Stephen King Week Bonus: The Shining (1980) - Reviewed

Although our week of King reviews is over, we decided to throw another one out there!

Loosely based on the novel by Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is among the very first true epics of the horror genre, so vast in scope and ambition the running time can barely contain, let alone explain, the experience projected onscreen.  The story concerns Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a writer and former alcoholic, who accepts a job to be the caretaker of the massive and isolated Overlook Hotel for the Winter.  His wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) move in with him for the season and are snowed in.  Danny seems to have psychic abilities called “shining” and begins to receive visions of the hotel's violent past.  Reportedly the last caretaker of the hotel, Delbert Grady, murdered his family before taking his own life.  Soon after, Jack and his family find themselves snowed in before Jack begins to follow in Mr. Grady's footsteps.

Seemingly disconnected and anecdotal before slyly linking all the details together, The Shining finds Kubrick at his most labyrinthine.  Though the scenes of Jack Nicholson axing the bathroom door down with the infamous line “Here's Johnny” are familiar, you can watch The Shining dozens of times and still come up with a new questions which remain unanswered.  Is Jack Torrance really the caretaker from 1921 and is the Overlook his ghostly Hell?  Are there really supernatural occurrences taking place or are they merely hallucinations?  How much of the film, if not all, takes place within Jack or Danny's head?  Is it about the horrors of alcoholism terrorizing a family, or something far more sinister?  Can Danny and the chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) really “shine”?  When pondering the prospect of the afterlife or spirits wandering the Earth, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick shows far more than he tells. 

Germane to Kubrick's work are his enormous set pieces filmed with precise care.  Among his greatest are the war room in Dr. Strangelove, the centrifuge in 2001, and most notably, the Overlook hotel in The Shining.  Filled with seemingly endless corridors with a penchant for red wallpapers, it's as though the walls have been painted with more blood than what flows from the elevator in Danny's visions.  Stronger still is the operatic use of the Steadicam, gracefully careening through the halls and stairwells of the Overlook.  It's as though we're gliding through a maze with no exit.  Kubrick's gloriously surreal lighting give the walls and chandeliers an eerie glow, furthering a sense of either the supernatural or delirium.  Avant-garde Polish composer Krzyzstof Pendercki's terrifying strings find themselves at perfect home here when the terror levels are turned up higher. 

Considered a failure by famed author Stephen King for Kubrick's free use of creative license, as well as Jack Nicholson's spectacularly over-the-top performance of a man's gradual descent into maniacal sociopathy, The Shining for many years was considered Kubrick's first artistic failure.  Kubrick himself responded to the public reaction to the film by withdrawing the film one week after the world premiere to remove a coda which he felt offset the impact of the finale.  Further still, in Europe the film was shorted by Kubrick again by 25 minutes, while curiously leaving the US version at the initial 144 minute length.  Further still, King himself would mount his own unexpurgated television miniseries adaptation which is closer to the source material’s intentions and events unfolding but dated by weak CGI and a still cornball cameo by King himself in the Gold Ballroom.

Still, whatever your interpretation of the film is (and there are many, enough to fill the conspiracy theorist documentary Room 237), this is one of the lushest and richest horror films ever made, if not the fullest of ideas.  Watching the film and attempting to discuss it will have viewers chasing their tails for decades trying to make sense of what we think we're seeing onscreen.  Perhaps Kubrick meant for his film interpretation of Stephen King's novel to reflect the process of really trying to ponder the notion of spiritual entities and a dimension far beyond our realm of comprehension.  Much like 2001, it aims to open the door wide and keep it from being closed.


- Andrew Kotwicki