Another look at The Shining (****): The Old Folks Call It Cabin Fever

The Shining – 1980

Director Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay Kubrick, Diane Johnson based on the novel by Stephen King
Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, Danny Lloyd, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel

So much has been written about Kubrick. His relatively sparse directing career is peppered with a higher than usual percentage of films most critics would dub as classics. Undoubtedly a lifetime of absorbing film has left me still unqualified to discuss his hallowed interpretation of a Stephen King novel. That the author never seemed to like it as much as most others seems more of an oddity than anything. Still, this movie has taken me years to accept. 

I understand the appeal it has to many. It’s use of the track camera of the Steadicam broke new ground for perspective. The recording in mono instead of stereo allowed his mix to be read in more theaters the closest way to his vision as possible. Every scene feels more like a painting than a place for characters to interact. The script moves away from aspects of King’s book that seem more hokey (talking topiaries) towards Kubrick’s ever inward search for the true nature of humanity.

The first thing that always comes to mind when I ponder The Shining is Danny wandering through the hallways in his big wheel. There is a kinetic energy that derives from the sound of the wheels alternating between the rug and the hard surfaces. We’re allowed to see Danny (Lloyd in one of his only roles) pick up real steam for several frames. We’re almost lulled into a sense of ease as the boy moves through every room in the hallways. He’s being a child. Then he sees the twins. 

Danny has seen these two before, in his premonitions. He also sees the hallway of blood coming through the elevator. That the images are loaded with history didn’t mean as much to me when I was younger. It was just bat shit crazy. 

The next thing to discuss is the performance of Jack Nicholson. He is already at the height of his fame at this point, and if there is a place to start criticizing the film it feels that Jack Torrance never looks like he’s in control of his mind. He’s on the verge from the first frame.

The feeling varies, depending on who he is talking to. We never feel like he loves his wife anywhere near as much as she loves him. The scenes from inside the ballroom, especially at the bar with Lloyd, feel different, almost backward from scenes before and after. I always wanted to feel something of a descent, rather than the bumpy ride we see.

Still, when he’s on, like his scenes with Lloyd, with Grady and his complete unhinged march through the last act, there is no one better at making something scary out of what is, ultimately just a man. 

Shelly Duvall is one of those faces that is unforgettable in it’s non movie star quality. She was better known for her improv work with Altman before winning the role that would make her a horror icon of sorts. Her performance seems overwrought from the first, too, but it rings more true as that of an abused wife. Duvall also reaches a believable crescendo in the last act. 

As Danny, Lloyd does a fair job avoiding the pitfalls of most young actors. Kubrick has an obvious rapport that helps the inexperienced child actor from being seen as too precious to believe. There are some pretty damn weird facial expressions they use to show his gift of being horrified. One wishes they would have just made some different choices, but it’s a small complaint.

Scatman Crothers gives a fine performance in Hallorann, the cook who makes an odyssey to get back to the family. A fixture in the 1970’s, I remember him from The Aristocats,  Hong Kong Phooey, Silver Streak, Chico and the Man and Jazz the Autobot. Echoes of his character reverberate in Richard Farnsworth’s Buster during the movie, Misery.

Turkel and Stone are striking in their roles as malevolent spirits. It’s not an accident that with them, Nicholson is at his most obsequious. They have a power in their slow and measured speaking style.

The end result for me is something that is remarkable despite itself. I believe that Kubrick the artist brings something out of this story that perhaps King’s original work did not reach. The stuff about Native American vengeance over its European derived conquerors is no doubt part of the film’s influence. It seems a subtle underlying metaphor. This is especially true when compared to the nail on the head obviousness most films have with their politics today. I find the film to be frustratingly unevenly paced, but no one else could have derived something as clever as that ending in the maze. 

Having seen this film under half of a dozen times, and never bigger than on a 49 inch screen, I don’t think even Imax can make Nicholson more subtle in act two.  It’s never going to be the kind of film reasonable people can consider bad. Some folks will have enough time time to devour every scene and make documentaries about them. It’s not so much a classic as it is just inspired filming to this reviewer.

(**** out of *****)

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