Stuff I Watch in October: The Shining (1980)

the shining

Happy October and welcome! All 31 days this month, I will be reviewing all the films I watch in the month of October. They’re mostly a selection of horror or suspense films in my own library or films and shows that have been recommended to me.

Please enjoy and leave a comment!

And if you missed any of our past reflections, take a look:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Psycho (1960)
The Haunting (1963)
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
The Other (1972)
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Young Frankenstein (1974)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Halloween (1978)
Alien (1979)

Our next film is…

WATCHING: The Shining (1980)

the shining

QUICK NOTE: I didn’t watch my old copy of the film which was on DVD and was presented with a 4:3 aspect ratio.

I own a digital copy that’s in 16:9 and has been remastered with an AC3 surround track. This, as I understand, is not what Kubrick had actually intended. From what I’ve read, he shot “The Shining” in 4:3 (to fit a classic tube TV) and had two-channel audio only. Kubrick’s preference for 4:3 went all the way up to his death, even when “Eyes Wide Shut” was released at 4:3.

Myself, I prefer the shift to 16:9 because, like Kubrick’s other jaw-dropping cinematic epics, “2001: a space odyssey” and “Barry Lyndon”, the cinematography is gorgeous and begs to fill larger canvas.

While the digital copy doesn’t improve my grade of the film, it made it slightly more enjoyable.

DIRECTED BY: Stanley Kubrick, a director who could not make a bad movie…but came awfully close when he made this one.

WHAT IS IT?: Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, it’s one of the most intense horror films I’ve ever seen — and not because it’s particularly frightening. It’s more that Jack Nicholson plays such a bastard, it’s unnerving. Out of all the films I was aiming to re-visit, director Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” was the one of the films I was least looking forward to. Having owned the film for the last 20 years, I’ve seen the movie about three times in the over 40 years I’ve been alive.

PLOT: The film, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, sees Jack Nicholson as writer Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic who takes a job as the winter caretaker at a large ski resort called “The Overlook Hotel”. The only catch is that the watch will last months, meaning Jack, his wife and his son have to move into the hotel for that time.

His wife is looking forward to this as she believes their small family unit needs a change of pace and scenery. Danny, on the other hand, is a different story. Seemingly suffering from some unknown disorder, Danny isn’t entirely thrilled with the move and is almost fearful of what might happen — something which is foreshadowed in quick visions of blood and grisly death.

WHAT CRITICS THOUGHT: Stop me if you’ve heard this one: reviews were mixed. A lot of critics who took this in thought the movie was dull with too much build-up and not enough payoff. One critic said that the horrific images were, at times, arbitrary and irrelevant. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel thought it was fair — though the former revisited the film and included it in his “Great Movies” collection, calling the film amazing. Horror critic Peter Bracke also thought “The Shining” has passed the test of time and that it’s not only considered one of the greatest films of the horror genre, but also a work of art.

WHAT DID I THINK?: Allow me to preface this by saying that I adore Stanley Kubrick. He’s a top-ten, all-time director for me because he knows how to compose a shot and his films have such an aching beauty to them.

That said, I guess I should start with the set-up for “The Shining”, which is short, but effective — as it needs to be because Torrance’s absolute descent into pure madness needs to take as much time as it does to be as convincing as it is — and that’s one of my biggest issue with the film.

Jack seems like a decent guy at the start (even as his wife, Wendy, tells a doctor that he might have abused Danny in a drunken state which led to Danny’s current state of being mostly introverted) so it’s odd that he flies off the handle so quickly. He has maybe a couple scenes with his wife where he’s likable before turning into a complete and total asshole. Don’t get me wrong, Jack Nicholson could phone in this type of performance while eating Pringles on his couch but the turn is so abrupt, it’s jarring. Is the hotel having that effect on him? Is he inherently abusive to his wife and kid?

It also doesn’t help that Wendy is a total wimp, something she wasn’t in King’s novel. This is a strange choice to me. Transforming her character from one of independent fervor to that of a woman who is prone to submissive behavior and outright hysteria is off-putting. It’s also disconcerting that Kubrick caused actress Shelley Duvall so much undo stress to the point where Duvall had a mental breakdown on set and actually reached a point where all of that stress caused her hair to fall out. Yes, he did it to everyone during the production but I can’t help but be upset by the fact that he bullied her and yelled at her on set. There’s footage of it happening. I’ve seen it. It’s disgusting and cringe-worthy — and I love Kubrick and his work.

Despite it all, Duvall is excellent here (she should been nominated for an Academy Award for her work in this film; the Razzie nod she got is an absolute dickheaded insult, tinged with misogyny) and her performance is so underrated. It’s just too bad that Kubrick felt the need to move the characters from the middle to two opposing extremes.

Danny Lloyd plays the young Danny Torrance and he’s also one of the best parts of this movie. The fear he expresses (especially during the visions he has of the Grady Twins in the hallway) seems so genuine and he and Duvall have a great chemistry in this film mainly because Duvall plays her role so well, you believe that she and Danny have that mother-son link.

I wouldn’t call the film “scary”, per se. It’s more of a shock-fest. The gory details are fed to you early on by word-of-mouth which is a wise idea because it makes the decision to give you flashes of blood-splattered hallways a little more effective later on. That said, the sequence of the giant wave of blood coming down the elevator still doesn’t do anything for me and comes off as arbitrary as the stock footage inserts used in a film directed by Ed Wood, a director I never thought I’d find myself comparing Kubrick to. It fits here, though, because a) it’s excessive and b) Kubrick edits in that sequence three more times throughout the film. Fortunately, that’s the last time I’ll make this comparison, so take that as you will.

Kubrick does tension well, however, utilizing various methods from gorgeous tracking shots (Danny on his little bike, rolling through the Overlook’s hallways is agonizing because you know he’s going to see those twin girls again — you just don’t know when or where) and his use of audio adds to the sense of dread and unease. One of my favorite moments which utilizes both of these things is when Jack, who is beginning to really lose his mind, finds himself at a large party in the Overlook’s big ballroom. The slow tracking shot as he walks in, dressed in casual clothing with glowing natural light around him, as old music echoes throughout the large hall is a visual I have always loved.

In any case, “The Shining” is a stylish emotional roller coaster, wearing you out from beginning to end, much like a few of Kubrick’s other films. By the time it’s over and you get the final shot of the photograph in the main hallway, you feel like you can finally take a deep breath and relax again.

It’s just too bad that you can feel every bit of the trouble the production went through because “The Shining” is not the horror masterpiece everyone thinks it is.


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