Monday, September 16, 2013

My Favorite Era: The Shining (1980)

The Shining is one of the few horror movies I can genuinely say not only scared the crap out of me when I first saw it, but continues to creep me out today.  Even more impressive is that most of the times I've seen this have been during the daytime, and it still has an effect on me.  Hell, one time I had it on in the background while doing something else and I felt a chill race up my spine!  Now that's the sign of a scary movie right there, folks!

The story is pretty well known by this point struggling alcoholic writer takes a winter job as caretaker at a huge hotel with a dark past, brings his wife and kid along and gradually goes section 8 (or in the case of this movie, not so gradually).  It's one of Stephen King's best novels and this film is one of the best adaptations.  Granted, when most of the others stink like a wet dog that's not saying a whole lot but my point still stands.  It does have some issues, though.

Let's take a closer look.
  • First off, for the sake of full disclosure I should note that I am not the greatest Kubrick fan out there.  I respect his talent, he certainly was dedicated to achieving his vision, but really the only two films of his I genuinely love are Dr. Strangelove and this one.
  • Love the series of shots that open the movie.  They set a nice, eerie tone for the first part of the film.
  • The opening interview between Jack Torrance and Ullman (Barry Nelson) is exactly what you would expect, a well acted bit of exposition that sets up the plot.  Really, the only issue is that Nicholson, through no fault of his own really, looks positively demented...naturally!  I love the guy to death but when he smiles you get the feeling he just got back from an orgy and is eager to tell you every single detail.  In effect, he is both the best thing about the movie and the worst as while his performance is hypnotic to watch, it also sort of takes the whole point of the novel and sets it off to the side so we can just enjoy watching Jack Nicholson go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.
  • Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd are pretty good as Wendy and Danny, Jack's wife and kid.  Duvall is not quite my idea of a terrific casting choice (she comes off as a bit too much of a spineless jellyfish for most of the film which doesn't really work) but she does do gibbering hysteria well once things begin to go downhill.  As for Danny Lloyd, he's actually one of the better child actor's I've seen.  Kubrick did a good job of getting what he needed out of the kid and apart from a rather dopey finger puppet deal to represent Danny's inner voice or something, the character works just fine.
  • Scatman Crothers is enjoyable as Dick Halloran, though his death scene at the end is rather silly.  How the hell does a psychic get taken by surprise by a dude wielding an axe?  I think this is why King had the guy survive at the end of the book.
  • The design of the Overlook Hotel is just awesomely creepy.  Huge hallways, even the carpet is creepy.  I actually went to a medical plaza one or two times that had an elevator and carpet combo that reminded me of this movie.
  • The hedge maze is nicely creepy and it works for the film but the hedge animals that come to life on the book are also pretty damn scary.  Kubrick wanted a more psychological story, hence the maze I guess and to that end it works quite well.  The later shot of Jack overlooking his wife and kid in the maze is a little cheesy though.
  • The low angle tracking shots of Danny riding through the hotel are just utterly creepy.  The use of sound is fantastic too with the wheels of the Big Wheel being the only sound heard as they go over the hardwood floors and carpets adding tremendously to the sense of unease.  It's actually sort of a relief when the two ghost girls show up during one of his rides.  Not so much when we see flash cuts of them them axed to death but still!
  • One little beef I have is with the music during this scene, it's a little overbearing.  The scene would work just fine without it, or with something a little creepier.  Then again, expecting the subtle approach in an 80's horror movie isn't exactly rational.
  • Jack talking with the ghostly bartender is nicely creepy, as is him visiting the haunted room 237.
  • Actually in the case of the room, the decor might be more horrifying than the decaying naked ghoul in the bathtub.  Well, maybe not but it's damn close.  Green and purple carpet and lavender furniture?  I honestly do not miss the 70's.
  • On a serious note, Nicholson does play the fear pretty well in this scene.  I think it's really the only time he does it as every other ghostly encounter has him reacting relatively normally (for him at least).  I get that it's the hotel having an influence on him but it's still a little odd that he's only truly scared once in the film.
  • To be fair, he does get a little uneasy when confronted with the ghost of the former caretaker (who axed his family to death) but it doesn't quite track.  Actually, the majority of the film is creepy rather than outright scary.  Kubrick wanted to make an epic horror film and he did, turning in a 143 minute ghost story but that's a hell of a long time to try and sustain horror.  Even for a talented director like Kubrick.  To his credit, it does work most of the time.
  • The character of Jack Torrance just works a bit better in the book, he's actually rather likable at the start and the horror comes from him slowly unraveling under the influence of the hotel.  In the film, the transition isn't really there.
  • Actually, it can be said that none of the characters really make much an impression except for Jack.  Danny is not really used much, nor is Halloran.  Wendy probably comes off the worst as she is just way too timid and mousy.  I'm not sure what it says when even a great director ends up with a horror movie where the most interesting character is the "bad guy" but it probably isn't anything good.
  • As much as the character of Jack doesn't really work like it should, Nicholson's performance is still fantastic.  He just hams it up like crazy and it's never anything less than watchable.  Naturally, the easy highlight is him chopping through a bathroom door and telling "Here's Johnny!" but I also get a kick out of him locked in the kitchen pantry, taunting Wendy.
  • Wendy running through the hotel as the supernatural stuff begins to go full tilt is a wonderfully messed up sequence of events.  The river of blood in the elevator, the guy with the split head and whatever the hell was going on in that bedroom with the dude in the bear costume.  It's about as close as the film gets to being truly frightening.
  • The ending chase through the hedge maze is a nice bit of business, as is the image of a frozen Jack.  It's nicely creepy.
The Shining is an odd duck in that it is both wonderfully creepy with a great Jack Nicholson performance and some impressive production design and camera work but also flawed from a character perspective.  As an adaptation of the book though, it loses points for making it a little too easy for the viewer by having Jack start off rather unhinged and just get worse from there.  It's a well made but rather cold movie that nevertheless is still a very effective horror film.


  1. This movie creeps me out, big time. And I can take horror movies. You are right that it doesn't exactly follow the book. In some ways it is better than the book.

    Now Stephen King has written a sequel to the Shining called "Doctor Sleep". I wonder if that is any good.

    1. I want to read it too, think I'll wait for the paperback.

  2. Oh, yeah. One other thing. I can't quite shake the thought of Scatman Crothers - who I remember from my childhood as the guy who did the voice of Jazz in the original Transformers cartoon - smiling and saying, "You gotta stay regular if you want to be happy!" Prune juice and such :)


About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.