The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)

Genre: Supernatural Horror Running Time: 2 hrs. 26 min.

Release Date: June 13th, 1980 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Stanley Kubrick Actors: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Joe Turkel

 


 

G

rating music and sound effects generate an unnerving dissonance as a little yellow car drives through scenic terrain (nicely clashing with the minatory notes) on its way to its foreboding destination. The narrative is then broken up into chapters, beginning with “The Interview” as Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) meets with Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) about a job opportunity. A former schoolteacher and an aspiring writer, Jack is all set to manage the Overlook Hotel, a little more than three hours away from Denver, during the brutally bleak wintertime.

Due to its location at the end of a 25-mile stretch of road that receives 20-some feet of snow, it’s financially impossible to keep the hotel open for skiing season year round. Instead, the resort will remain closed down and utterly isolated for approximately five months. Jack’s duties will consist of running the boiler, heating parts of the building on a rotating basis, and doing minor repairs against the cruel weather (and to mitigate its damaging potential). Simple stuff, really. The part that puts some people off is that a former caretaker killed his family with an axe before putting both barrels of a shotgun in his mouth, some time back while maintaining the premises. Cabin fever, as Ullman describes it.

But that shouldn’t be a problem for Jack. The solitude and isolation might get to lesser folks; but those conditions are exactly what he seeks: five months of peace to focus on outlining his latest book. Plus, his wife and child will be with him. Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) is a ghost story and horror film addict, anyway. Their young boy Danny (Danny Lloyd) is a touch odd and has some difficulties making friends, but the area looks nice and the hotel is a beautiful bit of architecture. What could go wrong?

Approximately twelve minutes into the film, Danny has a vision of a corridor rapidly filing with blood from sliding elevator doors  – crashing around the hall like a crimson flood. And, for the first time, there’s a shot of two girls in blue dresses standing side by side and holding hands (they look like twins but it’s suggested they’re a couple of years apart). These images do wonders for the setup; for anyone unaware of which direction this picture is going, it’s quickly apparent that “The Shining” is intent on intense psychological terrors and a good old-fashioned haunting.

Danny is a fitting conduit for eeriness, particularly with his imaginary friend Tony (who hides in his mouth, and who speaks with an altered voice); he’s a young child who wanders off, has frequent visions, and behaves strangely in general, heightening the creepiness factor. His wild-eyed stares are also shiver-inducing. Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), the head chef, is similarly a touch off, despite being extraordinarily friendly. It’s Hallorann who first speaks of the “shine” (during the second chapter, “Closing Day”), which is essentially telepathic communications.

With so many weird distractions, the film manages to gloss over the unexplained or confused elements of the plot – right down to the shine itself, which plays a rather insignificant role. Mentions of the Donner Party and its cannibalistic woes, an Indian burial ground, and the labyrinthine hedge maze out front continue to set up possibilities for coming frights. And then there’s talk of what ghastly things might be contained in Room 237. Though significant predominantly in the context of 1980, it’s a curious coincidence that “The Amityville Horror” was released a year earlier, considering that this story shares basic similarities. “The Exorcist” also contributes a handful of themes (though nearly every possession movie borrows a thing or two from Friedkin’s classic).

Writer/director Stanley Kubrick (adapting the celebrated novel by Stephen King) makes some incredibly bold and atypical choices in presenting this thriller, beginning with the span of time utilized to unveil scares. With an ample running time, there’s nothing hurried or rushed about this tale. And with so few cast members, the character development has plenty of chances to really sink in. There’s also a considerable amount of the film that is shown in broad daylight and in well-lighted, colorful areas; Kubrick doesn’t rely solely on ill-lit, claustrophobic, or stormy environments for his chills. Several technical elements are also notable, such as a low camera that follows Danny around as he rides his tricycle through empty yet bright hallways (allowing sudden appearances to be just that much more unexpected). Spacious areas and wide shots are employed more often than tight spaces and invasive close-ups – another decision not often found in horror films.

But for a picture about unexplained happenings, supernatural intrusions, autohypnosis, possession, petrifying past crimes (and nightmares), and, ultimately, murder, Kubrick rarely goes for cheap sensations. There are a few flashes of grisly images, but they’re not traditional boo moments. Instead, “The Shining” is primarily about building an atmosphere and a feeling of unease; something could pop out at any second, but it doesn’t have to in order to startle viewers. In fact, more often than not, the camera pans at a crawl, investigating the surroundings with apprehensive scrutiny. Foreshadowing is continuous and aggressive, giving the audience an abundance of fears to dwell upon – and then ghoulish visuals for brief but unforgettable seconds.

In one of the most lauded sequences, Wendy approaches Jack’s abandoned typewriter with a baseball bat in her hand, worried about his escalating bitterness and distrust. Despite the camera concealing the background during several angle changes – and even creeping out from behind a wall – Jack’s appearance isn’t intended to create a jump. His movement into the frame takes place before Wendy herself is startled into a scream. And then, of course, there’s the most famous sequence, involving a door and an axe, which kicks off a masterfully hair-raising finale.

Additionally, on an artistic level, the compositions of shots are staggering; like carefully arranged portraitures, they let all the components and details sink in (the color scheme is also quite vivid). They’re not fast or forceful or abrasive, but cautious and purposeful and practically (yet perversely) poetic. The actors are exceptional to match, with Jack’s deteriorating attitude and demeanor transitioning abruptly as he succumbs to the very conditions he insisted he was immune to; Nicholson handles mania extremely well. And Duvall plays the terrified wife superbly. The Overlook Hotel clearly has a way with negatively influencing its inhabitants – in a very entertaining manner.

In many ways, “The Shining” is an exercise in sustained agitation. It’s a slow-burn (perhaps too slow at times) experiment, but a largely effective shocker and odyssey into delirium, concentrated on crafting a story of unseen evils and profound psychosis. While not white-knuckle horrifying during every minute, this is the kind of film that could do for hotels (and hedge mazes) what “Jaws” did for sharks.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10