Phil on Film Index

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review - The Shining

"What's basically wrong with Kubrick's version of The Shining is that it's a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that's why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should." – Stephen King

Stephen King has been very outspoken on his dissatisfaction with Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining, but over the past three decades, few cinephiles have shared his view on the flaws in Kubrick's approach. In 1997, King even attempted to rectify those perceived wrongs by writing a TV miniseries that stuck rigidly to the content of his novel, but while that effort was quickly forgotten, the 1980 film has endured. When people hear the name The Shining now, they immediately think of Jack Nicholson losing his mind, Shelley Duvall whimpering with fear, Danny Lloyd cycling endlessly around those long corridors, and the elevators opening to release a torrent of blood. Despite King's protestations, it's Stanley Kubrick's The Shining that refuses to let go.

In some respects, perhaps King was right in his assessment of Kubrick. The director didn't come close to making a horror film in the form that we have come to expect of such a picture. He didn't try to make the audience jump with cheap scare tactics. Instead, Kubrick's film is quieter, slower and more enigmatic, but this is how it slowly sucks us into its brilliantly constructed environment and gets under our skin in a deeper way than the average genre picture. It is a ghost story, but it's also a portrait of a man going mad and a family falling apart, and the film is so evidently the work of a master filmmaker, it hypnotises even if you struggle to grasp what exactly the film is about.

That vexing question of The Shining's meaning is one that has prompted debate ever since its initial release, and in the recent documentary Room 237, a group of theorists put forward their own ideas about Kubrick's intentions. As far-fetched as these suggestions may often be, however, The Shining is a film that can seemingly support any reading ; it is so richly ambiguous and teasingly symbolic. The basic narrative of the film is simple enough. Aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson) takes the role of winter caretaker in the Overlook Hotel, where hopes to find the peace and isolation required to complete his novel. His wife Wendy (Duvall) joins him with their son Danny (Lloyd), and Danny brings his imaginary friend Tony, whom he speaks to while his parents indulge this childish fantasy. But the kindly chef Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) sees something more in Danny; a kindred spirit, another who possess that extra-sensory perception that his grandmother called "the shining".

As Jack starts to go crazy – "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" – and his wife cowers in fear, Kubrick draws two extraordinary performances from Nicholson and Duvall. The making-of documentary filmed on set by the director's daughter shows how he worked with his two stars, indulging Nicholson while pushing Duvall ever closer to her emotional breaking point. When the film reaches its apex with an axe-wielding Jack chasing his wife around the hotel, both the husband's insanity and the wife's quivering fear feel entirely real. From Danny Lloyd too, Kubrick coaxes one of the great screen child performances, as the young actor displays a stillness that is so unsettling in one so young. Kubrick was often accused of being a cold formalist, disinterested in the human factor of his films, but amid the fastidiously controlled mise-en-scène, he churns up a tumultuous emotional undertow that keeps it from feeling like too much of a deliberate exercise in craft.

When The Shining was released in 1980 it received mixed reviews from American critics and many complaints centred on the film's length and pacing. In response, Kubrick re-edited the film for its European release, shaving off over twenty minutes and endorsing the shorter cut as his official version. The release of the longer American version of The Shining in the UK is something of a mixed blessing. Some scenes appear entirely superfluous – such as a couple ineffectually extending Halloran's journey to the snowbound hotel – while others feel weirdly out of place, notably a startlingly odd shot of skeletons that occurs late in the film. But there are more glimpses of the director's brilliance here too, the slower pace often feels more chillingly exact, and there are valuable new scenes with Wendy and Danny. Either way, an opportunity to see The Shining, in any form, on the big screen is one not to be passed up. It remains a milestone, not just of horror but of cinema; a film that completely envelops us in its world and defies any rational explanation. Seeing The Shining in a cinema allows us to scan the screen for clues, appreciate the insidious sound design, marvel at Kubrick's compositional acuity and – above all – to lose ourselves in this endlessly fascinating maze.