The Shining - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the screen adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
My introduction to Stephen King's work came from a sporadic viewing of 'The Shining' as a child. It enthralled me as much as it terrified me but most importantly it sparked my curiosity in King's novel (and work in general) which I fell in love with instantly. I was drawn to Jack Torrance as a character, to his struggle with addiction whilst being haunted by the ghosts of the Overlook. It even led to some misdirected snobbery towards the film thinking it would never live up to the greatness of the novel or move me in the same way as the novel. To an extent that was true but the film is a different and much colder beast than the novel and it's one in which I have grown to love and revere with every viewing of it.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Joe Turkel
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson
Produced by: Stanley Kubrick, Jan Harlan
Cinematography by: John Alcott
Original Score by: Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where a sinister presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from both past and future.
If there was ever to be a Mount Rushmore of horror films, there would be very few people who would dispute 'The Shining''s inclusion. When we think of the film our mind immediately turns to the images of the Grady twins inviting us to play in a macabre game forever, of the elevator of blood flooding the hallways of the Overlook and Jack Nicholson's unhinged smile snarling, "Here's Johnny!" as he pushes his face through an axe-hole in a door. The thing about these images is that none of them appear in King's source material yet they are so embedded in the onscreen iconography of King's work. Conjured from the imagination of Stanley Kubrick they take the story in a different direction from King's novel whilst following the same basic plot outline.
As far back as 1966 Kubrick (according to "The Stanley Kubrick Archives") had made it known to a friend he would, "like to make the world's scariest movie". Turning down offers to direct 'The Exorcist' (and it's sequel) Kubrick would burn through mountains of novels looking for the right story to adapt. He would go through the first few pages of each book and if none of them worked for him he would move onto the next one. It seemed like a hopeless exercise until he came across 'The Shining' which he described as being, "..one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read".
The film opens with a swooping aerial shot of Saint Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island in the Glacier National Park of Montana with Jack Torrance driving alone on the adjacent lonely road. A sparse landscape of nothing, it is the perfect prelude to the film and it's theme of isolation. Accompanying these shots is the iconic score from Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. The droning synths unsettles the audience, filling them with a sense of foreboding of what awaits Jack and the Torrance family. Although the score is used sparsely throughout, it is to the benefit of the film as the large open spaces of the Overlook are filled with a near maddening silence evoking nothing but pure dread.
We are properly introduced to Jack Torrance when he arrives at the Overlook for his interview for the caretaker position. The character has been one of great contention due to Jack Nicholson's performance in comparison to in the novel. In the novel he is a troubled man with addiction issues whose inner demons are brought to the fore by the haunted Overlook. In Kubrick's film, there is an immediate impression that there is something unhinged about Jack, thanks in part to Nicholson's manic grin and arched eyebrows. His portrayal of Jack is one of a man who has a lot of suppressed anger that surfaces in small bursts before exploding on screen in the third act. Early reviews suggested that the performance was too over the top and scenery chewing to the extreme and to an extent this is true but it is the larger than life portrayal of a man succumbing to his evil inclinations. Working in tandem with Kubrick's technical brilliance Nicholson's performance is nothing short of compelling and iconic.
After the successful interview we are introduced to Jack's wife Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall). She is another character of great contention. She appears to be a weak character, defined by her shrieking and exuding nothing but vulnerability. King has even described her as being, “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film”. For me that is not the case. Yes her portrayal of vulnerability is over the top but it is no more over the top than Nicholson's anger as Jack. Kubrick's interpretation of Wendy is one of a woman who is in a marriage of fear knowing what Jack is capable of (especially after he broke his son's arm in a fit of rage). She is someone trying to put a brave face on things in order to protect herself and her son in the event that the wicked side of Jack never surfaces. When it does she manages to exhibit great strength which permeates through her appearance of abject fear and weakness as her survival instinct kicks in.
Perception of her portrayal is perhaps down to Kubrick's notorious treatment of her on set. Duvall in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter mentioned how Kubrick's demand for an unusually high amount of takes (especially for some of the more intense scenes of the film) took its toll on her and he would order members of the crew to be unsympathetic towards her putting her in a place of social isolation. Although this worked in the film's favour, it was to the detriment of Duvall's mental health and a failing by Kubrick.
We are first introduced to Danny Torrance (played by Danny Lloyd) as he talks to his imaginary friend "Tony" who lives in his mouth. It is a friend which is revealed to be his psychic ability known as "shining". It warns Danny of the horror that awaits him and his family at the Overlook through quick cuts of what is to come. Lloyd's glimmers of fear intertwined with his innocence are frightening and it's a credit to Lloyd who is terrific throughout the film despite his young age. His ability in front of the camera is all too prevalent in the scene where he has a conversation with Jack who tells him that he would never do anything to hurt him. Danny takes onboard what his Father is saying but he never truly believes him (partially because of their past and partially because of what is haunting him) as he answers in a calm and almost catatonic manner. Like his mother he overcomes his fears and shows how resourceful he is when he escapes and traps his father in the Overlook's maze.
Dick Hallorann (played by Scatman Crothers) the head chef of the Overlook recognises the "shine" in Danny when he is first introduced to him. He explains how he too shares the ability and offers a friendly warning to Danny, how his ability doesn't sit well with the spirits that dwell within the walls of the hotel. When Danny taps into his ability to call to Hallorann the expression on Crothers face is nothing short of haunting but it is also one which caused a clash with Kubrick who shot the scene 60 times exhausting the actor. Other key characters appear as manifestations of the hotel from Jack's imagination such as Lloyd the bartender (played by Joe Turkel) and the prim and proper waiter Delbert Grady (played by Philip Stone) who manipulate Jack at his most vulnerable into murdering (or should I say "correcting") his family by preying on his alcoholism. Both actors do a fantastic job at imbuing the menace of the Overlook through their softly spoken manner. Both convey that all sense of their former lives in the land of the living are gone as they are part of the Overlook, a cog in the machine.
The grand hotel centred in the heart of the Colorado mountains can be said to be a character in and of itself (and a crucial one at that) as it draws out the demons of Jack's heart by invading his fragile state with it's isolation, manipulation and terror. Built on an Indian burial ground in the early 1900's it's blood soaked history is just one of many layers to the building shrouded in a dark mystery. As Hallorann alludes to it as being a place of "...memories and not all of 'em good." Kubrick builds upon this almost clichéd line by shooting the interiors with a number of wide, slow moving shots within the hotel drawing the viewers attention to every space of the vast rooms for a potential glimpse of something sinister. Every shot and every detail is so well thought out, it is truly awe inspiring to watch at times. This along with the glacial pace of the film with long spells of silence further develops the films chilling atmosphere.
The design of the hotel is something of a marvel as well. The maze-like corridors which are explored by Danny on his tricycle (through the use of the then revolutionary Steadicam) don't make logical sense from a geographical point of view in terms of how they are linked together. A deliberate misdirection by Kubrick to instil a sense of madness akin to Jack's for the audience. Kubrick believed (according to "The Stanley Kubrick Archives'') that this would, "provide an eerie enough atmosphere." With the madness comes fear as we don't know what awaits Danny around the next corner, knowing the custodians of the Overlook don't take kindly to his ability to "shine". Throughout the film there are a number of unexplained spectral figures. The beautiful woman in Room 237 that attacks Danny only to reveal her true nature as a rotting hag to Jack or even the man in the bear suit "servicing" another gentleman in front of Wendy are some of the film's stand out images as they are inexplicably disturbing which comes back to Kubrick's belief that, "...you should never attempt to explain what happens, as long as what happens stimulates people's imagination, their sense of the uncanny, their sense of anxiety and fear." Many have tried, as seen in the 2012 documentary 'Room 237' but it is this mystery that draws viewers back time and time again to the film.
As the years have gone by so too has my love of Kubrick's 'The Shining'. It is an enigma of a film that rewards the viewer with every repeated viewing. Perhaps that is the main reason as to why it was so maligned on it's release in 1980. The world wasn't ready for Kubrick's vision of King's story. They wanted a warmer tale with straightforward and less psychological scares. With time and perspective it is clear to see that both versions are masterpieces in their own right. 'The Shining' is one of those films that, like Jack's presence in The Overlook, "has always been there" in terms of its place within pop culture. It is a film that endures and will continue to do so forever and ever.
- Joseph McElroy