequences in the whole film, yet nothing about these scenes is technically horrific. It’s all about cutting into that escalating tension.
Kubrick has more cerebral films (2001: A Space Odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut), more emotional films (Paths Of Glory), more notorious films (A Clockwork Orange) and more easily accessible films (Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove)… but if I’m pressed to pick my Kubrick movie of choice, it’s going to be The Shining. This is ridiculously enjoyable cinema to me. Maybe that’s the scariest thing of all…
*in my opinion, and from the ones I’ve read