Posted in Movie Reviews

Kubrick’s “The Shining”

"Your money's no good here, Mr. Torrance"
“Your money’s no good here, Mr. Torrance”

I hadn’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” in several years, but two recent events made me return to it. One was a debate with my co-workers as to which was better—the movie or the Stephen King novel on which it’s based. The other was purely monetary: I hated to see my hard-earned Best Buy points go to waste. So my newly purchased Blu-ray edition became Sunday’s entertainment as I worked my way through a week’s worth of laundry.

As a huge fan of Stephen King’s novel, I was disappointed in Kubrick’s film when I first saw it in 1980. Like many readers, I expected the movie to be an adaptation, but Kubrick chose to use the novel as a springboard for his own ideas. The result is a clear instance of book and film markedly parting company.

Some flaws remain even when considering the movie without reference to its source. Jack Nicholson gives away far too much too soon. That cocked eyebrow and those glinting eyes signal crazy too early in the game; he becomes outrageous rather than horrific. Kubrick uses Shelley Duvall as little more than a doormat except at the end of the film, and Danny Lloyd, as Danny Torrance, seems like a little zombie who’s been forbidden to act like a child (This is truly a shame, because “The Making of ‘The Shining'” featurette reveals this kid to have been a real charmer with a great laugh).

It’s mentioned a number of times in the Blu-ray’s extras that Kubrick viewed “The Shining” as a tale of a man coming to hate his own family. However, the first time we see Jack, Wendy and Danny together as they drive up to the Overlook Hotel, Jack seems to be there already. He’s irritable and short with his wife and son, there’s no chemistry between Nicholson and Duvall, and by the time Jack tells Danny he loves him, we just don’t believe it. There’s no development, no sense of erosion of feeling. It’s as if Kubrick just flicks the switch on Jack Torrance from responsible family man to monster. A more minor quibble: why have Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) make that long trek from Miami to Denver, rent a Snow Cat and drive through a blizzard just to be axed the moment he steps foot in the Overlook lobby? If you’re going to kill him off, at least give him a fighting chance before the dispatch.

Despite all this, there’s so much I love about the movie. In no particular order:

The Overlook’s maze is a superb replacement for King’s topiary animals. The former is the type of visual good film thrives on; the latter device works best as psychological horror on the printed page (for proof watch the 1997 television remake of “The Shining” where those animals look ridiculous). The maze’s scale model also plays an important role—that shot with Jack looking down into the model as it morphs into an overhead view of Wendy and Danny navigating their way through the real thing is breathtaking.

The Overlook itself, which is really the main character in “The Shining.” The set decoration is stunning. It’s virtually timeless. Despite all the haunted goings-on, you feel a strong urge to be able to step right into that bar and the golden ballroom. One minor gripe: Oregon’s Timberline Lodge, built in 1937 and used for exterior shots of the Overlook, looks too modern for a hotel supposedly built in 1909.

"I co-rrrected her"
“I co-rrrected her”

Jack’s encounters with Lloyd the Bartender (Joe Turkel) and Delbert Grady (Philip Stone). His face lit from below, Lloyd comes across as a kindly Satan in a red jacket. Not so Grady, who counsels Jack in what can only be described as Hell’s Bathroom. Aside from relating that he “co-rrected” his wife and daughters, he’s the harbinger of the story’s end when he insists to Jack: “You have always been the caretaker.”

Despite being over-the-top, there’s a small thing Jack Nicholson does that makes me laugh every time I watch the film. It comes when Jack Torrance returns to the gold Colorado Lounge, now filled with party-goers dressed in 1920’s style. After Jack finishes his conversation with Lloyd at the bar, he gets up and, enjoying the sweet band music, tries out a few nimble dance steps before colliding with Grady. It’s totally unexpected. Speaking of the ballroom scene, the ghostly music that accompanies it (actual recordings of bands from that era) couldn’t be more evocative.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I’ve always gotten a bigger jolt from this than the scene in Room 237, and in fact, I think it comes in a close second to “REDRUM” as the most frightening bit in the movie. The detail is astonishing—pages and pages of Jack’s typing, some in narrative, some in verse form, others in script format (The Blu-ray extras reveal that Kubrick had his secretary typing for months to create what Wendy discovers).

Danny’s sliding escape out the bathroom window and the ensuing chase through the maze. It’s so eerily beautiful it almost erases the horror of a man trying to kill his own son. And we finally see Danny take some initiative in making those backward footprints in the snow to throw Jack off the trail.

The end, done in a way that film does best. I wonder if Mr. Ullman will be hiring another caretaker for next winter…and whether Jack Torrance will be there to greet him. Need we say more?

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2 thoughts on “Kubrick’s “The Shining”

  1. Thanks, Agnes! Great question. The only film that comes to mind isn’t a horror film but a thriller/police procedural—“Zodiac,” which had me locked in from the start. Thrillers do that for me: other examples would be “Copycat,” first “Prime Suspect,” and a couple of episodes of “Wire in the Blood” come to mind.

  2. Very interesting and thoughtful post which took me straight back to the first time I saw this film at the cinema. I found the tension and pace such an intense experience I came out with a raging headache! But I’d been totally hooked. Off hand can’t think of any recent movies that have worked at this pitch – can you? I’d be interested to know.

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