Historical Circuit: The Shining (****)

The ShiningWhen it was first released The Shining, directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick, was not the great success, or critical hit it was hoped it would be. In fact some of the scenes drew laughter in the theater, in particular some of Nicholson’s scenes, which I remember hearing people saying was “over the top,”. I never felt that way.
Playboy film critic Bruce Williamson wrote, “the film was terrifying…I forgot to breathe for minutes at a time” which was how I felt. I found the film terrifying, and Nicholson’s performance to be utterly perfect. How did people miss it? How did they NOT recognize Kubrick’s slow building masterpiece of terror, that was as perverse as it was terrifying? What so many people forget when they watch a film directed by the great Kubrick was that never did he intend his audience to merely watch the film, but rather to experience the work, placing themselves in the film. If it is you on the other side of the door as Jack Torrance (Nicholson) wields an axe, bursting through with the sick cry, “Here’s Johnny!!!”, how funny is that? It provoked laughter the first time I saw it, but those that really get the film are not laughing, those that have placed themselves in the shoes of Wendy (Shelly Duvall) are not at all amused. THAT is why The Shining is terrifying, because the director creates such a creepy atmosphere, claustrophobic, haunting and placed in it a man slowly losing his grip on reality. The target of his attack becomes his family, and that to me is frightening.

There are I believe clues to how Kubrick directed the Nicholson performance, which borders on being cartoon, making it all the more terrifying. As Danny watches TV we hear the familiar Warner Brothers tune, ‘If you’re on a highway, a road runner goes bee…beep…” while later, Torrance knocks on the door as the big bad wolf and threatens to huff and puff and blow the house in. The wonderful bike Danny rides through the hotel is called a road runner, thus Torrance becomes the coyote. What is entertaining in childhood becomes an abomination when seen as this. This coyote, like the cartoon, keeps getting up after injury, though unlike the cartoon there is blood and injury and consequences for failure. On the other side, for Danny and Wendy there is the chance of death should he catch up to them.
Fans of the Stephen King best seller howled their disappointment with the adaptation forgetting that the moment it became a Stanley Kubrick film, it was going to be seen through the eyes of Kubrick, not King. While the book was superb, I have always felt that Kubrick captured the essence of the novel to perfection, and while there are some sequences I miss, (the hedge animals coming to life), I felt The Shining was a masterpiece of horror then, and has only gained in power over the years.

The Nicholson performance is astonishing today in its courage. No other American actor would have brought the sense of danger to the role of Jack Torrance that Nicholson did, Bruce Dern perhaps, but with his penchant for being crazies, the impact might have not been the same. We sense there is something off about Torrance at the interview for the job, but he lands the position as caretaker of the massive Overlook Hotel high in the Colorado Mountains for the winter where he and his wife and son will eventually be cut off from society totally, blocked in by the snow that piles onto the mountain roads. Torrance loves the hotel, believing he can do some serious writing in the mist of the peace and quiet. His career had taken a beating, the result of alcoholism, and he dislocated his son’s shoulder in a fit of temper while drunk. Now dry, he is struggling, but seems to be writing all the time. His wife has no idea the ghosts of the hotel are speaking to him, reaching out to him, concerned with his son’s gift of shining, a sort of ESP that allows him to see events before they happen. Talking to Tony, his friend who speaks in a guttural child’s voice, Danny knows things before they occur. Before the hotel is closed for the year he encounters Dick (Scatman Crowthers) an elderly black cook, who also has the gift of shining, and warns Danny of the hotel and room 237. Of course the boy will enter the room, as will his father and we see what happens when Jack does, but with Danny it is left to our imaginations, and having seen what Jack saw, it is all the more terrifying. With Wendy having blamed Jack for the marks on Danny’s neck, he retires angrily to the massive Gold Room bar where we see for the first time the Hotel alive with people from years long past. The bartender Lloyd, knows Torrance, and happily prepares for him his drink, refusing money from him. Lloyd never blinks.All work and no play...
The ghosts want Jack to kill his son as the boy has called back Dick, needing help with his father. Angered that Danny would do such a thing, and with the ghosts guiding his mind, Jack gathers his thoughts and begins to plan how to kill his family. Wendy meanwhile has found his writing, pages and pages of the same line over and over, in different designs. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in line after line after line. Seeing Wendy reading his materials for the first time Jack attacks, and the chase begins for life and death, with Torrance wielding an axe with which he means to kill his son and wife. He does kill Dick, the old man making it all the way back to save the boy only to have an axe plunged into his heart. In the end Torrance dies, alone, in a snowbank, frozen in time as it where, just as the ghosts of the Hotel remain such.

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The Shining is not a perfect film, but it is a masterpiece of horror, just not the sort of horror audiences expected at that time going to the movies. One must question why Dick is allowed to make a treacherous trip back to Colorado only to enter the hotel to be butchered, and why we are never permitted to see the person who lets Torrance out of the cooler? We hear him, clearly, but why are we not given the chance to see him?

With movies like The Amityville Horror (1979), Alien (1979), Dracula (1979) and Halloween (1979) popular in theaters, a grave, dark character study was not what fans of the book were expecting. The film was frankly, ahead of its time. That said, what Kubrick did with the book I think is quite remarkable, deciding that he liked aspects of the book, while other things he did not care for. Focusing on Torrance made the role an actor’s showcase, and Nicholson is indeed superb in the part, walking the line careful not to step over the top, always managing to keep a lid on his character to allow him to be frightening instead of entertaining and funny as so often happens in horror films. Quick with a quip Freddy Kreuger in the Nightmare of Elm Street films is not terrifying because he is not real, and seems to exist to slaughter young people and then toss off a smart ass aside, whereas Torrance is a real father, a real husband, a real alcoholic with trouble brewing and lacking the skills to deal with the trouble. Nicholson delivers one of his very best performance, giving us a man already on the edge, pushed over and slowly free falling to the bottom of the pit. There is a wildness in his eyes that has never been there before, an abandon of sensibility, and a glimpse into those eyes is to stare into the eyes of utter madness. The sequence with Lloyd in the bar is quite brilliant and in an instant we see Torrance change from proud father to angry husband, holding his wife in contempt for the way she makes him feel. The actor
accomplishes this with his voice and his eyes, nothing more.

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Shelley Duvall is not as successful as Wendy, portraying a wife who we know gets on her husband’s nerves, and thus ends up on ours. Yet what we see is a purely decent woman trying to give him the space he needs, and who is being punished for it. Yes she is shrill, yes she becomes tiresome, but that is less her fault I suspect than the character she was given. We know, if one has seen the documentary about the film’s making that Kubrick was no fan of Duvall, hassling her constantly for what he perceived as her lack of effort, while she merely felt persecuted.

The film contains startling images, the best a medium close up of Torrance that moves closer to show him utterly still as the voices of the hotel are heard around him, his mind beginning to go. Another shows a wall of blood come churning out of the elevator washing away the furniture in the hallway, while yet the most famous is Torrance’s grinning face announcing through the smashed door, “Here’s Johnny”. Again how funny is that is you are on the other side of that door? And in all Kubrick films he expected his audience to be on the other side of that door. Being on the other side of this film means horror and death, and that is not funny, but rather simply terrifying, which is exactly what Kubrick intended the
film to be. Those things familiar to us, the Road Runner cartoon, the Three Little Pigs, The Johnny Carson Show, the comfort of a bar, husbands and fathers…can be the most frightening things we will ever encounter.

The Shining (1980) received not a single Academy Award nomination despite being easily among the years best films. Nicholson certainly deserved consideration, as did Kubrick for his direction and that smooth, gliding cinematography. Hindsight being 20/20 and what it is, things
might be different if they voted today.

About John H. Foote

Any film you haven't seen yet is a new release.