#625) The Shining (1980)
OR “We’ll Leave the Fright On For You”
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Kubrick & Diane Johnson. Based on the novel by Stephen King.
Class of 2018
The Plot: Writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as the winter caretaker of Colorado’s Overlook Hotel. With his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) in tow, Jack and his family relocate to the empty hotel for its five-month offseason. Upon arriving, Danny confides in hotel chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) of his “shining”, a telepathic power that Dick also possesses. Throughout the ensuing months, the isolation starts making Jack highly irritable, and the family encounter various ghosts and apparitions within the hotel. Jack’s writer’s block and alcoholic relapse lead to a mental breakdown, and he is encouraged by the ghost of the former caretaker (Philip Stone) to murder Wendy and Danny. One of the most celebrated film directors of all time takes a stab (forgive me) at the horror genre, creating an alienating masterpiece that definitely takes some liberties with its source material.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “inventive in visual style, symbolism, and narrative as only a Kubrick film can be”, praising the film’s “stunning visuals” and “iconic performances”.
But Does It Really?: I have seen “The Shining” a few times over the years, and every time I come to the same consensus: It’s equal parts scary and boring. When Kubrick hits, he really connects with this film’s genuinely frightening imagery, but this is mixed with long stretches of the movie that not only slow the pacing considerably, but also manage to deflate any previous tension. Perhaps this was intentional to highlight the characters’ isolation, but it has never been effective in my viewings. Still, I cannot deny the film its NFR status (I submitted the film for consideration the year it was ultimately inducted). Despite its glacier pacing and misguided diversion from the novel, there is no other movie that looks or sounds like “The Shining”. With its abundance of iconic moments and generation-spanning devotion from cinephiles and horror buffs alike, “The Shining” more than earns its spot on the NFR.
Title Track: Stephen King named the novel “The Shining” after John Lennon’s song “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)”. I would have given this movie an immediate 4 stars if that song played over the end credits.
Seriously, Oscars/Razzies?: Following a divisive critical reaction (though a respectable box office run), “The Shining” became the first Kubrick film in over 20 years to not receive an Oscar nomination. Adding insult to injury, “The Shining” is one of two NFR films to have been nominated for the Razzies (the other is “Purple Rain”) with two nods: Worst Director and Worst Actress. Shelley Duvall’s Razzie nomination was officially rescinded in March 2022 in response to Kubrick’s behavior towards Duvall on set (more on that later).
- Based on Stephen King’s experience staying at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, “The Shining” was published in January 1977, with its film rights being purchased two months prior. Kubrick was interested in making a “commercially viable” horror film following the lackluster box office of “Barry Lyndon”, and “The Shining” piqued his interest out of countless rejected horror novels he read. Filming was scheduled for 16 weeks at England’s famous Elstree Studios, but ended up going for a full year; going over schedule in part to Kubrick’s penchant for retakes, and partly due to a fire that burnt most of the massive Overlook set.
- My biggest complaint about this movie is the same for a lot of people: Jack Nicholson should not be playing Jack Torrance. This of course has nothing to do Nicholson’s unmistakable talent as an actor, but rather the quality his star persona brings to the character. Jack Torrance is an average Joe who slowly descends into madness while at the Overlook. Jack Nicholson already looks unhinged before he gets to the hotel. I’ll argue the true culprits are his perpetually arched eyebrows; typically a boon to his acting “instrument”, but distracting and foretelling here. Still, if the old adage is true, Nicholson is cast for the third act, having a ball overplaying the character’s intense psychosis.
- The other element of “The Shining” I have a complaint about is Kubrick’s mistreatment of Shelley Duvall. During filming, Kubrick purposefully and consistently berated Duvall in front of crew members in order to get a more unstable, emotional performance out of her. This is corroborated by on-set footage shown in a behind-the-scenes documentary of the film (shot by Stanley’s daughter Vivian) featuring several instances of the director loudly chastising Duvall and urging the crew not to sympathize with her. Later in that same documentary, Duvall discloses her awareness of Kubrick’s psychological games, and she subsequently expressed her pride in the final product. Maybe it’s my 2022 sensibility talking, but this is definitely a case where the ends do not justify the means. Encouraging your actors to dig deeper is one thing, but doing so as a detriment to their mental health is quite another.
- Okay, let’s see what I actually like about this movie. Um…well the kid’s good. It helps that Danny Lloyd was unaware he was making a horror film. At least Kubrick protected someone in this cast from potential trauma. While we’re on the subject, I cannot entirely endorse a movie in which a character named Tony possesses a child.
- The long traveling shots throughout the film are incredible, helping give a sense of the dizzying scope and geography of the Overlook (although the shot of Halloran touring the kitchen looks like the Copa shot in “Goodfellas“). Shoutout to cinematographer John Alcott, as well as Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, who created a modified version especially for “The Shining” that travelled low to the ground. The effect is impressive, especially those shots of Danny riding through the hallways on his Big Wheel tricycle. Brown would eventually receive a technical Oscar in 2006 for another Steadicam variation: the Skycam.
- Oh my god this movie is so slow. It’s to the point that I actually start getting antagonistic towards the film. Take your time, movie; I can wait as long as you can.
- Probably the creepiest scene in the movie is Jack entering Room 237, mainly because of the weird turn it takes. If only he had gone to Room 222 or 227 instead.
- The phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” first appeared in print 1659’s “Proverbs” by James Howell (though the phrase’s definitive origin remains undetermined). The rarely-mentioned second half is “All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy.” According to Vivian Kubrick, Stanley’s secretary spent weeks – if not months – typing out the “All work” pages that appear in the final film for mere seconds.
- A reminder that Benjamin “Scatman” Crothers, the voice of Scat Cat and Hong Kong Phooey, has three movies on the National Film Registry.
- A few takeaways from the finale: Danny sounds a lot like E.T. when he starts shouting “Redrum!”, no one has ever been able to explain the significance of the bear costume (or its compromising position) to me, and the final chase is why people don’t like hedge mazes.
- When I picked “The Shining” to watch for this blog, I vowed I would not fall down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories regarding this movie’s alleged symbolism, but rather peer down said rabbit hole from a safe distance. As evident from the documentary “Room 237”, there are countless interpretations of this film, ranging from commentary on Indigenous genocide to an analogy of the Holocaust to a confession that Kubrick staged the moon landing! Kubrick lived long enough to dismiss all of these (with his survivors and colleagues continuing the debunking to this day). I suspect the reason this film in particular has so many intense theses is two-fold: 1) Like “2001” before it, Kubrick has delivered a movie that leaves so many of its elements up to interpretation and 2) Given Kubrick’s reputation for his meticulous perfectionism, it is easy to assume that Kubrick devised every detail within the film to correspond with whatever message he was trying to make. Funnily enough, as someone who has never read the book, my own theory is close to Stephen King’s original intention: the hotel itself is an evil entity that, in its attempt to consume Danny, ends up consuming his father instead. That reading is still in the film, albeit watered down by Kubrick’s artistic flourishes.
- “The Shining” was released in May 1980, becoming one of that summer’s biggest hits, and is currently the third highest-grossing Kubrick film behind “2001” and “Spartacus“. By the time Kubrick’s next film – his long gestating Vietnam War drama “Full Metal Jacket” – was released in June 1987, “The Shining” had already started receiving a critical reappraisal and earning its current status as a horror classic.
- Stephen King has made it no secret that he was disappointed with Kubrick’s film version of his book, citing Kubrick’s misinterpretation of the supernatural elements and the miscasting of Jack Nicholson. The 1997 TV miniseries (somewhat emphatically titled “Stephen King’s The Shining”) is a more faithful adaptation of the source material, but still manages to live in the movie’s shadow. Hey, isn’t that the guy from “Wings”?
- IMDb lists over 2,000 movies that have referenced or parodied “The Shining” over the years, but all you really need is “The Simpsons” and my vote for their best “Treehouse of Horror” segment.
- More recent references to “The Shining” come from the films “Ready Player One” and – in what seems to be a recurring segment on this blog – “Space Jam: A New Legacy”.
- Several of the film’s most iconic moments were created specifically for the film, including the Grady twins in the hallway, blood flowing out of the elevator, and an axe-wielding Jack announcing “Here’s Johnny!”. The latter – a reference to “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson – went over well enough with Carson that he used the clip to open his 1980 anniversary special, causing a brief uptick in the film’s box office.
- Stephen King finally wrote a sequel to “The Shining” in 2013: “Doctor Sleep”, which dealt with Danny as an adult coming to terms with his long suppressed powers to save a similarly gifted young girl. The inevitable film adaptation came in 2019, and somehow managed to be a sequel to the film’s continuity while also receiving Stephen King’s blessing.
- Oh, and apparently we might be getting a spin-off/prequel series called “Overlook Hotel”? I guess HBO Max dropped it from development (but hey, what haven’t they dropped?), and the production company is shopping the show around. My question as always about these origin/reboot things: Does anyone actually want this?
Further Viewing: Another favorite of mine from the recut trailer trend of the mid-2000s, “The Shining” recut as a heartwarming family drama. Another reason to love Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill”.