The Shining (1980)
A film directed by Stanley Kubrick

Genre: Horror / Thriller / Drama / Fantasy

Film Review

The Shining photo
In common with many of Stanley Kubrick's films, The Shining is far more highly regarded today than when it was first released. Since its lukewarm reception by critics and audiences in the early eighties, the film's standing has gradually increased and today it is not only a cult classic of the horror genre but it is also regarded by many as the greatest of all horror films. This is one of Kubrick's most intense and visually arresting films. It has a hypnotic, dreamlike quality that makes it both compelling and deeply unsettling, and the more times you watch it, the more disturbing and profound it feels.

Yet Kubrick was only led to make this film through a strange conspiracy of circumstances. The director had hoped to make a film on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte but had to abandon this when his previous period drama, Barry Lyndon (1975), failed at the box office. What Kubrick needed was a subject with mainstream appeal that would also allow him to make an artistic statement. The Exorcist (1973) had recently been released to great acclaim and brought legitimacy back to the horror genre. As with his earlier 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick saw an opportunity to take a popular well-worn genre and give it a new lease of life.

It was Warner Brothers who suggested that Kubrick make an adaptation of the Stephen King novel The Shining. Kubrick was impressed by some of the concepts in King's novel and saw that the story had great potential, although he would introduce significant changes to the plot. King resented the alterations that Kubrick made to his story and was motivated to make his own adaptation for a TV mini-series (which is judged to be inferior to Kubrick's film).

The most significant difference between the novel and the film is the extent to which supernatural forces drive the narrative. In the novel, the horror comes mainly from external demonic forces that arise from the spirits of the dead (in both book and film, the hotel is stated as being built on an ancient Indian burial ground). In the film, by contrast, the horror comes from within the protagonists themselves, from their deep-seated psychological flaws. Kubrick's film is far more ambiguous than King's novel, in that the boundary between what is real and what is not is never apparent. There is no objective standpoint, no clear demarcation between reality and imagination, and it is this which makes the film so frightening and so mesmerising. It is both a horror film and an enigma.

One thing that Kubrick insisted upon was to bring in a psychological realism that King's novel lacked. The characters in the film are real people whose behaviours have a rational basis. Jack Torrance's descent into madness is plausible because it is apparent from the outset that he despises his wife and son. He blames them for his bouts of alcoholism, he resents the fact that they have prevented him from making a success of his life and so, subconsciously, he desires to kill them. The psychic phenomena he encounters in the hotel (which are never explained but appear to have a physical presence) are what unleash the monster within and transform mild-mannered Jack into a deranged killing machine.

Central to the film is the recurring motif of the maze. This first appears in the opening sequence, the aerial shot that tracks the Torrances's car as it winds its way through a desolate labyrinth of mountains. Then there is the hotel itself, with corridors that seem to go on for ever, with a geometry that almost defies the laws of space and time. And there is the real maze in the hotel grounds, the box hedge amusement which provides the film with its horrific denouement.

The concept of the maze has fascinated mankind for millennia and has an important place in Freudian psychoanalytical theory. The maze symbolises life, an endless series of twists and turns, decisions that prove to be fruitless and fruitful. It also represents our subconscious mind, a dark and mysterious labyrinth, at the heart of which lies something unspeakably horrible - our true bestial nature. Like the Minotaur in the Greek myth, we keep the worst of ourselves imprisoned in the dark labyrinthine crevices of our mind.

What makes The Shining so powerful is the way in which it is shot. Much of the film's visual impact and sense of menace derives from the use of the Steadicam, then a recent innovation, which brings an extraordinary fluidity and immediacy to the photography. Without the Steadicam, it is unlikely that the climactic chase scene in the garden maze could have been shot, depriving us of one of the great sequences in movie history.

As was the case with virtually all of Kubrick's films, the making of The Shining was a long and arduous experience for cast and crew alike. The director's unflinching perfectionism not only pushed his lead actors Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall almost to breaking point, but it extended the shoot from three months to virtually a year (resulting in a delayed start for several other films which were scheduled to go into production at Elstree Studios, including Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark and the second Star Wars film). Kubrick would shoot scenes repeatedly until he had pretty well exhausted all the permutations (and his actors in the process). Famously, the pivotal scene in which the chef Dick tells Danny about the Shining took around eighty takes.

Shelley Duvall was particularly ill-treated by Kubrick, who would harass and humiliate her to the point that she became physically ill. By the end of the shoot, both Nicholson and Duvall were close to exhaustion and virtually neurotic, something which proved to be to the film's advantage. The performances that both actors deliver in the final scenes are far superior to what a less demanding director could have extracted, conveying madness, hysteria and sheer terror that is truly horrifying to watch.

By the end of the film, Duvall/Wendy is at the very limit of mental and physical collapse whilst Nicholson/Jack has clearly lost every marble he ever possessed in his entire life, and a few more besides. Nicholson's performance has been criticised for being over-the-top but there is no other way the part could have been played. The evil and madness that the actor conveys is absolutely real, the synthesis of every Gothic horror fiend that has ever been portrayed on screen, utterly believable, utterly terrifying. The Shining really is the stuff of nightmares.
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Jack Torrance is delighted when he is offered the job of winter caretaker at the Overlook, a sprawling luxury hotel set in a remote mountain location in Colorado...
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Film Credits

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson
[Read more...]

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