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With: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel
Written by: Diane Johnson, Stanley Kubrick, based on a novel by Stephen King
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 142
Date: 05/22/1980

The Shining (1980)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Hotel Hell

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Stanley Kubrick's horror film, The Shining (based on the Stephen King novel) creates some of the most genuine spine chills ever filmed. Taking a job as a winter caretaker for a giant and remote hotel, Jack Nicholson, his wife Shelley Duvall, and his son Danny Lloyd, find that the long hallways and empty rooms contain more than a few ghosts. The film goes from scary to amusing as Jack slowly turns into a psychopath, taking an axe to his loved ones. (Why is it that Kubrick's psychopaths -- McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, Nicholson, and Ermey in Full Metal Jacket -- are so much fun?) Kubrick's use of space and the eerie steadycam have never been put to better use, and the great Scatman Crothers provides some fun support.

The Shining (1980) marks an interesting spot in Stanley Kubrick's filmography, one that hardly anyone ever mentions. Most Kubrick films are not appreciated in their own time, but while Barry Lyndon (1975) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) are beginning to enjoy a newfound critical reputation, The Shining -- stuck right between them -- is generally left out of the discussion. Despite mixed reviews (recommendations from Andrew Sarris and the New York Times, but pans from Pauline Kael, Stanley Kaufmann, Dave Kehr and Variety), it was a hit film, grossing $44 million on a $19 million budget (according to It was based on a young, successful horror writer's third novel, and thus it hardly warranted serious consideration. Only David Thomson, in his "Biographical Dictionary of Film," gives the film a once-over; in an otherwise negative essay about Kubrick, he calls The Shining Kubrick's "one great film," but he also calls it "very funny."

At the same time, horror fanatics find the film extraordinary; and by all counts, they're right. Here was a horror entry from a first-class filmmaker who had succeeded in escaping the "horror" classification. Our other masters -- Bava, Romero, Carpenter, Hooper, Craven, etc. -- started in horror and got stuck there, unable to express their artistry in any other medium, and unable to earn the acclaim of someone like Kubrick. He visited, left unscathed and left behind something truly exceptional.

Based, of course, on a 1977 novel by Stephen King, The Shining concerns a writer, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), who gets a job as watchman for the Overlook Hotel during the long winter months. He takes along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), but despite the hotel chef (Scatman Crothers) remaining nearby, the enormous hotel is dauntingly empty for three little people. Jack wants to work on his book, but slowly goes bananas. Of course, things didn't look so good to begin with since Danny had been having conversations with a sinister-sounding imaginary friend, Tony, a "little boy who lives in my mouth." Some, like Roger Ebert, have suggested that perhaps all three family members are slowly losing their marbles, and that each imagines terrible things happening to themselves and one another. (This better explains the ghostly photograph that closes the film.)

Kubrick embraces the hotel's giant, brightly lit hallways, rather than the genre's usual gloomy corridors, as a potential source of horror. After all, the scariest things on earth exist only in our imagination and our nightmares, so who's to say what's around that next corner, brightly lit or not? For the movie, Kubrick employed a relatively new invention, the Steadicam, which mounts onto an operator's body and is secured with an elaborate series of balances and counterbalances, so that the operator can walk freely down the hallways without the camera registering the up and down movement of his gait. Though Kubrick occasionally cuts to shots following Jack and the other characters down the hallways, he also provides first-person POV shots, which plunk the viewer right into the horror.

The smooth, gliding movement also provide a sensation of inevitability, like being on a carnival haunted house ride; we're going into that room or around that corner, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. It also suggests the sensation of keeping one's eyes open, and not blinking, rather than lots of cutting, which relates to averting or closing ones eyes. This gliding slowness even applies to the dialogue, which oozes creepy tension in all the silences between words. (Bay Area novelist Diane Johnson, whose best-known work is probably Le Divorce, co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick; it was an odd fit and her only screenplay to date, but it worked.) Some critics blasted the film for its departure from these quiet moments, like the elevator full of blood, but I maintain that these images work simply because -- in the logic of the film -- they're ghostly illusions rather than reality.

Today, the film is probably better known for its behind-the-scenes legends, such as the fact that Jack's typewritten pages were each individually typewritten (no photocopies), or that Kubrick forced Nicholson to re-do the line "That'll be just fine" something like 80 times. The actors later reported that they went through hell, but their performances were worth the trouble. To me, these tales only add to the film's strange power, and the fact that it was one of the most flat-out terrifying films I ever saw. At one point, Jack refers to Wendy as "a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict." I admit to being the same, as well as a fan of Kubrick, and so for me The Shining is a film to be admired, explored, pondered and treasured.

Warner Home Video's DVD release contains a great short documentary shot by Kubrick's daughter Vivian when she was 17, plus a brand new witty and wonderful commentary track by her.

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