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Review: The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Premise: An adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. A writer (Jack Nicholson) goes insane while overseeing an isolated hotel and becomes a threat to his wife and son (Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd).

What Works: The Shining is a classic horror film. The picture includes a number of scenes and images that are now iconic such as the elevators overflowing with blood, the ghostly twins appearing the hotel hallways, and Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” moment. But The Shining is most unnerving and memorable because of the environment the story takes place in and the way the family drama plays out against that background. The film is full of long takes and wide angles which create large empty spaces that often dwarf the characters walking around in them. The film uses sound in a similar way. Many of the sound effects come suddenly and echo throughout the empty visual space and the music is not composed as a traditional score but instead makes use of tenebrous sounds to set the mood. Using the camera and the soundtrack this way, Kubrick creates a very foreboding space into which the audience will project their own fears. As the family drama of The Shining plays out, the actors bring to life the fears, distrust, and resentment that underlie the relationships of the family members. Essentially the film is a domestic drama about an abusive father and the mother and child’s fight to survive when they are cut off from society’s protection. Jack Nicholson, an actor known for his unpredictable energy, has never been as frightening as he is in this film. But the performance that really sells The Shining is Shelley Duvall. She is so vulnerable and so real that a viewer can’t help but feel empathy for her. The Shining also has a subjective and supernatural component to it and the film is bold in that it does not commit to a narrow kind of logic that most stories create for themselves. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, The Shining would likely be a messy mishmash of the real and the supernatural. As it is, the film contains ideas and scenes that are contradictory or at least ambiguous. But after re-screening the film, this is quite clearly intentional. The contradictory elements of the story, the undefined nature of the haunting in the hotel, and how those forces shape the plot and character development all support the journey into a state of madness.

What Doesn’t: The Shining is not without its faults and many of them are found in Nicholson. Although he is threatening, at certain moments the performances gets hammy, almost as though Nicholson were doing an impression of himself. This is also a very slow film. The Shining represents the end of the prestigious Hollywood studio horror film, as the genre gave way to the low budget thrills of Friday the 13th and its imitators. As such, The Shining is paced less like a roller coaster ride and more like a psychological study of madness. While it works, The Shining is a film of a different time and style and it should be appreciate as such.

DVD extras: The two-disc edition of The Shining includes featurettes, a documentary, a trailer, and a commentary track.

Bottom Line: The Shining is an important film both to the horror genre and to Stanley Kubrick’s filmography. Even though the mystery is at times frustrating in its impenetrableness, The Shining is a harrowing story of survival and madness that remains frightening thirty years after its release.

Episode: #308 (October 3, 2010)