Wednesday, February 27, 2008
The Shining (1980)
(Image from IMP Awards)
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining', an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, is a horror film that is quite iconic - that scene with Jack Nicholson tearing through the door has been referenced and parodied on many an occasion - and is widely regarded as a classic of the genre. It is an incredible piece of film-making, one that manages to take a slight story and extract out of it copious amounts of tension and suspense.
Aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson) gets a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel situated in an isolated mountainous area; the catch is that the previous caretaker went mad during the lonely winter stay and chopped up his wife and daughters before blowing his own brains out, but this doesn't bother Jack. He brings his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to spend the months with him in the creepy hotel where he plans to while away the days writing his book. It is revealed that Danny is a special child who has supernatural powers - he is telepathic and has visions. Before the hotel is handed over to the Torrances, the head chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), tells Danny that he too has the same powers, called 'shining'. He also warns Danny to stay out of room 237 because it is dangerous. The family is then left completely alone in the spacious hotel, which has a hedge maze outside and enough food stored away to last them a long time. The hotel provides a fine environment for Danny to play in, when he's not seeing frightening images and being tempted by room 237 that is. As time passes by Jack, struggling with writer's block, slowly begins to go crazy as it becomes apparent that there is malevolent force in the hotel that is tormenting the Torrance family.
Simple framework for a story, but it's in the execution that Kubrick really knocks this one out of the park. Right from the opening helicopter shots showing the mountainous path leading up to the Overlook Hotel set to moody music, you know this is going to be something oppressive and creepy. Stanley Kubrick had a talent for making things look beautiful and disturbing at the same time, and the photography of this film features some amazing shots that are wondrous even today and evoke serious levels of dread. There are no quick cuts or sudden movements; instead, there's slow buildup of tension. The design work is incredible, with the empty hotel truly feeling like a malicious entity. Kubrick infuses the film with atmosphere and makes nearly every scene and innocuous action either unsettling or mysterious. The script is fairly lean and leaves a lot of stuff ambiguous, including the perplexing twist of an ending. The adaptation apparently deviates from the book significantly and takes away some of the plot and character elements, but it works brilliantly on its own terms to be honest, and I'll take Kubrick's sensibilities over King's more often than not. Forget monsters and ghosts; the sense of utter isolation and despair and the insanity that grips the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel is more terrifying than any of those. Plus, there are supernatural ghostly goings on as well!
Jack Nicholson is crazy in this; one of the criticisms of his casting was that he seems crazy from the start, but that's just Nicholson. I think he seems mildly nutty at the start and is raving mad by the end. You could argue that his insanity isn't subtle, but so what - he is influenced by supernatural malevolence after all. And to be honest, the guy is pretty terrifying in the role and funny at the same time, a deadly combination that forces a bit of ambivalence upon the viewer. As his wife, Shelley Duvall is like a terrified mouse but one who is resourceful when push comes to shove. She gets a bit hysterical at times and perfectly conveys the sheer terror of her situation. Danny Lloyd is great as the frightened kid; he seems quite natural and his 'imaginary friend' voice is unsettling - "redrum redrum" indeed. Scatman Crothers is just OK as Hallorann, but there are some effective performances from the actors playing the hotel's more ghostly inhabitants.
'The Shining' is a classic and one that blew me away. I'm surprised at how I keep being surprised by not just how good Kubrick's films are, but by how much I actually enjoy them. My first experience of 2001 made me imagine that his films were all technical marvels that would fail to connect with me. 'A Clockwork Orange', 'Full Metal Jacket', 'Dr Strangelove', and now 'The Shining' have proven that little theory wrong, and I look forward to revisiting his and Arthur C. Clarke's landmark sci-fi film once more to see how I feel about it so many years later. As for this film, it's definitely a must see - don't expect a conventional horror film, and don't expect it to all even make sense in a narrative sense. It's an experience, and a memorable one at that.