The Shining (1980)
“The Horror is driving him crazy”
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd
Synopsis: A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where an evil and spiritual presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from the past and of the future.
Stephen King, the best-selling horror writer upon whose novel The Shining is based, loathed Kubrick’s 1980 version so much that he wrote his own adaptation for TV in 1997. Kubrick‘s movie wasn‘t particularly well received by the critics either when it was originally released, but has gained in stature with each passing year and is considered far superior to the TV version written by the creator of the story. Go figure, as they say…
The story revolves around aspiring novelist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their small son Danny (Danny Lloyd), all of whom, when the film begins, are journeying to The Overlook Hotel where Jack has just been employed as caretaker for the harsh winter months when the hotel is snowed in and deserted. One small detail about the hotel of which Jack has neglected to inform his family is that a previous caretaker went crazy and chopped up his wife and two daughters and then ‘stacked them neatly in one of the rooms in the West Wing.’ You can sort of understand him keeping quiet about that one, but it’s equally understandable that it’s the kind of information with which Mrs. T would probably appreciate being furnished before making a decision about accepting the post.
Anyway, five weeks into the assignment and Jack is already showing signs of some kind of dementia. He sits slack-mouthed on the edge of the bed in his dressing gown, talks to people who aren’t there, and writes a novel which consists of the same ten words written over and over. Before you know it, Jack’s got himself an axe and is making like he’s on the Johnny Carson Show…
The Shining is an inarguably stylish movie, extremely well-presented and gorgeous to look at, but it’s not particularly difficult to see why Mr. King was a little disappointed by it. For a start, Kubrick’s story glosses over the crucial fact that Jack is a recovering alcoholic, signifying that he is a weaker character than his wife and psychic son and so explaining why he is the one who falls under the hotel’s malign spell. The main point about Jack visiting the hotel’s bar is supposed to demonstrate how the hotel – or the forces working within it – understands and exploits Jack’s weakness, but that significance is lost in Kubrick’s version. In fact, Jack comes across as halfway to being unhinged from the moment we first meet him at his interview with the hotel manager. So while Jack’s erratic nature was described as the result of his dependence on alcoholic in the novel, in the movie he just comes across as something of a child-beating arsehole.
The dislikeability factor of Torrance isn’t helped by Nicholson’s perversely over-the-top performance. He gurns and grimaces and scowls between insanely broad grins, and arches his eyebrows devilishly at every opportunity. Some praise it as a model of self-parody, but I don’t believe that. Perhaps Kubrick wanted to emphasise the unreasoning nature of the Overlook’s malign forces and Nicholson’s insane performance was a convenient means of transmitting that irresistible force. Whatever the reason, Torrance simply becomes a caricature, a cartoon character just moments away from being flattened by an Acme dumbbell. Shelley Duvall’s character Wendy is little better: an apologetic – and not too bright – doormat who will go to any lengths to maintain the facade of happy families, even if it means closeting her and her emotionally frail son in a deserted, unreachable trap for five months. Incidentally, Kubrick brilliantly summarises the vulnerability of Wendy and her son, and the danger in which she has placed them, in a simple shot in which Jack gazes down upon a scale model of the Overlook’s impressive garden maze, before Kubrick cuts to an overhead shot of the real maze in which Wendy and Danny wander around like a pair of insects.
Technically, with The Shining Kubrick produced a masterpiece. His camera glides along the Overlook‘s eerily deserted corridors, and his use of sound is close to genius, but his characters are simply annoying or loathsome or – as in the case of Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) – pointless and largely superfluous to the plot.
(Reviewed 18th August 2012)