Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Adapted from the 1977 Stephen King novel of the same name, The Shining horrified thousands of audiences and became one of Stanley Kubrick’s signature films. Kubrick wanted to make a commercially successful film after the disappointing release of Barry Lyndon and was drawn to King’s story of isolation and paranoia. Ranked 29th on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills and 5th on Total Film’s Greatest Horror Films of All Time list, it has become one of the most referenced films in recent pop culture and a fixture in genre fans’ collections. It’s considered as much an art film as it is a horror flick, and paved the way for other artistic horror (Seven, Silence of the Lambs, etc.) to be accepted as modern mainstream classics.
After searching for work, Jack Torrence (Nicholson) is hired as the winter caretaker for the huge Overlook Hotel while it closes for the season. His family, wife Wendy (Duvall) and Danny (Lloyd), accompany him and are awed by their magnificent new living quarters and, after a tour, the hotel staff leaves the Torrence family alone in the hotel. At first, everything seems to go as planned. Jack works diligently on his writing while Wendy and Danny explore the grounds. The hotel’s torrid history takes hold, however, and it starts to take on a life of its own as Jack’s grip on reality declines. Wendy and Danny are caught in the grip of Jack’s rage and the hotel’s otherworldly powers with little chance of escape.
Kubrick was already a legendary filmmaker when The Shining was released, but his loose adaptation of the novel showcased his gorgeous directorial style and supreme attention to detail. As a huge fan of King’s novel, it took me a long time to reconcile Kubrick’s version with what I pictured in my head. The story is basically the same, but there is a decidedly different tone to the film. King focuses on the hotel’s evil affect on an imperfect but basically good man’s already fragile hold on his self-control, making the hotel the true villain and Jack an unfortunate victim/puppet. Kubrick’s emphasis is on the Torrences’ already strained family relationship and the cracking of Jack’s thin layer of geniality, making Jack the villain and the hotel the catalyst for his eventual breakdown.
Ultimately, it was the intensely detailed, beautiful visuals that won me over. The Shining was among the first films to make use of Steadicam technology, allowing for the long tracking shots of Danny riding his trike through the hotel and the scenes in the hedge maze. Kubrick took pictures of his favorite parts of hotels around America to create the Overlook’s aesthetic. The interiors include inspiration from several rooms at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park and the iconic red bathroom was modeled after a similar one in the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Biltmore Hotel in Arizona. The sweeping exterior shots were taken at Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood, Oregon and a full size recreation was built on the film’s soundstage. Some of my favorite scenes show the characters walking through the impeccably dressed hotel sets in tracking Steadicam shots early on in the film.
Kubrick was well known for his attention to detail and this shows in the symmetrical, meticulous set dressing. As the main setting, the hotel is fully decorated from top to bottom with intricately patterned carpets and wallpapers, and furnished with richly colored plush furniture. Kubrick framed his shots to make the most of the depth and detail of the sets, and he definitely succeeds in creating the allusion that the individual sets are part of a huge, expansive hotel.
The film’s look includes many iconic images. An excellent example of Kubrick attention to detail, the shot of the blood pouring out of the elevator doors took nine days to set up. Kubrick felt that it didn’t look right and insisted on several retakes. The shot took almost a year to complete. Although MPAA regulations forbade blood in movie trailers, Kubrick convinced the board that it was actually rusty water and The Shining’s trailer featured the shot heavily. The image of the two girls in the hotel corridor was inspired by the photograph “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967” by Diane Arbus. In addition to tracking shots, Kubrick makes excellent use of the slow zoom to increase tension. In between the sparsely scattered outrageous scenes, Kubrick’s film is a subtle slow burn, and the score, mostly classical pieces by György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki, does much of the heavy lifting to up the creep factor.
Although the characters bare little resemblance to their book counterparts, the casting does work for Kubrick’s vision. Other than his opening scene, Nicholson portrays pure chaotic menace. One of the creepiest scenes occurs when Danny goes back to the family’s quarters to retrieve his firetruck. Wendy warns him not to disturb his sleeping father, but Jack is already awake, staring blankly at himself in the mirror. Nicholson manages to make a seemingly innocuous conversation with his son suspenseful and skin crawling using only his frightening smile and tone of voice. Duvall is incredibly fragile and vulnerable throughout the film and, when things start to go off the rails, acts as the conduit for the audience’s terror. Considering it was his first film, I thought Lloyd did an excellent job, particularly when he was called upon to look terrified.
Reception was mixed when The Shining was released. Word of mouth made it a slow growing favorite of film goers, but critics were less impressed. It was the first of nine films not to receive Oscar or Golden Globe nominations and the film was nominated for two Golden Raspberry awards – Worst Director (Kubrick) and Worst Actress (Duvall). Over time, The Shining became one of the most highly regarded horror films of all time and was frequently referenced as an inspiration for genre directors. It is also one of the most referenced films of all time, appearing in everything from “The Simpsons” to various music videos. Through the years, it’s also provided much fodder for conspiracy theorists who’ve examined every minute detail and derived alternate theories to the movie’s meaning. (The documentary Room 237 explores the most popular of these in great detail.)
Fright Rating: 3 gasps out of 5
The Shining is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and a must watch for film nerds as well as genre fans – worth watching for the visuals alone. It straddles the border of suspense and violence, making it the perfect choice for those looking for a classic with just a touch of edge, and it’s always a crowd pleaser.