After his sublime 2001, brutal Clockwork Orange and beautiful but lacking Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick decided to branch out onto another genre this time trying his hand at horror. What he gave us in 1980 was The Shining, for many people to forever dictate the image of Jack Nicholson as mad Jack.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is being interviewed for a winter maintenance position at the isolated Overlook Hotel. He's offered the position and is informed of some unnerving history; brutal murders were committed there by a father on his wife and two daughters. Almost laughing these aside he accepts the position and he, his wife Wendy (Shelly Duval) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) take the long journey up to camp out for the winter.
The hotel does indeed have history and as explained by cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) these traces can sometimes leave aftershocks, or memories. It becomes apparent that as the winter and isolation slowly sinks in the hotel spews back these memories and tries to manipulate both Danny and his father. Danny hides his eyes, and to some degree his mind, from them after being told that they are only like images in a book; Jack on the other hand welcomes them as an escape from the family he believes have held him back for far too long.
Jack slowly but surely loses his grip on reality, becoming a pawn of the hotel's machinations and persuaded by long lost spirits that he has more of a duty to the hotel than his family, he is slowly convinced that his family must pay the ultimate price for being in the way...
This film, more so than any previously Kubrick directed film, started the rumour that Stanley was the most dictatorial director out there, making heavy demands on his crew and cast. Listen to him in interviews though, or listen to how others speak of him and it becomes apparent that, yes, he's a perfectionist, but tyrant well he's no Napoleon. Certainly both Shelly Duval and Scatman Crothers were raked over the coals during production; Scatman because he's never had a classically trained acting background was perhaps found wanting by Kubrick at the best of times. Kubrick of course never saying what he wanted per-se but always shouting wrap when he found his elusive shot. Shelly just being a little too emotionally frail perhaps to understand that Kubrick wanted only the best from her, for himself and for the production as a whole. This is more than apparent in the excellent Vivian Kubrick documentary and Shelly can be seen going from bright personality to gibbering wreck.
The number of takes in The Shining is second to none, records made and broken for the number it took to get that ultimate shot, that ultimate performance. And what performances they are! A limited cast produce some of the most suspenseful work ever to have graced the big screen. Obviously people remember Jack Nicholson in what has become for him a lifetime defining role from which, like the Overlook itself, he will never escape. Shelly's descent into fear and emotional exhaustion only reflecting what she was going through on set, perfectly compliments Jack's insanity. Danny Lloyd is constantly troubled by his visions and expresses absolute shock and horror for what he has to see and experience in these few weeks. Crothers, no matter his background acting talent, comes across as the warm helping figure always ready to guide Danny on his understanding of this ability he calls 'Shining'. Additional characters, including the barman Lloyd (Joe Turkel) and the ghostly waiter Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) fit well into their respective roles underplaying the sense of murderous intent which is clearly apparent in both of their eyes.
Cinematography by long serving Kubrick collaborator John Alcott, but mainly the steadicam shots of Garrett Brown are perfectly framed again by Kubrick himself. Kubrick first and foremost was a visual director, always knew where to put his lens, where in the frame to capture his subjects, which shots to track and which shots to zoom in on. With The Shining he acts no differently, low tracking shots of Danny as he races around the corridors, low angles of a brooding Jack and some stunning scenes; much like the shot in 2001 where a bone transforms the viewer into the future, here again Kubrick releases a shot onto the world which just makes one gasp. Jack slowly descending into madness, becoming overlord of the Overlook Hotel surveys his domain by looking over the model of the hedge maze. An almost seamless cut shows Wendy and Danny puzzling the maze's secret whilst Jack, God-like, watches on in a scene shot so high it looks as though it has been filmed from Mount Olympus itself.
It's true you'll not find much hack and slash in The Shining, although your thirst for copious amounts of blood will be quenched. What sets this film apart, and what makes all modern horror at times pale into insignificance in comparison, is the suspense and realisation of what Kubrick is putting up on screen. Not the realisation that there are ghosts wandering around this beautiful hotel or that Danny, and obviously to a degree Jack himself, share a mental gift allowing them to 'see' into other versions of our world, but the fact is that you can imagine someone slipping down the slope into madness once cooped up in such a desolate place. People from all walks of life have experienced this terrible fate and why shouldn't Jack be any different? Jack's a loner, should never have been married; what's more he should never have had a child and this is more than apparent, it comes across so well from the brief snippets of conversation between Wendy and the Doctor, the disparaging way Jack talks to both Wendy and his son and the way he discusses his family problems with bartender come marriage guidance counsellor, Lloyd. If he had stayed at the Overlook on his own he might have succumbed to its visions but he would have come out the other end unscathed. Because he is this isolated character though the visions work their devilish ways and Jack realises he has to have the Overlook all to himself.
For me Kubrick brings in another simple trick which adds to the weight of suspense, the use of time. Throughout the film we are shown what is happening when... The Interview, Closing Day, A Month Later, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, 8am, 4pm! Time within the film is speeding up as it does so Jacks sinks deeper into the depths of his own, and the hotel's, madness. Whenever I see this I always become jittery when I see Tuesday, even now thinking "God, Tuesday, Tuesday, what's going to happen now!", by the time 8a.m. comes around I'm a gibbering wreck, initially thinking "Oh here we go this must be it!", now still on the edge of my seat because of course I know what's to come. And as I have seen The Shining far too many times to remember each subsequent viewing never dilutes that initial edge of the seat feeling I got when I first watched it. To say that of any film is a credit itself, to say that about a horror which rests on the scares it creates is fine praise indeed.
So I can always recommend The Shining, and I will always revisit the Overlook Hotel every now and again hopefully staying in that superbly lit 237 room. Performances, which Kubrick literally ripped out of his actors in conjunction with excellent photography and a score echoing Jack's madness, can't and hasn't been bettered.
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