If you’ve been following the blog, then you know I’m catching up today on my film reviews. This is the last one and is also a Stephen King adaptation: I watched 1980’s The Shining last night. I actually watched it in preparation for going to the Overlook, a Shining-themed bar here in Cincinnati, so named after the hotel in the film/book. But also, I’d been meaning to give the film a long overdue re-watch after reading the book for the first time on Feb. 23, 2020 (I didn’t realize it was almost exactly two years ago!).
The film is directed and written by Stanley Kubrick (Diane Johnson also has a writing credit), another name I mentioned in one of my reviews tonight. For some reason, I always think of this movie as being of the 1970s horror scene, but it’s 1980, but then again, the aesthetic of a decade doesn’t fit neatly into its actual decade parameters.
Jack Nicholson (only five years removed from a defining role as McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) stars as Jack Torrance; along with, Shelley Duvass as his wife, Wendy; Danny Lloyd as their son, Danny; and Scatman Crothers as Dick Hallorann, head chef at the Overlook.
The premise of the film is that Jack is looking to take a position as the winter caretaker at the remote Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. The hotel closes every hotel season because the mountainous roads are impassable in the winter.
Ominously, Jack is told that one of the previous caretakers, Charles Grady, suffered from cabin fever after being in the hotel with his family and killed them all, then put a shotgun to his mouth.
Back in Boulder, Colorado, Danny has a premonition, which leads to the iconic image of the blood gushing out of the elevators and down the hotel hallway, along with the twin sisters (Grady’s daughters) — I didn’t realize that iconic image happens with the first 10 or so minutes of the film; it’s been a while since I’ve seen it! — and when Danny is at the doctor’s, we start getting clues that Jack has had a prior drinking and violence problem.
When Danny later meets Hallorann, we learn that they both share what Halloran’s grandmother calls the “shining,” which seems to confer the powers of telepathy and premonitions onto the person who has it. Danny has an “imaginary friend” named Tony, who seems to help warn Danny of what is to come (he even asks his dad at one point if he would ever hurt him and mommy).
Working against the shining is the hotel itself, haunted as it is by something, which obviously led Grady to kill his family and himself.
To back up, within the first 10 or so minutes of The Shining, I noticed a number of film techniques from Kubrick you don’t see as much anymore. I don’t want to be that snobby film guy, but I couldn’t help but take note of the establishing shots, pulling the camera back instead of always doing close tight shots, fading shots and most importantly for the horror aesthetic, patience!
The film, and Kubrick, are so darn patient with the horror here. Yes, we get the gushing blood and hints here and there that something isn’t quite right about Jack or the hotel itself, but the movie is patient in building up that suspense and dread and ominous feeling until Jack, and the hotel, really hits the fan. I appreciate that and I think that’s what adds to the sense of terror.
Not to mention, I mean, it’s Jack Nicholson (more great actors in horror please!) and Duvall is no slouch, either, opposite him with her terrified face and screams. She genuinely seems petrified and desperate to do anything to get her and Danny the heck out of that hotel.
While Jack is losing his mind, Danny is able to use his telepathy to get Hallorann to return to the hotel and help him. But, unlike the book, when Hallorann gets to the hotel, he gets surprised by Jack and instantly killed with an ax. Agh! That’s the only aspect of the film I don’t care for, especially compared to Hallorann’s handling in the book. He ended up not being of any help.
This is an iconic film and there’s no way other way to describe it. So much of it remains in the zeitgeist to this day: The aforementioned rivers of blood; Jack breaking through the bathroom door and then sticking his head through to say, “Here’s Johnny!”; “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”; “Redrum! Redrum! Redrum!”; the switch in Room 237’s bathroom, where Jack starts making out with an ostensibly attractive, naked younger woman, but she instead is an old, butchered ghost woman; and the image of Jack frozen to death in the maze has become its own meme, as has the image of Jack pictured amidst a crowd of partygoers from July 4, 1921.
Also, that hedge maze is terrifying. I would hate to be stuck in a legitimate maze, especially at night and especially in the dead of Colorado winter, oh and with an ax-wielding maniac (my dad, no less!) coming after me.
I think one of the more underrated, if that’s possible, aspects of Jack’s performance is when he is chasing Danny in the maze and shouting, “Danny … DaNNY!” Because the way he screams that comes from such a guttural place — ghost-like as if he’s already dead or something else entirely that isn’t Jack Torrance anymore. That’s scary.
As far as I’m concerned, the Halloran issue aside and I know King doesn’t like the adaptation, I think this adaptation is among the best of one of King’s best books. You can’t ask for much more than to have one of the greatest directors of all time adapt your book and one of the greatest actors ever play the central character.
One of the other criticisms I’ve heard about the adaptation, and I believe from King himself, is that Wendy seems less confident and strong in the film as opposed to the book. In fact, on re-watching it, I think Wendy actually is strong. She’s the one fending off Jack! She’s the one who drags his body to the walk-in freezer! It’s not like she could have known that the freaking haunted hotel would free him. Even once he’s breaking down their door and then the bathroom door, she’s still fighting him. And it isn’t like Hallorann actually came to her rescue here. She still had to do it.
She’s scared and terrified, but being scared and terrified isn’t the same thing as being weak and submissive.
From elaborate, beautiful and haunting set pieces, to iconic and memorable performances, to classic Hollywood-style horror film-making, The Shining has everything you could want in a horror film. Just let Hallorann live, you monsters!
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the entire film and/or may only be aware of the iconic pieces, please consider giving the “whole” a look. It’s well-worth a stay at the Overlook. Unlike another film I reviewed earlier today (which had comparisons to Kubrick), the film’s runtime of about two and a half hours doesn’t feel like it at all.
You sit with the slow burn and get cabin fever in the best of ways. The way a horror movie should make you feel.