Thu
Nov 10 2011 10:00am

“Here’s Johnny!”: The Shining

Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction films: The Shining

The Shining is a bit of an oddity in Stanley Kubrick’s career for a number of reasons, one major one being that his initial motivation for making it was because he wanted a commercial hit. Choosing a Stephen King novel feels a bit weird, too; as awesome as he is, he’s in a slightly different category from people like Thackeray, Burgess, and Nabokov, the last three authors whose novels Kubrick adapted, and Schnitzler, to whom Kubrick would turn later.

And, while the resulting movie ended up being terrifically enjoyable, with Kubrick’s customarily meticulous craft and one of the all-time great Jack Nicholson experiences, The Shining is one of the only movies Kubrick ever made where one has to determine whether the elements that don’t immediately add up are due to mistakes. This is not to say that they are, by any means, but there are enough of them, and so many of them could easily be the result of on-the-fly revisions — Kubrick was writing new script pages on set so frequently that Jack and Shelley Duvall often had to learn the scene they were about to do immediately before filming — that one wonders.

Despite that, The Shining still weirdly succeeds almost perfectly in being what it set out to be: a pop commercial movie, albeit one directed by someone for whom making that kind of movie is learned rather than natural behavior. It’s a movie made up of a series of set pieces and brilliant moments more than a coherent story, but a series of set pieces and moments what a commercial movie is, now even more than then. Why is Jack Nicholson flipping out? Irrelevant, he’s awesome. Why’s the kid so creepy, and why’s he need the artifice of his imaginary friend to be psychic? Doesn’t matter, that “redrum” business is tops. And why does Shelley Duvall look like she’s about to pass out from the flu? Well, that’s because principal photography went on for a year (two or three months is usually considered enough time to even waste some) and her relationship with Kubrick was so tense that she was drop-dead sick for eight months. But never mind that.

Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction films: The Shining

As a pop, big-budget horror movie, The Shining has everything one could want. There’s the big creepy hotel (whose elevators bleed), lots of ghosts, as technically gifted a director as ever called “action” using every lighting, compositional, and editing trick at his disposal to freak us out, and a score full of shrieking, atonal avant-garde string, and synthesizer music. Kubrick takes his time doling out the scares as well, letting the tension build over a long (nearly two and a half hours) running time, and never going for cheap shocks. Even his decision to jettison nearly all of the parts in the book where Stephen King explained what was going on works for the movie, even if it makes it more Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining than King’s (which, it barely even needs to be pointed out, was the idea). Not knowing what’s going on in any easily decipherable way helps the movie be as disconcerting and genuinely frightening as it is. Nothing is scarier than the unknown.

Tied directly to the movie’s gradual build is the room Kubrick gives his cast to strut their stuff. With the exception of Shelley Duvall (who was sick, and constantly being browbeaten by the director) and the kid (who was a kid), the cast is extraordinary. (In other words, “yeah, two of the three people who get 90% of the screen time are problematic, but everybody else is awesome”; I know that’s kind of a weird backhanded compliment.) Best among them all are Scatman Crothers as the hotel’s chef and the only other person we meet with extrasensory powers, about whose performance all my cinema theory background and acting training just flies out the window, and all I can do is geek out about how great he is. All you can do is love the guy. His warmth and goodness pervades everything, even if he ultimately errs in not telling the kid why he shouldn’t go into room 237 (but that’s the script’s problem, not his). But there are also Joe Turkel, as the “bartender” and Philip Stone as the clumsy “Delbert Grady,” both of whom are magnificent in different ways, Turkel in that he’s the chummiest upscale bartender to ever exist (even though he doesn’t) and Stone in that he builds, much like the movie itself, slowly to a demonic, quite scary peak.

Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction films: The Shining

And, of course, there’s Jack Nicholson. If one is in a particularly “Santa isn’t real” sort of mood, one can make the case that technically, Jack’s a little shaky as an actor at times. Which is, technically, true. But his greatest heights make the occasional missteps worth it, mostly because Jack is a movie star among movie stars. Movie stars can actually have a negative impact on some movies, because the gravitational pull of their charisma throws the rest of the movie off its axis, but in The Shining, this isn’t a problem, because Jack ends up being the bad guy (a subtle but significant change from the book, where he’s an agent of evil, not a source thereof) and any horror movie worth its salt needs a good, scary bad guy. Jack’s complete lack of subtlety ends up being a great asset to the movie, as he pulls out all the stops; even if he does so almost from the beginning of the movie, it’s still okay, because when it’s time to be scary, he’s scary.

Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction films: The Shining

Which is why The Shining works. Kubrick may have made a strange, dark, long pop movie, but he made a damned good one. It’s considerably more fun to experience than deconstruct, and while at times frustratingly inscrutable to fans of the book (not to mention that book’s author), still an enormously effective horror picture and one of the best examples on record of how to make radical and even fundamental changes to source material and still create a successful adaptation.

There’s also the matter, in less intellectually rigorous terms, of The Shining being awesome. Which it is. I could have merely left it at that, but why it’s awesome is important, too.

Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction films: The Shining


Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

This article is part of Kubrick’s SFF: ‹ previous | index | next ›
14 comments
mordicai
1. mordicai
The only other Kubrik I like! Well, provisionally I like Eyes Wide Shut, I guess.
Vincent Lane
2. Aegnor
I liked the book better in this case. Nicholson's character was creepy and unlikeable right from the begining. In the book he is a much more sympathetic character. Not perfect, by any means, but generally a good guy. Then the hotel slowly corrupts him. It is that slow transformation that I found really interesting, and the movie did a poor job of that.

Which is not to say that I don't like the movie. It still is a pretty good movie.
mordicai
3. Kat4
I disagree about Duvall's performance. For me, at least, she embodies that helpless, constantly off-balance emotional position of an abused spouse who never knows whether or not she's doing enough or doing it--whatever it is--correctly. Whether that was the result of Duvall being browbeaten by Kubrick I'm not sure...but while I find Duvall's voice timbre generally quite annoying, what she does in the film rings emotionally true.
But yes, Crothers is great in this!
mordicai
4. MLE
Now you've touched my sore spot.

I just hate this movie. It's the quintessential definition of why I think Stanley Kubrick is the most overrated director to ever work in Hollywood. In contrast with some of his other films, The Shining is not good because of someone else's efforts, it's just not good.

While it's an interesting twist that the protagonist of the movie is the hotel, Kubrick never did anything worthy of that concept in his story. All of the human characters are poorly defined; their motivations are either unclear, or ridiculous.

Jack Torrence in the book is a guy who wants to be a good guy, but he messes up a lot, and then he looks for someone to blame. His inability to take responsibility for himself makes him vulnerable to the hotel's attempts to use him. Jack Torrence in the movie is just a violent prick. The hotel just seems to want to control him instead of Wendy, and it doesn't matter why.

Nicholson never worked on another Kubrick film again, reportedly because of how he saw Scatman Crothers and Shelly Duvall abused. During the scene in which Scatman Crothers returns at the end of the movie, Kubrick had him do the scene over and over, without explanation. The man looks to be in pain because he's in actual pain. Kubrick was sadistic, and he saw actors as people who needed to be manipulated instead of trained professionals hired to do a job.

Of Kubrick's movies, the ones that stand out as worth watching are the movies in which he lost control of the script or the actors.
Warren Ockrassa
5. warreno
This one stood out to me for a few reasons. It was released during a major groundswell of horror films, pretty much all of which were utter crap - cheaply shot, poorly acted, slash porn - and it was actually quite the opposite. The production quality was genuinely high, and the staging, photography, acting, and set design were top shelf.

Stephen King notoriously didn't like Kubrick's version - but I saw the version King wrote, and there's simply no comparing them. One is goofy and ridiculous (there is not now, and never will be, anything frightening about topiary bushes coming to life), and the other is filled from the beginning with an overarching sense of foreboding.

It's not often that I can say I like a film more than the book. The Shining is one example. (The Godfather is another, FWIW.)
john mullen
6. johntheirishmongol
I saw this when it came out and I hated it, thought Nicholson was horrible and still regret the $3.50 I paid for the ticket. I only went because it was Kubrick. Although I am not a big horror fan, I can watch one occasionally, if the plot makes sense, but it really didn't.
Mike Conley
7. NomadUK
I always saw Jack Nicholson's character as suspicious from the very start, which is what everyone complains about. But it's almost as though he's already possessed -- or perhaps he's somehow some kind of evil made corporeal, and returning to the hotel. Remember the photograph at the end; it always seemed to me to imply that he'd been there before, and was returning. So in that way it's not the hotel corrupting him; he's already there, and always has been.

Anyway, I did, in fact, like the film. It didn't necessarily have to make perfect sense -- there are a lot of things in this world that make no sense at all. The cinematography, effects, and acting were, I thought, quite good. And Nicholson -- well. Heeeeere's Johnny!
mordicai
8. Lsana
The Shining, both as a book and a movie, has always been in the category of "things I really, really want to like, but don't." I love ghost stories, I love Stephen King (or at least, King's earlier work), I love the Colorado mountains, how can I not love the Shining. And yet I don't. It's okay. I've read worse, have certainly watched worse. But there's nothing that really grabs my attention, and I find my mind wandering. I found, as the post said, that it's really a series of set pieces rather than a coherent story, and without something to hold it together, set pieces get boring after a while.

One thing I will give the movie credit for is at least aking the obvious question: why would the Overlook be shut down in the winter? Colorado hotels don't shut down in winter; they double their prices in preparation for the hords of skiiers, snowboarders, ice skaters, sledders, and those that just want to enjoy a White Christmas. If the Overlook ever shut down, it should be for a few weeks in the fall, after the hikers leave and before the first good snowfall. That little point was driving me nuts all through the book. The movie at least acknowledged it; didn't give an answer that satisfied me, but at least they tried.
Chris Palmer
9. cmpalmer
Actually, IIRC, the book goes into more detail than the movie about why the Overlook shuts down for the winter. It's been a while and I'm not sure how convincing the explanation is, but it is there.

I find the movie a bit uneven, both as a horror movie and as a Kubrick movie. But one detail that I think is interesting is that I watched it once with the assumption that it was really just a movie about Nicholson going crazy and that if there was any supernatural "reality" to it, it only involved Danny's psychic powers. That he inherited his "shine" from his Dad, which made Jack able to be possessed or driven crazy by the ghosts of the hotel.

This works perfectly well, except for one scene, which I'm sure had to be intentional knowing how meticulous Kubrick was about such things. Grady unlocks the pantry where Wendy locks in Jack. As far as I know, that is the only time the supernatural actually affects the real world except through Jack and Danny's mind.

Well, Danny does have marks on his neck from the lady in the tub, but even his parents wonder if those were self-inflicted or psychosomatic.
mordicai
10. Lsana
@9,

I won't deny that it's possible, but like I said, the fact that the Overlook wasn't a ski resort bothered me throughout my entire read of the book. I'm pretty sure I'd have remembered if there was any explanation. The only mention I remember of winter sports was some comment Wendy made about how the snow was allowing rich people to ski or something like that (which also bothered me, but that's a separate rant).
Rob Munnelly
11. RobMRobM
The in-story answer is that the Hotel is built at the end of a long (15 mile?) road that becomes practicably impassable in the wintertime. Simply not cost effective to keep it plowed along whole length just to get to Hotel for winter sports. Or so it is said.

I had read the book but never saw it until earlier this fall where a local arts movie house showed it on a Tuesday night - and the place sold out in a matter of hours. To my surprise, not that much happens but the atmospherics are great. I kept waiting for something to happen during those interminable Big Wheel rides the kid made all around the hallways - until it did, after a fashion, with the twin girls and the room. Nicholson definitely played his part as if he were a bit off right from the outset of the film - it wasn't just the Hotel, it just made him go over the edge. And Shelley Duvall had her own edginess that, on balance, worked for me.

Rob
mordicai
12. seth e.
I don't know if it's true, but I've heard that when Stephen King saw the Shining, he was horrified. Apparently he said that, in his opinion, Kubrick had set out to make a movie that would genuinely hurt people, and leave them damaged.

It may be apocryphal, but it's a good quote anyway. A lot of the critiques are true; Nicholson's character isn't very developed, the backstory doesn't quite make sense, etc. But on a visceral level the movie does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to simultaneously alienate and horrify the viewer. Well, it did me, anyway.
Joe Romano
13. Drunes
Other than Scatman's performance -- and a few scenes with Duvall -- this is a truly awful movie. Before The Shining, Nicholson was my favorite actor. After it, I avoided his movies completely. I also loved horror movies, but it took years to get over the cheesiness of this one!
Marcus W
14. toryx
By itself, I quite like the movie. Comparing it to King's novel (which I love) I don't. It's one of those things that depends entirely on your preferences, I think.

As for Lsana's question: I grew up in Colorado and while there are lots of Colorado that is fairly easy to maintain in the winter with enough money and equipment, there are other portions that simply aren't. There are also areas of the state that are not conducive to skiing, whether because the terrain is too unstable, the weather gets erratic due to the mountain's geography, or the area is just particularly difficult to reach.

Just because Colorado is known for its skiing doesn't mean that the whole state is one big ski park. There are just some places where a ski resort is not at all practical and the Overlook was located in one of those corners of the Rockies.

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