Friday, October 21, 2011

The Shining

The first time I saw The Shining, I was a little let down.  Sure, I liked it okay, but the film had such a reputation that I was expecting to be blown away.  How often do we see legendary directors entering the horror genre and succeeding?  And how many other horror movies have become so ingrained in popular culture as this one?  Obviously, The Shining is a classic.  And yet...something just didn't click for me.  This year, I thought I would give it another go and see what influence age, wisdom, and forgetfulness would have on my opinion.
This is an endearing tale of a man and his love of bourbon, right?

Jack (Jack Nicholson) is an aspiring writer looking for a change, so he takes a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel.  The hotel's staff leaves for about five months out of the year because the area receives so much snow that the hotel is effectively isolated from humanity.  Of course, they might take time off because the hotel is built on an Indian burial ground, has ghosts, and a previous winter caretaker had gone insane and murdered his family in the hotel; po-tay-to, po-tah-to.  Did the killer caretaker go crazy from cabin fever?  Nobody knows.  But why shouldn't Jack bring his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), with for five months of quality family time? 
No reason
Before the hotel staff leaves, though, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) pulls little Danny aside and lets him in on a secret --- he knows that Danny secretly has some sort of psychic ability.  Dick calls it "the shining," and he has it too; unfortunately, places sometimes "shine" when really bad things happen there; think of it as a psychic ring-around-the-collar.  The Overlook Hotel has a nasty "shine" to it. At first, things seem fine.  Danny and Wendy find all sorts of things to do in the enormous hotel.  Jack, though, seems to be suffering from writer's block and is getting more and more irritable.  And creepy.  And he starts hallucinating.  Is it just a case of cabin fever, or is it something worse?
It's worse --- as caretaker, Jack has to clean this up

Oh, man, I needed a movie like this.  The horror movies I've been reviewing this month (with the exception of Thirst) have been fairly cut and dry with their direction; either the directors were competent or they were not.  Stanley Kubrick is, of course, more than just competent --- the man was an artist.  Enjoying his technical prowess with the camera, his use of color and sound, not to mention the great performance by Jack Nicholson, was a treat after so many bad slasher pics.  Right from the opening scene, we get a gorgeous series of helicopter shots, showing Jack's car absolutely dwarfed and completely surrounded by untamed nature; not only is that pretty to look at and unlike almost anything else you will see in a horror movie, but it's symbolic.  Hell, yeah!  That's what I've been missing from my cinematic diet recently! 
Art + axe-wielding maniac = can't miss movie
As impressive as the visuals are --- and there are a ton of iconic shots in this movie, so "impressive" is probably underselling it --- what struck me in this viewing was Kubrick's use of sound.  I loved the discordant static when there was any shining going on; it was usually subtle, but called attention to itself every so often, like when Dick and Danny first meet.  Similarly subtle is the unreasonably unsettling noise of Danny's big wheel as he tears across the hotel's wooden floors.  There is no reason to suspect something is wrong, but the uncharacteristically loud and abrasive noise sets you up for the creepiness that lies just around the corner.

Kubrick's direction is fantastic, but it would have been just an empty technical exercise without the effort of Jack Nicholson.  Nicholson, once again, takes a pretty standard role (an alcoholic writer going crazy) and makes him charming and frightening at the same time.
...and this is his "charming" face
In other words, Nicholson takes a role that could have been shallow or overacted in another actor's hands and instead fleshes it out into a believable character.  I noticed something new this year, though; Jack's condescension toward his wife always struck me as odd, but it made more sense to me this time --- his character here almost feels like a logical extension of his role in Five Easy Pieces, only this character got married to the pleasant but dumb chick.  Speaking of whom, I was not impressed by Shelley Duvall.  As good as Jack Nicholson was, Duvall was commensurately bad.  It felt like she was an extra that was asked to read lines with the cast during a break, not the lead actress in a motion picture.
I hate mouth breathers
She and Kubrick infamously clashed throughout production, but I am astounded that Kubrick settled for the performance we see on screen.  Maybe they just wanted Wendy to be a spineless dishrag of a character.  Little Danny Lloyd wasn't much of an actor (although no relation to Jake Lloyd), but he did a good job of being completely impassive whenever adults were speaking to him.  Other than an impressive blank stare and a creepily-voiced finger...
Lesson: kids are stupid
...I suppose Danny was adequate.   This was years before audiences actually expected anything out of their child actors, so I guess that being okay was good enough, even in a movie like this.  Personally, I would have liked to see him act frightened more often, because that was when he was at his best.
Trauma = Acting

As much as I enjoyed The Shining this time --- it went from "pretty good" in my mind to "effing great" --- it is occasionally uneven.  First and foremost, this is a long horror movie.  I understand that it takes time to set the mood just right, but damn it's long for what it is.  Perhaps more irritating for many people is how the movie doesn't tie up its loose ends. 
  • What was with Grady having two first names?  
  • Was Jack a reincarnation of a former Overlook employee, or was he absorbed by the evil hotel?  
  • Is this a story of a haunting, or simply a man going insane?  
  • Why did Jack seem to lose the ability to communicate as the film progressed?
I'm not going to try to answer those questions, even though I believe they are all important.  I like the ambiguity in this story because it allows viewers to come up with their own interpretation of what has occurred.  I don't always like it when filmmakers force the audience to decode their stories (David Lynch, I'm looking at you), but I think The Shining conveys enough of the story to allow viewers to enjoy it with a single viewing; subsequent viewings, though, make the inconsistencies more noticeable, which made me want to discuss and enjoy the movie further.
Sometimes, all you need is a friend to set things straight for you

I'm so glad I took the time to re-watch The Shining this month.  It's not necessarily one of those movies that you immediately acknowledge as a classic (as evidenced by its lukewarm initial reception), but there are a lot of layers here and it is fun to see how Kubrick tries to frighten audiences.  The movie is too long and the non-Nicholson cast is mediocre if you're being generous, but the film makes up for its deficiencies in other ways.  This is a horror movie with almost no violence, and yet it is one of the most creepy, claustrophobic films you will ever see.

I have a few side notes to add.  Is it strange that I laughed out loud when this image flashed on the screen?

 It's probably not supposed to be funny, but I giggle every time I see it.  I think it's Jack's gaze, combined with his eyebrows.  Whatever.

I have actually visited the place that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining, the Stanley Hotel in Colorado.  It's not as creepy as the Overlook (the movie was filmed elsewhere), but it is kind of cool to see how closely the film conveys some of the rooms in the building.  Oh, and the Stanley has a TV channel that plays The Shining on a continuous loop, which is pretty cool.

And I can't review The Shining without making a single reference to The Simpsons.  For my money, this is their best "Treehouse of Horror" episode ever.


  1. That's odd, the blood usually gets off at the second floor.

    Poor supporting actors?! Dr. Eldon Tyrell keeps bar for chrissake!!! I loved hearing that Kubrick made Shelley Duvall cry during the shooting of this flick. It gives me a little satisfaction from her performance. It is odd that Kubrick (never one to compromise) kept her in the movie and did not recast (he never cared much for budgets). I guess there must of been something in his vision that kept her in there. She is a very unique looking actress. Any ideas?

  2. Perhaps he thought of Jack as Popeye and wanted an Olive Oyl in the film? That's the best I can do. It boggles my mind that they reshot the baseball bat scene a Guinness Record-breaking number of times, and she's still only that good.

  3. Nicholson's face is priceless throughout the film. I'm surprised it's only that last image that makes you laugh! His face makes this film pure comedy!

  4. Jack's facial expressions are pure gold, that's for sure. Sure, I might laugh with the movie from time to time, but it is that frozen image that makes me laugh AT the movie, which is a big difference.

  5. Shelley Duvall's character is described as being very pretty in the book, which makes her casting choice even odder.

    There are parts of this movie I really like, but it's too long for me. I don't mind a long film most of the time, but I think Kubrick could have easily made the film at least a half hour shorter without losing anything.

  6. As per usual, Dan, I agree with your take on this horror flick. It could definitely benefit from a shorter run-time. And yeah...Duvall is funny looking, at the very least.

    This isn't a movie I like to watch often, but I it was a happy change of pace for me this year.

  7. best horror movie ever made...

  8. I'm coming to this discussion pretty late, but I have to disagree with the criticisms regarding Shelly Duvall's performance/place in the movie. Think really, really hard about this character--not the actress, the character. This is somebody who puts up with an alcoholic husband who's not good at keeping his promises. When she's telling the doctor about Danny's arm being dislocated by Jack, but then explains that it's all okay because Jack promised he'd never drink again or else she could leave him, and that "he hasn't had a drop in five months." Now, fast forward to Jack telling Lloyd the same story in the bar, where again the five months of sobriety is brought up, but here's the kicker: he then complains that Wendy won't let him forget about it, and " was three god-damned years ago!" That's not a writing mistake. The incident happened years before, and he was sober for awhile, and then he wasn't, and then he was again. Just how many times had Jack "given up" drinking in the interim? Yet Wendy never left him---she's an INCREDIBLY weak person, emotionally; absolutely dependent upon Jack and just about devoid of self respect. Her response when Jack--for no reason--jumps down her throat for offering to bring him sandwiches and tells her to "get the f___ out of here" is to try and smile and say "Sure...okay." Her dress, her demeanor, her whole way of moving and interacting with those around her (but especially her husband) is hesitant and reserved in the extreme. If she seems to be acting strange, it's because she IS strange. If you think for a moment, I bet you've known incredibly awkward people in your life, who don't act like everybody else. If they knew HOW to act like everybody else, they would, but they live in constant fear of being judged and disliked, and as a result they tend to fulfill those prophecies. We're not used to seeing characters like that up on a movie screen, but they absolutely exist in real life.

    I think a really gorgeous woman would have seemed out of place given that character concept. Why on earth would someone with looks/confidence put up with the treatment that has obviously been part of this relationship for so long? Wendy's treatment of Jack is sycophantic--up until he actually becomes murderous, she's still trying to please/reason with him, despite his growing mental/emotional abuse and a strong suspicion that he'd now attacked their son for a second time. During the scene with the ball bat, her flailing at him is decidedly girlish---like a very small girl swatting at a larger, bullying child. I think she looks/sounds extremely awkward when standing up for herself because he hasn't ever stood up for herself before.

    My read of her has always been somebody who is greatly in love with somebody who only sort of likes her in return. She found a man that would put up with her (in exchange for her "sperm bank" services to use the movie's phrase) and sees holding onto him as being her main priority in life. I'm not sure I could ever see (picking out a good actress/babe of the era) Candice Bergen in that role--and I don't think Stanley Kubrick wanted her in it.

    Obviously it's just my take on it, but I think it's far more likely than believing that a man who obsessed over his movies like Kubrick did just suddenly became phlegmatic about one of the main characters in the story who wasn't doing what he wanted. I think he got exactly what he wanted on screen.

    As to the length---well, that's just Kubrick. I actually don't think this movie drags at all, but have to admit that I could easily rip ten minutes out of 2001 and not miss them. I don't think he was a flawless story teller, just vastly superior to almost all of the others.

    1. Point taken. I like your interpretation of Duvall's character and will keep an eye out for some of that subtext the next time I watch this.