What can be written about The Shining at this point? Really, it’s a masterpiece directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick that tells a horror story both in the mind and outside it. A haunted house film filled with psychological trauma. So I guess you don’t have to read my review…but you should because I worked really hard on it. I didn’t want to put The Shining on this list but I haven’t seen it, uncensored, in a few years and wanted a film that I knew was truly creepy. The film is easy to make fun of now with its somewhat racist and misogynist views and boy does Shelley Duvall continue to irritate me but the horror is never diminished. It’s just as fascinating and worthy of being on your Halloween list, if not being the key film for All Hallow’s Eve.
Writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) moves his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel where he’s set to be the winter caretaker. The Overlook has a dark history after the last caretaker murdered his wife and children but Jack isn’t concerned. When Danny starts seeing ghostly apparitions and Jack slowly descends into madness it seems that the Overlook’s past might be seeping into the new generation.
I understand fans who cite “it’s not the same as the novel” but I should disclose that I’ve never read Stephen King’s original novel. I am, however, open to watching the four-hour miniseries if only because I’m hoping that Wendy is a better character. Let’s get some of the characterization out-of-the-way. Before I get in to deep let me say this will probably be a scattered review because there’s so much to discuss. I do think Kubrick’s casting here is hit or miss. I adore Jack Nicholson in this role right off. This was his first leading role at One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and boy does he make Jack Torrance his own. He’s frightening, funny, and utterly unpredictable and you can’t wait to go from scene to scene to watch what he does next. The only problem I have with he performance is that you never forget he’ll go mad. From the opening minutes with Nicholson’s angular eyebrows and his persona you just think “well this guy is going to go crazy.” I have heard that Torrance in the novel is said to be an unassuming man and I think having someone who appears normal looking and didn’t have Nicholson’s persona of playing a manic lunatic it could have been better but who am I kidding, I love Nicholson in this role. Scatman Crothers is also amazing as the Overlook cook Dick Halloran. His character is the epitome of the “mystical Negro” trope of literature and he does come off as a stereotypical African-American character but the way Crothers inhabits the character makes him sweet and charming.
The only character I flat-out hate is Shelley Duvall. Yep, can’t ignore it, I hate Wendy Torrance and the way Duvall plays her. I probably sound harsher than I am. I don’t blame Duvall for how the character is written, I find her to be adorable in other things (particularly in Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater) but I hate how she acts as Wendy. Wendy is the nurturing mother who is constantly making excuses for her husband, especially when she tells the doctor the story of how Jack broke Danny’s shoulder. Once they get to the Overlook, Wendy becomes a total doormat, letting Jack berate her. I have to wonder if this was Kubrick’s late attempt at dissing feminism or something because he makes Wendy ineffectual and too stupid to live! You end up rooting for Jack a lot of the time as his berating of Wendy is funny. The big reveal of Wendy discovering Jack’s novel (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy) is terrifying and it’s the one piece of acting I think Duvall does well. As she frantically runs through the pages and sees the writing is all the same the subtle change in her demeanor heightens the tension with each page turn. If only that fear had resulted in her being a resourceful and dominant character. Of course right after this is the best scene of the movie where she threatens Jack with a baseball bat. I’ve included the scene below for you (it’s NSFW) and I think it not only highlights Nicholson as a villain but also shows how you have to root for him against the inept and annoying Wendy. Jack takes on the role of the audience here, asking Wendy questions and effectively telling her to hit him dammit! By the end Wendy becomes so dumb she can’t open the pantry door, only realizing after trying to open it five times that it’s locked!
I adore that scene. It’s the right blend of location with horror as Wendy’s rise up the stairs places her further away from escaping Jack and moves her deeper into the hotel. The hotel itself really becomes another character of the film and boy is it beautiful. One of my favorite non-horror based moments is the opening tour that’s given to Wendy and Jack. You get a great overlook (pun intended) of the hotel and it’s just gorgeous. It almost makes you forget that the hotel is built on an ancient Indian burial ground (in any other film I’d have been out like a shot). The beauty and expanse of the hotel makes you believe you could easily spend the winter cooped up there. I for one could easily get a lot of work done in the Overlook I think. As the film progresses the hotel starts to invade the frames further. The tracking shots of Danny’s bike on the carpet are great examples as you the carpet and the bike divide the frame and from there you have the familiar sounds of the bike’s wheels on the floor (lulling you into security) where at the same time you expect something to jump out around the corner. The shot of Jack looking into a model of the maze not only highlights the lovely maze itself but also puts Jack into the role of the God’s eye that’s furthered when the camera zooms into the maze model which morphs into Danny and Wendy in the maze itself (gotta love those inventive Kubrick shots).
The research on The Shining is extensive and whenever I watch it I notice something different. With this rewatching I noticed the idea of doubling that takes place. For any one thing there’s its opposite that’s shown. Obviously you have the two caretakers, that of Jack and Delbert Grady (Philip Stone). You have Grady’s two daughters who are dressed up to be twins but it’s apparent they aren’t which for some reason makes them all the more unsettling. There’s the beautiful woman in the bathtub of room 237 and the haggard corpse, etc. All of these are combined with Jack’s being near mirrors, again presenting a double image. When Jack goes into the Gold Room for the first time and talks to the bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel), there’s a mirror behind them with the implication that Jack is talking to himself. During the length of the film the lines become blurred as Jack’s madness increases, almost as if the ghosts are slowly moving out of the mirror and into the real world. To go further the ghosts are moving out of Jack’s imagination and into the frame of the film for the audience to consume (I’ll get into the idea of celluloid and audience consumption in a second). When Wendy is finally able to see the ghosts at the end it’s safe to assume that the horrors of the Overlook are no longer confined to the mirrors of Jack’s mind but now manifest physically. The film does appear to attack television and forms of entertainment with Jack’s famous line “Here’s Johnny” being a line from the Johnny Carson Show. It returns us to the opening of the film when Danny mentions knowing the meaning of cannibalism because he “saw it on television.”
For a horror masterpiece it’s surprising, much like it was with my Leslie Vernon review, to see how little gore is in this. The horror comes in the final half of the film and there’s really only one one-screen murder presented (the murder of Grady’s family is done before the events of the film and presented after they’ve occurred). I am curious as to the timeline of the film. The head of the Overlook mentions that Grady murdered his family but it’s never said if Jack was the man for the following winter. The way it’s read it appears that several winters have passed with little incident unless there’s something I’m missing? With that being said Grady is the best incarnation of the Devil as well as Jack’s inner demons. The way Grady seduces Jack into “correcting” his family at the end is so suave and you almost believe that this is the man Jack wishes he was. Of course by the end Jack has become an axe-wielding homicidal maniac complete with limp; far removed from the cool Delbert Grady.
The Shining is a must-see no matter what. It’s frightening, it’s smart, and it has the best use of a bear costume that still scares the living crap out of me. No seriously, that scene with the bear/dog costume never fails to scare me to death and I don’t really know why, maybe because it makes you scratch your head? The acting is amazing from Nicholson and while I find Wendy to be an annoying character it’s fun to watch her be terrorized. This is the quintessential Stanley Kubrick film and worth the watch for sure!
Type of Horror: Haunted House, Psychological
Fright Meter: 8
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