Friday, 21 May 2010

The Shining (1980)

Country: UK/USA

I will open this review by saying that I don’t like Stephen King’s novel The Shining (1977). It is held in very high regard, and I can understand to a certain extent, why that is. But to compare it to Salem’s Lot (1975) the novel that preceded it and The Stand (1978) the novel that followed it is like comparing horse manure to ice cream. I think even at this point it was possible to see through the pop culture murk to what lay beneath - in this case a pretty standard haunted house narrative. The key difference here is a lack of restraint in plot construction and an over-reliance on generic tropes. Although King’s novels have always suffered from this, I feel The Shining suffers more than most - it is King’s most accessible novel, and as a result his least adventurous. ESP, ghosts, and haunted buildings are the clichéd pegs King chooses to hang his principal themes of parental/patriarchal failure, family, and alcoholism on. The family unit in King’s novel is challenged, but it essentially survives the threat. It emerges at the end redeemed, but not without a note of caution. In other words this is essentially a tale of familial conservatism. By contrast Stanley Kubrick (who along with co screenwriter Diane Johnson improve upon the novel immeasurably) constructs a vision that is far more bitter and cynical. The family doesn’t survive the events of The Overlook Hotel. Instead a broken family wearily trudge through the snow to an uncertain future. Kubrick and Johnson offer a more radical take on the material and use the iconography and conventions of the horror genre to subvert and challenge one of our most scared ideological institutions.

Kubrick begins this sense of dislocation and disruption by introducing the recurrent motif of the maze. The opening aerial tracking shots, breathtaking in their malign beauty, follows Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) insignificant car through serpentine mountain roads - it is a mere insect on a sublime landscape - and an early clue that modern industrial technology will be enveloped by the primal might of the topography on view. The plodding atonal synthesised music of Wendy Carlos gives the otherwise beautiful vista a sinister primal quality as if to say mankind has no place there. Individual human beings become maze like constructions - inscrutable, complex, and unpredictable, with a myriad of internal hiding places. The interior of The Overlook continues this visual/thematic strategy; with its winding corridors, spiral patterned carpets, and geometrically ornate wallpaper. The hotel is an uncanny space long before the supernatural tension is introduced. But the films standout uncanny moment is one in which Kubrick shows both his awareness of the horror genre and his dedication to cinematic technology. We follow Danny (courtesy of a steadicam) around a corner only to be confronted by the butchered remains of the previous caretakers children. That they are twins only adds to the scene’s creepiness. This scene is exemplary of Kubrick’s fastidiousness - with camera placement, movement, composition, editing, and soundtrack all combining to create one of the most successful sequences in modern horror history.

The film is essentially a war between a father and a son for power and patriarchy within the Torrance family unit. The victor will be the one who is best able to understand and harness a psychic ability that the chef Halloran (Scatman Crothers) refers to as ‘The Shining’. Both Jack and Danny have this power, for the former it becomes a destructive force that rekindles his alcoholism and preys on his vanity and insecurities. For the latter it is something to be feared, but eventually becomes a means of empowerment that helps to enable him to outsmart and survive his father. Jack begins a regression toward childhood as Danny embarks on a rites of passage into adulthood. The much criticised histrionics and over-acting of Nicholson are perfectly in keeping with a character undergoing such a reversion. Unfortunately Nicholson succeeds in this so well that the remainder of the cast seem rather limp and lifeless - and one could argue that the result is an imbalance in the performances - quite simply the film is duller when Nicholson isn’t in it.

This is something Kubrick anticipated with his casting choices, and he allows Nicholson a space to explore this territory. However he doesn’t allow the rest of the cast the same opportunity, and in places the film is unconvincing due to this. As a horror film one could argue The Shining is a little too perfect. All the generic boxes are ticked with such proficiency that at times it feels like an academic exercise. Although it does have a radical subtext the film is more innovative in its cinematic construction - name a Kubrick film that isn’t? The use of the steadicam reaches a pinnacle here - giving the impression of an unseen and omnipotent force following and controlling the characters and preying on their antagonisms and vulnerabilities. Much of this is due to the brilliant setting - I’ve lost count of how many great horror films there are that rely on an isolated and inescapable location. The film ends on a typically downbeat and inscrutable note that gives a disquieting suggestion that the events somehow exist in a Last Year in Marienbad (1961 - an a major influence on this) time bubble. It leaves the audience with the same sense of uncanny dislocation they experienced in the films opening.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. I'm not a fan of King's novel either. But Kubrick's movie is one my all-time favourite horror movies. And I agree about Nicholson - his overacting is absolutely the right approach to the role.

    Plus it has Shelley Duvall. Which makes it even more perfect.

  2. I never saw it that way, about the power struggle between father and son, and ones journey into adulthood and the others regression into childhood, but you are quite right! That is such an interesting take on the story.

    I of course love the visual perfection the film has, and the slow build up in the horror element. The location was so essential for this film to get made, the gigantic hotel is haunting all by itself.

    Jack Torrence is a character that is so well portrayed by Nicholson, you can tell from the very beginning that they guy is a little off, that there is something in this family that is already bothering him, he is not a perfect character at all.

    If I remember correctly, the film also touches upon the theme of child abuse. Apparently Jack had hit the little kid a couple of times, a fact that the mother prefers to hide blaming it on the kid himself. So in a way its also a film about a guy restraining that inner demon, that evil side of man that would go as far as to hit a child out of frustration.

  3. The Shining is also my least favorite King novel of his '70s output. For a long time I felt that Nicholson's overacting hurt this film, but watching it just recently I think the problem is not his acting but that his madness appears so suddenly; that is, when Wendy disturbs him while he's trying to write and he freaks out on her. That may be more the editor's fault than anything. Good comparison to Last Year in Marienbad--I can't believe I never made that connection!

  4. Thanks for the comments folks - its always appreciated:

    @dfordoom - I do admire Shelley Duval, but I dont think she really enhances this film in any way. At least Jack is entertaining and in places hilarious when he goes off on one - Duval is kinda dull here, she had a thankless task.

    @Film Connoisseur - Yes there is a subplot about child abuse, but its far stronger in the novel I seem to remember. I think Jack's violence towards Danny is implicitly connected to his past alcoholism (again I think that is stronger in the novel), but I totally agree about inner demons and the struggle to restrain them

    @Will - I think in many ways Kubrick's films owes more to Resnais' film than it does King's novel. I agree, but I think there is the sense right from the off that there is something a little amis with Jack, the odd facial expression, the look in his eye. One of the weaknesses of the film is that as soon as Ullman recounts the story of Grady you know that Jack is going to do the same - but suspense is maintained by the when and the how.

  5. AFI rated The Shining as one of the 100 top movies of all time. I love Kubrick, but he did injustice to the book. There are so many unknowns in the film that are force-fed to the audience. Nicholson goes insane after just one argument with his wife? His obsession with the Overlook is not mentioned. All elements leading to Jack's insanity are missing. No hedge animals. No boiler room & Overlook history files in the basement that Jack obsesses over. Danny's visit to the room 237 is missing. Danny's visions (through Tony) about someone (his father) trying to kill him is missing. How does a 5 year-old know how to backtrack in the snow? What's with the photo in the final scene? Wendy is shown as a weak character in the film vs. the book. She doesn't question Jack about anything vs. the book. Where are the ghosts that party every-night? The sounds of the elevator running at nights. Hallorann's shine is just as strong as Danny's in the film, vs. the book. Where is the fire hose sequence in the film? etc. etc.

  6. Thanks for the comment Mr. Anonymous :-)

    I guess it all depends upon what your conception of the word adaptation is. Now I personally do not like films that attempt to replicate with a high degree of exactitude the novel upon which it is based. My advice to those who do nit pick at every detail, just the read the ook again and forget about the film. I admire far more a film artist who instead takes the basic plot elements and narrative of a novel, but informs it with their own preoccupations and thematic interests. This is what I believe Kubrick did with THE SHINING. I mean who really cares if the hedge animals do not come to life? It really didn't bother me at all. Kubrick had a vision which he pursued through King's book, and he has my admiration for that. King should have been thankful that a man of Kubrick's skills and talents chose his pulpy dimestore trash novel. Thanks for stopping by buddy :-)

  7. The Book was okay, the Movie was great! Kubrick took the platform Elements of the Book, such as Setting, Isolation, Parental strungle, & of course Shinning ability and re-vamped the story to make it his own. I beleive that King was so disgrutled with how Kubrick told he's story, that he made a TV Version. This I believe had all the moments that Kubrick took out, such as the moving Hedges, more action in the boiler room etc and look how well that adaption went. Kubrick does have the Midas touch

  8. Yes there was a television mini-series which I believe was directed by Mick Garris. A complete creative disaster from start to finish. King's vanity and ego was damaged when Kubrick improved upon his undistinguished pot boiler, and he sought to redress this. Naturally his hubris is all over the mini-series. I'm not sure how King can criticise any director after his own effort MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE. He likes to distance himself from that now by saying he was off his tree on coke and booze...excuses, excuses!


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