Focus On : The Shining

When I was thirteen years old, I saw a movie that changed my life. Up until that moment, my parents hadn’t really allowed me to see many horror movies, my Mother being a proud member of the ‘Ban this depravity’ brigade that emerged following the tragic murder of James Bulger in 1993. As soon as my folks realised that I wasn’t exactly the type of kid that was likely to be influenced by events depicted on a TV screen, they eased off and started giving me a bit of free reign over my viewing options. This led to many, many trips to the local video rental shop. I vividly recall standing in front of rows upon rows of VHS covers every Saturday afternoon, pacing back and forth, trying to make that all important decision. There was something so magical about a VHS sleeve that DVD and Bluray just can’t come close to. One fateful Saturday, I blindly chose to rent It’s Alive 2: It Lives Again and The Shining. The former still takes up a special place in my heart reserved for endearingly terrible B-movies but the latter holds its own as one of my favourite horror movies to date.

The Shining

A couple of weeks ago, at Canterbury’s Gulbenkian Cinema, I had the chance to see one of my favourite horror movies on the big screen. First released in 1980 and now at the grand old age of 30 years old, it was still as thrilling, chilling and crucial to the genre as I have always believed it to be. Seeing those rivers of lurid blood pour out of the elevators and down the otherwise silent Hotel corridor on an imposing cinema screen is something that will undoubtedly never be expunged from my memory, whether I want it to be or not.

The Shining, alongside The Exorcist and Psycho, is arguably one of the most referenced and parodied horror movies of all time. Its impact on pop culture is obvious to even the most casual of cinephiles. If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery then that small fact alone is enough to secure The Shining’s place in the annals of horror movie greatness. That fact aside though, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece boasts an absolutely astounding pivotal performance from Jack Nicholson, a claustrophobic tension that’s seldom been matched, some of the most memorable and iconic imagery ever committed to celluloid and a discordant, menacing score.

The Shining

For the benefit of the uninitiated, The Shining is the story of Jack Torrance who interviews for, and gets the job of seasonal caretaker at the majestic Overlook Hotel. During the harsh winter, he is expected to heat and repair the impressive building during 5 months of off-peak downtime. Taking his wife Wendy, son Danny and Danny’s curious ‘imaginary friend’ Tony, Jack hopes for 5 months of sobriety, seclusion and productivity. The hotel and its chequered, murderous past, coupled with the inescapable sense of isolation however, have other plans and Jacks sanity and grip on reality, slowly begins to unfurl, leaving his family in grave danger.

The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick and adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name, is famously one of King’s least favourite of the many adaptations of his stories. Kubrick chose to change certain aspects of Kings story tremendously, which is where the rift is documented to have stemmed from. Much of the most celebrated imagery and unforgettable dialogue are exclusive to the film and feature nowhere in the novel. Some of it, including the now much copied “Here’s Johnny!” was even ad-libbed. King is rumoured to have been dissatisfied with the casting of Nicholson in the central role and wanted the character to be closer to his depiction in the novel, an entirely more sympathetic characterization of Torrance. The bare bones of the story might have been Stephen King’s brainchild, but to my mind the film would have been altogether less accomplished without Kubrick behind the lens. You only have to take a cursory glance at the truly awful 1997 made-for-TV mini-series, of which King is so fond, to see what could have been if Kubrick hadn’t had so much free reign with regard to the plot and characterization.

The Shining

Stephen King adaptations, as we all know, can differ spectacularly in terms of faithfulness and quality. For every Carrie, there’s a god-awful Langoliers, for every Stand By Me, there’s a Tommyknockers just waiting to suck and for every The Shining, there’s a pointless, author-commissioned The Shining TV mini-series. Thankfully, 1980’s The Shining succeeds in taking King’s idea to fruition and turning it into a wildly memorable and truly horrific affair.

At the heart of the film is Nicholson’s remarkably manic, peerless, tour de force performance. It’s difficult to imagine how anyone else could have embodied the role and made it their own like he did. Nicholson is a living, breathing, Jack Torrance. Not simply an actor playing a part, you get the impression that Nicholson could himself have been on the brink of a descent into madness, so authentic is his representation. Kubrick is rumoured to have considered Robert De Niro and Harrison Ford for the role and even, far more bizarrely, Robin Williams. Thankfully, each was ruled out for various reasons and the role was left for Nicholson to play with.

The Shining

Shelley DuVall, as his wife Wendy has often been criticised for her exaggerated, cartoonish performance but her gawky, wide-eyed innocence is the perfect foil for Nicholson’s menacing, demented and self-assured soon-to-be madman. Danny Lloyd as the pair’s son also manages to hold his own. As child actors go, he elicits the appropriate level of sympathy and has a believable rapport with those around him. (It’s sad then, that he chose to leave the profession with only this one credit under his belt.)

The real magic of The Shining though, lies in its magnificent, inspired imagery. Trying to choose a favourite image from The Shining is akin to asking a fat kid to choose which of the Baskin Robbins 31 flavours of ice cream he’d like. It’s a near impossible task as there’s so much to choose from and it all looks so damn good. The ghostly twin girls in their blue dresses standing silently and holding hands, the cackling old lady rotting in the bath tub, the lush but terrifyingly complex hedge maze, pages and pages of manuscript that simply read ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, a hotel employee being fellated by someone in a bear costume, the Hotels regal dance hall, the list is simply endless.

Kubrick’s direction is brave and assured throughout, displaying absolute control of his environment and a vast knowledge of filmmaking from beginning to end. From the opening aerial shots of the mountains leading up to the Overlook Hotel to the prolonged steadicam shots following Danny in his pedal car through the hallways and corridors to the tracking shots in the hedge maze, it all looks exquisite. The Hotel itself is as much a character as any of the actors. Its impressively high ceilings, elegant décor and desolate emptiness all add to the mounting sense of tension and dread throughout the film. Which brings me to the sublime score. Composed in part by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind with the remainder coming in the form of classical pieces, the imposing, discordant music sets the tone adeptly. Sometimes favouring a loud, grandiose backing but occasionally opting for a simple heartbeat as the soundtrack, the film wouldn’t have been nearly as tense or claustrophobic without it and even listening to it without the aid of the visuals has the power to send a chill down my spine.

The Shining

The Shining had a notoriously troubled history; from certain shots taking up to an entire year to complete, to Kubrick’s infamous disagreements with DuVall over her performance, to the many script changes that reportedly angered cast and crew on a regular basis. Strangely, although many people now reference The Shining as a superb genre-defining classic, reception of the film was not so favourable upon its release. It remains the only one of Kubrick’s films not to have received any Oscar nominations and actually garnered itself Razzie nominations for Worst Actress, not to mention the ridiculously undeserved Worst Director. Stephen King might have been convinced that Stanley Kubrick had no knowledge of the horror genre before making The Shining and it certainly looks and feels like nothing else of that era but it’s impossible not to note the effect it had on audiences and the influence it’s had in the three decades since.

Although arguably containing some impressive subtext pertaining to ghosts, Indian burial grounds, famous literary connections and social commentary, in truth no-one but Kubrick really knows what was intended and he’s no doubt taken some of those secrets to his grave. Whatever its true meaning, The Shining is best viewed as a straightforward exercise in tension. While it may not be able to offer as much to some of today’s ADHD-riddled teenybopper crowd who are solely interested in frenetic, fast-paced, kill-a-minute, music video-esque horror movies (I’m pointing the finger squarely at you, Rob Zombie), those who are invested in the genre in some way and can appreciate a fantastic slow-burn, psychological, nightmare-inducing horror classic, will find The Shining to be near filmic perfection. It will certainly always be one of my firm favourites.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.