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9/29/2020 • 3 min read
Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING turned 40 this year, and it is as scary as ever. (Stephen King's original novel, upon which the movie is based, is slightly older — it hit 40 in 2017.) With its remote hotel setting, strange hedge maze finale, and scenes of compellingly recognizable madness, THE SHINING has an allure that is still somewhat inexplicable.
THE SHINING got middling reviews when it opened in May of 1980. Perhaps critics couldn't reconcile their expectations for a Stanley Kubrick movie with predetermined ideas about a horror film based on a book by the hot new horror writer, Stephen King.
Even King himself famously disapproved of the movie. That isn’t entirely a surprise. The movie CARRIE, directed by Brian de Palma, had been a faithful adaptation of King's first major novel, and the popularity of that movie turned the author into a new star in horror. Kubrick was not as faithful as de Palma was, so THE SHINING is as much a Stanley Kubrick movie as it is a Stephen King story.
The book was also personal to King, as it embellished some of the author's own personal problems into a fantastic story of the supernatural. Crucially, the novel offers redemption to Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson in the film. The movie sees Torrance as lost almost from the beginning. If King really saw himself in the book's main character, it's no wonder he didn't like the movie's vision.
The emotional brutality of Kubrick's movie — which notoriously tormented Shelley Duvall, who played Jack's wife Wendy — is part of the reason THE SHINING is still such an essential horror movie. THE SHINING is a portrait of the total destruction of a family. It has hints and outright visions of supernatural events, to be sure, but the true terror is the power that the abusive Jack Torrance wields over his wife and son.
Now, many years removed from its debut, it’s easier to see the effects of trauma on wide-eyed and terrified Wendy Torrance. Wendy is so clearly a victim of abuse; it's difficult to understand how her performance was misread as being arbitrarily over the top for so many years. The Overlook Hotel is haunted, but its ghosts don't cause Jack's madness — they just give him an excuse to give in to the impulses he was already doing a poor job of repressing.
Jack Nicholson's work, delivered to Kubrick's exacting specifications, deliberately provokes laughter as often as fear. One contemporary review, in the Guardian, dinged Nicholson for a "deliberately over the top performance." The laughs drawn out by his performance are the sort you might hear at a party when no one knows how to de-escalate a drunk's belligerence. Nicholson's Jack Torrance is exactly that guy, and while he might not fight anyone at the holiday shindig, he will certainly take his anger home to the family.
Fear and comedy are both primal ways to manipulate an audience; combined, one aspect can be used to defuse or heighten the other. When the alcoholic writer threatens his wife with a baseball bat and a maniacal grin, Kubrick dares us to overlook the murder in his eyes in favor of the seductively odd way Nicholson turns a promise of violence into a joke - and then pushes the character deeper into terrifyingly deranged behavior.
Even the movement of Kubrick's camera through the halls of the Overlook adds to the film's sense of unease. Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott used the then-new Steadicam, which allowed the camera to glide through the hotel's deserted corridors softly, like a spirit. The characters get lost in the maze of dusty rooms and blank corridors, and the constant movement of the camera invites us to lose ourselves right alongside the Torrance family. The maze becomes literal by the end of the movie when young Danny Torrance flees his father's violent hand.
Despite the clear indications of abuse and other real-world horrors, the true success of THE SHINING is that it is compulsively re-watchable. It lures us in, just as the Overlook Hotel pulls Jack Torrance towards its bleak center. The grandiose sets, the slow movement of Kubrick’s camera, the eerie and unsettling music, and the idiosyncratic performances from the cast all fuse into a unique movie experience. THE SHINING has been remade, replicated, continued and picked apart, but the original is as overwhelming as ever.
All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
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