There was this phase I had from 2012 to 2014 where I was simply fascinated by the work of Mr. Kubrick. The man, very accurately described as an auteur, had made only thirteen feature films in his career spanning five decades and I watched them all during this time. Barry Lyndon (this one deserves its own separate analysis) turned out to be my favourite. However, The Shining (released circa 1980) was the movie that personally resonated with me the most. Maybe because I had read the book prior to watching it, but that’s beside the point. The set up, or should I say the plot and characters of The Shining, are so relatable, any single child who’s had both parents at any point in his or her life would be able to associate himself (or herself) with the premise. Those of you, who haven’t watched this film yet, can stop right here because spoilers await in the next few paragraphs.
The movie is essentially an adaptation of the book by Stephen King, however, there are key differences at certain plot points and also in character arcs, but more on that later.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson in his prime) is a former school teacher and a writer, who needs some time to get over what presumably, is his writer’s block. He gets an opportunity to spend the winter at the Overlook Hotel somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, USA, as a caretaker due to the fact that the hotel is closed in the winter as it disproportionately snows throughout the season. Jack is welcomed into his new job by Mr. Ullman (played by a very charismatic Barry Nelson) who almost immediately informs him that a previous caretaker, Grady, killed his family and then himself, in the hotel. That would’ve been enough reason for anybody to get as far away from there as possible, but not Jack. The fact that the hotel stands on an ancient Native American burial ground doesn’t help. He moves into the hotel with his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd, who didn’t know at the time of filming that it was a horror movie). Also, Danny is gifted with telepathic abilities ever since he was a toddler, dubbed the “shine”. An all American nuclear family confined in a haunted hotel in the mountains. Horror shenanigans follow.
Plot wise, this film is barely distinguished from other horror gems of the era, but it’s the technical aspects, that really set this one apart. Much has been documented about how Kubrick liked to stress out his actors by doing one scene over and over again to get that oh so authentic reactions and how it supplements the overall tense mood of the film (Shelly Duvall was reportedly driven to tears at one point); couple this with the fact that he had an entire set purposely built like a maze, the interiors having meant exclusively to confuse and weird out the viewers.
The camera-work for this film is insane and revolutionary for the time. John Alcott’s cinematography is extraordinary and brilliant. The Steadicam, having been used for only a handful of movies up to that point (Marathon Man, Rocky, et al), was used heavily and its inventor Garrett Brown was also involved in filming. The tracking shots following Danny on his tricycle inside the Overlook’s unending corridors really put you at unease and it’s nauseating at times. That is, I think, one of the more terrific features of this movie, from the moment the Torrance family set foot inside the hotel lobby, you feel the tension in the air; it’s apparent something’s not quite right here. Credit goes not only to the camera work but also, as said earlier, the spacial discrepancies resulting from the intentional design of the set. Apart from the famous Steadicam shots, the rest of the cinematography holds up quite well. From the overlooking (no pun intended) shot of the maze in the hotel’s yard, to the opening sequence (which was shot from a helicopter, with Kubrick making sure the helicopter is not reflected in the water or its shadow is not visible, thus adding to the eeriness of it all), visually, this film just draws you in. All the trademark Kubrick shots are there as well, like the perfect symmetry in almost every scene, or the wide angle shots, et cetera.
Acting wise, Jack Nicholson does a fine job of portraying a man slowly losing his mind and ultimately succumbing to the external forces manipulating him from the very minute he moved into the hotel. The little twitches on his face that often go unnoticed, the mannerisms, his voice modulations, the physicality, Nicholson’s performance in this film is one of the best on film. Many have argued, he seemed too unhinged for the role, but more on that later. Shelly Duvall nails it in her role as the tormented wife and mother, who only wants the three of them to make it out of the situation in one piece. You really feel for her plight when she’s helplessly swinging a baseball bat at her formerly sane husband, who’s been taken over by the malevolent spirits of the hotel. As for Danny, even for a kid who barely knew what was being filmed, shines (again, not intended) in his role as the strange little boy with telepathic abilities who’s in way above his head. The supporting cast have their moments, especially the menacing Joe Turkel, among others.
The background score goes hand in hand with the other aspects of the film, in spooking out the viewer. The opening sequence, set to the main theme of the movie (Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, the theme’s composers, have used a section taken from the 5th movement of Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique”, which was itself inspired by the a medieval hymn “Dies Irae” supposedly written by Tommaso da Celano in the XIII century), is uncanny and frightening on its own. Like many of Kubrick’s other work, a lot of classical music has been spliced up and used liberally throughout the movie (reportedly at the complete discretion of music editor Gordon Stainforth).
On it’s own, the movie is fantastic. The classic American family with a grumpy, moody dad and a ditzy mom, with their helpless son are trapped in a haunted hotel, isolated from the rest of the world, left all alone to deal with their collective nightmare.
One of the best things about this film (and the book too) is that there is no boogeyman, or poltergeist, or spirit, or entity (here’s looking at you, Valak, Paimon, and Pazuzu) that serves as a singular antagonist for the film. Is the Overlook itself evil? Is it Native American legendary spirits from the burial ground? Are all these formerly human spirits in the hotel conspiring among themselves? The film doesn’t delve too deep into the particularity of it all, which in my opinion makes it more interesting; you’re left to ponder about and make your own interpretations.
But if you’ve ever read Stephen King’s eponymous novel, you might not like what you see on screen. When King claimed Kubrick had made a poor adaptation of his work, I couldn’t help but agree with King on certain points. Jack and Wendy Torrance are completely different characters in the book. While Jack Nicholson’s Torrance does come off as unhinged and a bit loony at times, his portrayal is not abnormal or unbelievable (contrary to popular belief). When you see Jack Torrance taking on the job as the Overlook’s caretaker, you might feel he has a crazy side lurking underneath but he doesn’t seem like a psychopathic murderer (which he becomes eventually). He’s a seasoned dad with a drinking problem, who’s seen it all and just wants a getaway that pays. He might love his wife and son, but occasionally he gets irritated by his family (like the scene when the three of them are driving to the hotel).
However, Jack Torrance from the book is also a writer and a genuinely nice guy, albeit also with a drinking problem, but he really loves and cares about his family. In the book, there’s genuine regret on Jack’s part when he indulges in abusive behaviour towards his son; he even regains his senses towards the end only as a result of the the love he feels for his son. There’s absolutely no redemption for the Jack Torrance character in the movie. Similarly, Wendy Torrance in the book is far removed from the one we see on screen; she’s smarter, more thoughtful and more driven. Danny too, is a bit different from the book; in the book he’s described as intelligent for his age. The plot differs a lot too; in the book, the Overlook explodes, Dick Halloran survives and it ends with Wendy and Danny looking forward to a new life.
Overall, The Shining is a masterful work in directing, acting and cinematography. It’s quite different to contemporary work in the genre and is a bit of a slow burn. Do give it a watch, if you haven’t already.