Thursday 3 January 2013

Movie Review: The Shining (1980)

A cultured horror film, The Shining mixes ghosts, madness and the supernatural into an exquisitely scary experience. Stanley Kubrick creates a unique mood of impending dread, with nerve-jangling visuals, stunning editing, and frightfully smooth Steadicam cinematography.

Struggling writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) accepts the role of winter caretaker at the imposing Overlook hotel, high in the Colorado mountains. Built on a Native burial ground, the grand hotel closes during the winter due to its isolated location. Jack, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) will live alone at the hotel from October to May. Before accepting the job, Jack is informed that the isolation can be depressing, and that the caretaker in 1970, a man named Grady, slaughtered his two daughters and wife with an axe before killing himself. As the hotel is closing down, head chef Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) has a private chat with Danny: they both possess supernatural, extrasensory powers, termed "the shining" and Dick warns Danny to stay away from Room 237.

As the Torrance family settles down for the winter, Jack gets nowhere with his writing and starts to exhibit irrational, aggressive behaviour towards Wendy. Danny spends the time riding his tricycle along the endless corridors of the hotel, and encounters disturbing visions of the two Grady daughters and enormous quantities of blood gushing through the hotel. Danny is inexplicably attacked, and when Jack investigates Room 237 he has a mind-bending encounter with a naked woman. With telephone communications cut and the hotel engulfed in a massive snow storm, Jack also starts to encounter ghosts, pushing him over the edge, while Danny telepathically reaches out to Dick for help.

Kubrick's adaptation of the Stephen King novel is a multi-layered horror experience. Rather than one distinct theme of madness due to isolation, The Shining expands into ghosts of past atrocities and the power of haunted places gaining control of Jack's mind. Early in the movie Jack is portrayed as susceptible to violence and with a history of excessive drinking, a prime candidate for manipulation by evil forces much stronger than himself. In Kubrick's story it's not the isolation per se that gets to Jack; the isolation is just the gateway through which the evil that lurks in the Overlook gains entry into the psyche of the weak.

Unexpectedly lining up on the side of good is young Danny, his invisible friend "Tony" (the outlet for his gift of  extrasensory perception), and Dick Halloran. Dick's intervention does not unfold as planned; but it proves to be nevertheless timely and crucial, the shining indeed shedding light on the dark spirits at play in the Overlook hotel.

Kubrick leaves plenty of talking points and clues to points unknown strewn across The Shining, including ghosts interacting with physical objects, Mr. Grady's first name, cryptic dialogue (Grady to Jack: I'm sorry to differ with you, sir, but you are the caretaker. You've always been the caretaker. I should know, sir, I've always been here), and the famous photo that ends the movie. Interpretations to connect some or all of the dots are interesting but also unnecessary. The Overlook hotel is not inhabited by normal folks, and the caretaker is mentally unwell. Not everything will need a neat explanation.

Jack Torrance is perhaps Nicholson's most recognizable role. In some ways this is a pity, since there is nothing nuanced in Jack's rapid descent into madness. The man goes nuts, and he does it fairly quickly. The only question becomes the timing of his turn to blatant violence, and Kubrick keeps the leash fairly tight until the final 30 minutes.

Remarkably for a terrifying movie, there is exactly one on-screen murder, Kubrick preferring to inject horror through inference. The creepy image of the two Grady sisters becomes a short-cut to raw panic, while the slow motion scene of blood flooding through the hotel is majestically horrifying, despite damage only being inflicted on furniture.

The relatively new Steadicam technology is deployed to dazzling effect, Kubrick and Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown collaborating to develop the mechanics and produce impeccable shots. Most memorable are scenes of Danny pedalling furiously through the hotel on his plastic tricycle, tracked by the camera, alternately passing over silent carpet and noisy wooden sections of the floor. Soon the tricycle trips are markers for shocks that lurk around the corners, the Steadicam providing a Danny-eyed view of unwelcome intrusions.

John Alcott's cinematography adds to the menacing vibe, from the dramatic opening shots of the road to the Overlook, emphasizing the challenging terrain and the hotel's isolation, to the lavish interiors celebrating the hotel's history, and finally ending with the dark, brooding snow-covered exterior of the hotel once the harmony within the Torrance family begins to shred.

The Shining is a rare cinematic achievement, thought-provoking, intellectual, and genuinely terrifying.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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