Friday, October 2, 2020

31 Days of Horror: The Shining

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
1980. Rated R, 144 minutes.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Joe Turkel, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Anne Jackson, Lia Beldam, Lisa and Louise Burns.

Like most 1980s horror that I've seen, my first watch of The Shining happened way too early. I was twelve or so and it happened to be playing on television one day when I turned it on. I thought it was okay, but looking back, two things were clear. The first was obvious. Being on TV meant it was cut to shreds. Already being a veteran of rated R movies, I picked up on that. What I didn't realize was how much went over my head. I watched it in my 20s and felt better about it. In my 30s, I saw it again and found it even better. Here I am, on the brink of 50, journeying back into the Overlook Hotel.

Jack Torrance (Nicholson) shows up in the same hotel at the beginning of our tale. Cutting to the quick, the place is shutting down for the winter and hire Jack to watch the place. He brings his daughter Wendy (Duvall) and his son Danny (Lloyd). During this time, the three of them are pretty much cut off from the rest of the world, save for an unreliable phone line and a radio. Shortly after the hotel employees and patrons clear out, little Danny starts seeing some strange things while riding around on his Big Wheel, Jack is struggling to write a single word of the novel he's been trying to finish for years, and Wendy worries herself silly over both of them.

The first thing that struck me is the same thing that always does about this movie. It's slow. Once a test of my patience, it's now an opportunity to get to know how these characters think and how they relate to one another. Their motivations crystallize over time, as do their problems. What came into focus for me this time around is how much those two things are intertwined. What drives each of them is also what causes them to come undone. Most famously, people always apply this to Jack. He's not only trying to achieve something he thinks is great, he's trying to do by isolating himself from his family. It quickly becomes apparent why he was drawn to such a job. He would be shut off from the world at large, but he's also in a big enough hotel that he doesn't have to see anyone at all. The me time he yearns for pulls at the already frayed edges of his mind until the whole being unravels. In Danny's case, his need to explore, combined with his eponymous ability, consistently puts him in psychologically damaging situations. No matter how terrified he is during his many excursions throughout the building, however, he always wants to see more. More accurately, he can't keep himself from seeking more. Wendy wants nothing more than to make sure the two men in her family are okay. She dotes on both to the point of emotional exhaustion. It doesn't help that both give her reason to fear them, and fear for them.

Director Stanley Kubrick's steady hand is most valuable to this part of the film. He gives us enough time with each of these people for us to mark all the connections to each other and make one with ourselves. We also get a reasonable amount of time with Dick Hallorann (Crothers), a hotel employee who shares Danny's talent. He's the weakest character of the bunch, but indeed serves an important purpose. He is us making our way into the movie. He communicates with Danny on a level no one else can, speaking to him the way we might. He wants to help Danny the way we do. That the film ultimately renders him powerless is Kubrick reminding us we're just observers. Despite our best intentions, we can do nothing to help the boy. We can only watch and hope.

As Halloran, Scatman Crothers is very good. However, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't Jack Nicholson who drives the movie. It remains some of his best work. The key is that he doesn't become unhinged, he's always that way. It's a quality best suited to Nicholson and he exploits it for all he's worth. From the very first scene he's in we notice a not-quite-all-there look in his eyes. The classic Jack smirk feels even more sinister than usual because his character doesn't realize his own capacity for evil. He remembers a past indiscretion as a one-time thing brought on by alcohol. He ignores the theory that drinking merely brings what was always there to the surface. As the youngster, Danny Lloyd turns in admirable work. Much of his screen-time shows the back of his head as he rides through the hotel. Kubrick gives him enough face-time to make a deep impact without testing the limits of his ability. 

This time around, though, I was paying very close attention to one performance in particular - that of Shelley Duvall. Over the years, I've come across two types of people - those who think Duvall is great in The Shining and those who think she's terrible. They're both right. Throughout the first half of the film, she's wooden as oak. Her line readings are just that - readings. There are no real emotions, just lines of dialogue meant to elicit empathy, but struggle to due the flatness of their delivery. Just as it becomes clear Jack can no longer keep up the appearance of sanity, Duvall flips a switch and we believe every frantic word emanating from her mouth, every tremor of her hands, every tear streaking down her face. Her shrieks and cries come from deep within a bothered soul. We see she's a woman in fear, and we fear for her.

In the years since the film's release, it has come to light that Kubrick, more or less tortured Duvall on the set. He was tough on everyone, but particularly so on his lead actress, in order to get the desired performance. He reportedly isolated her, argued with her openly and frequently, and made her reshoot scenes over and over, to the point of exhaustion. One of the movie's most iconic scenes, the one where Duvall's Wendy swings a baseball bat at Jack numerous times while backing up a tall staircase, was done in a world record 127 times. I've no idea which take made it into the film. I wouldn't be surprised if it were the last because her entire being is nothing more than an exposed wound recoiling from the salt being poured into it. Kubrick's methods were reprehensible, but achieved optimal results.

Insane scare tactics aside, The Shining stands up as a film that invites examination of three fragile psyches and the strange ways they react to an extreme situation. More importantly, they make us question how we would react stuck far away from civilization, unable to reach it, with only the people there with us and our imaginations. It's been given new life in 2020 with people around the world having to quarantine due to the pandemic and going stir crazy in the process. Many of us have the world at our fingertips thanks to the internet, cable, streaming services, smartphones, and more. Still, plenty of folks were/are fed up with the people with whom they're sharing this experience. The Torrance family only had each other, a tiny television with just three networks, and a typewriter. I shudder to think how many of you would've completely lost it and murdered everyone in the house if we took away your Netflix. if not all out homicide, some of the doors in your home may well have caught an axe, rake, shovel, or an angry foot. Deep down, you know the truth of this. You know your grip on reality is tenuous. Jack could be you. Or your mate. Or your dad. And this is what gives The Shining its power.

Click here for my review of Doctor Sleep.


  1. And Steven King sure wasn't a fan. As a writer I do think of Jack if I get too intense with my work

    1. He still isn't. Can't stand it. I think we've all had that Jack moment when trying to write.

  2. This is, for me, a rare horror film that I keep re-watching and I always find something new. Then again, this is the case with a lot of the films that Stanley Kubrick has done since The Killing. The re-watch factor has made those films a joy to watch over and over again. I know there's fans of Stephen King's novel that hates the film but they can't deny the atmosphere that Kubrick has created with the film. It also has moments that remain so memorable.

    One of the reasons Kubrick did the film was to create something that wasn't just satisfying artistically but also to do something that had some commercial appeal due to the disappointing reaction his previous film Barry Lyndon had commercially in the U.S.

    1. King himself hates the movie. Luckily for us, Kubrick stuck with his guns and delivered the film he wanted to make and it's a masterpiece.

  3. Kubrick was a bad boy and I wasn’t totally impressed that he was so hard in Duvall. Now, he is not the first dir3 tor to be a bully to get the desired performance but I think they get some glee from doing this. Now, knowing that she suffers from mental illness, I really feel bad for her. This is an excellent synopsis of this film and I agree that poor Scatman Crothers travels all that way just to get just seemed so wrong. I really like this film when I could finally watch it. When I was young..younger, as soon as those girls showed up, I turned off the tv and would watch the Love Boat.

    1. Kubrick was definitely in the wrong for the way he treated Duvall. And I hate to see her in the shape she's in (or at least how she was the last time I saw her). And Crothers, yeah. That's always bothered me.