Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson based on the novel by Stephen King.
Starring: Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrance), Shelley Duvall (Wendy Torrance), Danny Lloyd (Danny Torrance), Scatman Crothers (Dick Hallorann), Barry Nelson (Stuart Ullman), Philip Stone (Delbert Grady), Joe Turkel (Lloyd the Bartender), Anne Jackson (Doctor), Tony Burton (Larry Durkin), Lia Beldam (Young Woman in Bath), Billie Gibson (Old Woman in Bath), Barry Dennen (Bill Watson).
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is an easy movie to get lost in (I do a review of the great documentary Room 237 next, about five such people) as the film contains so many traps and misdirections that every time you watch it, the film seems to change and become something different. I am not sure how many times I’ve seen the film – yet every time I watch it, it seems like a completely different film from the one that I had in my mind. It is a film that defies easy interpretation – and every time I think I have it figured out, it slips through my fingers again. I do not see this as a flaw in the film – but one of its greatest strengths. The film may confuse, confound and infuriate those who want to be taken by the hand by the filmmaker and walked through the film – but for those of us who love ambiguity in our films, The Shining is one of the greatest ever made. It’s interesting that Kubrick made this film following Barry Lyndon – that film makes us watch it precisely the way Kubrick wants us to, and see things precisely the way he does. The Shining is almost the complete opposite.
The story is well known to all – Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as the winter caretaker for the historic Overlook Hotel, in the mountains of Colorado, where from November until May he’ll be cut off from the rest of the world. He brings along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) – who has the “shine”, basically physic powers. At some point during the winter, Jack starts to go insane, and will eventually try and murder his family.
That is about all I can say with absolute certainty about the film. There are ghosts in the film – or perhaps not. Danny has visions about the violence in the hotel’s past – but can we trust those visions? Torrance talks to various ghosts – like Lloyd the Bartender, and Grady, the former caretaker who murdered his family – but are they really there, or are they simply a product of his insanity? Or does Danny plant those visions? When Torrance goes into Room 237, and has a vision of a beautiful, young woman in the bathtub – who he starts making out with, only to have her change into the rotting corpse of an older woman, what exactly does that mean? Does that happen – are the women ghosts – or is it in his mind? Or, is this just one of Danny’s visions – as Kubrick cuts back and forth between Jack in that room, and Danny transmitting the vision to Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), the hotel’s friendly chef, in an attempt to get him to come back to the hotel and save him and his mother. Is Danny just making it up – Jack certainly doesn’t share this vision with Wendy in the scene right after it, nor does he even seem upset, although during that scene in that room he is horrified. Jack has already started going insane before we see him interacting with any of the “ghosts” in the hotel – he has already embarked on his “writing project”, has already snapped at Wendy for interrupting him, already had his disturbing meeting with Danny, where Danny asks if Jack would ever hurt them, and comes away far from reassured, and we have already seen him staring, with a disturbed look on his face, at his family. Has Kubrick, an atheist, really made a ghost story – which would imply there is an afterlife, or has he made a film about insanity – so that all the ghosts and visions are just in the minds of his characters? But then, if they are not ghosts who can manipulate reality, how does Jack get out of that room near the end of the movie. And what does that final shot in the movie mean. See what I mean – it’s easy to get lost down numerous rabbit holes while watching The Shining. And every time I watch the film, I get a different impression of what really is going on, and what it all means. The closer I look, the farther I get away from knowing the answers – probably because Kubrick has designed the film to have no definitive answers in the first place.
There are more questions in The Shining that go unanswered in the film – and I would argue are unanswerable given what is in the movie itself. This is by design. At nearly two and half hours, The Shining is one of the longest horror films ever made – most filmmakers limit their horror films to 90 minutes, because it’s nearly impossible to maintain the proper sense of terror for that long. But Kubrick does just that in The Shining – in part because of those unanswerable questions. Even in the somewhat normal opening scenes in the film, something is clearly not right with Jack, or the hotel. And the movie gradually ratchets up the tension throughout, until one of the best horror movie climaxes of all time – that even though I have seen the film countless times, never ceases to scare me half to death.
The film is a technical marvel from the start – with its opening, long helicopter shot under the opening credits. The most famous shots in the movie are undoubtedly the long Steadicam shots of Danny riding his big wheel around the hotel, and discovering things he probably shouldn’t. In a documentary on the DVD about the film, many imply that Kubrick did these shots simply because he could – they represented a technical challenge, and Kubrick never shied away from that. Perhaps that’s true – but like the rest of the film, these shots only heighten the terror in the movie.
Stephen King, who wrote the original novel, and hated Kubrick’s film, argued against Jack Nicholson because he would immediately seem unhinged, instead of gradually getting there. He was right in a way – there is something off about Nicholson from the start – but that is more keeping in line with Kubrick’s vision of the story than Kings. This is not Stephen Kings The Shining – as Kubrick took what he wanted from the novel, and threw the rest away, with many of the most iconic touches being his own, and not Kings. I understand why King would not be thrilled with a director doing that to a novel he felt was extremely personal – but that doesn’t mean the rest of us cannot be thrilled with what Kubrick did.
And Nicholson’s performance is wonderful throughout – one of the most disturbing, and altogether terrifying portraits of insanity every put on film. Nicholson, who is often accused of playing the same character every time out – the charming rogue, full of the same mannerisms – starts at that place in The Shining, and then goes further than he ever has before. Shelley Duvall, who apparently had a miserable time in the movie, and butted heads with Kubrick throughout, nevertheless gives a great performance as a terrified woman – bringing a mundane normalcy to her early scenes, and truly visceral terror near the end. Kubrick was hard on her – but he got what he needed.
The Shining is one of the greatest horror films ever made. It doesn’t rely on blood and guts, and doesn’t rely on the type of cheap scares that populate most horror movies. Kubrick doesn’t shoot it like a normal horror movie either – but favors deep focus, and wide shots, instead of simple darkness and close-ups. It is a master class is horror filmmaking – one that 34 years later has not really been matched.