Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson
(based on the novel THE SHINING by Stephen King)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone & Joe Turkel
“Here’s Johnny!” That line of dialogue is instantly recognizable, just like many other scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s THE SHINING. Though it differs considerably from its source material, Kubrick’s only horror movie has cemented its place in the annals of cinema as one of the greatest horror films of all-time. There’s no beating around the bush on this one. THE SHINING is a chilling masterpiece that functions on timeless terror, great performances, and a claustrophobic atmosphere of dread that supplies just as many scares as the Overlook Hotel’s ghostly inhabitants.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has been hired as the caretaker at the isolated, scenic Overlook Hotel. Surrounded by mountains and hours from civilization, the Overlook functions as a party location in the summer and is closed during the winter. Jack, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) will be living at the Overlook, but the beautiful location is not without some unique quirks. Quirks in this case meaning that there are ghosts lurking in the large hotel, many of whom have sinister intentions towards Danny, who happens to be gifted with a psychic ability called “The Shining.” As time passes, the Overlook’s apparitions become more sinister, Danny’s shining begins to show him dark visions, and an increasingly unhinged Jack starts eyeballing a nearby axe.
THE SHINING is not a faithful adaptation towards King’s novel and that’s a very good thing. Kubrick took creative liberties that changed the book’s spookhouse scares into cinematic psychological frights, created a nightmare scenario, and made a horror masterpiece. In the transition from page to screen, Kubrick excises the more sentimental parts of King’s novel, completely changes the ending for the better, turns the hedge animals into a foreboding hedge maze, and swaps Jack’s weapon of choice from a laughable croquet mallet to a far more threatening axe. King was so unsatisfied with Kubrick’s take on his material that he made a true-to-the-novel six-hour SHINING miniseries in 1997 with Steven Weber…and it’s terrible. In a rare case, 1980’s THE SHINING is a movie that’s far better than the book.
Kubrick masterfully constructs a claustrophobic atmosphere and lets it naturally build to a point where the film becomes the stuff that nightmares are made of. The stakes are laid out early on with morbid history being revealed during Jack’s job interview. It’s obvious that this spooky bit of exposition will come back in a big way as the plot moves forward. The film has some ghostly encounters in its first third, but those are few and far between as the family dynamic of Jack, Wendy and Danny is front and center. This character development makes the rest of the film more intense as Jack becomes one of the scariest movie villains to ever hit the big screen.
To say that Jack Nicholson’s performance is amazing would be an understatement. His unique brand of nuttiness is sure to elicit a few giggles (he’s definitely having fun with it) and then serious scares. Everything about his physical tics, downright psychotic facial expressions and over-the-top line delivery make him the most memorable part of this nightmarishly eerie film. Nicholson got so into character and became so good at chopping down doors that Kubrick replaced the stunt doors with real ones, making the iconic bathroom scene seem even more real and terrifying.
Though she isn’t exactly known for great acting abilities, Shelley Duvall is perfect in the role of distressed wife and screaming victim Wendy. The production footage and stories say that Kubrick psychologically tortured Duvall into giving the fantastic performance we see on the screen, going as far as to make her reshoot the same scene 127 times and driving her to a point where she spent hours crying. Kubrick’s treatment of Duvall was monstrous, but it’s impossible to imagine the character of Wendy without her…much like we can’t picture anyone besides Jack Nicholson in the role of the axe-wielding Jack Torrance. Meanwhile, Danny Lloyd gave one of the best child performances seen on film as psychic Danny and was told that this movie was a drama about a family living in a hotel (only to discover the actual plot later on).
Scatman Crothers makes the most of his brief supporting role as the hotel’s “shining” cook. Meanwhile, THE SHINING gives us some of the creepiest ghosts ever, including: sinister bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel), mysterious Delbert Grady (Philip Stone), a memorable woman in Room 237 and the scariest little girls you ever did see. THE SHINING also contains some of the most frightening scenes ever shown on the big screen. Personally, I think the film’s biggest scare is the bathtub sequence, which gave me nightmares as a kid and still holds a psychologically scarring effect on me today. The Overlook Hotel was a construction of sets and, yet, it seems remarkably like a believable real-life location. This isolated setting, a thoroughly unsettling score, and Kubrick’s use of steadicam (making for long, unbroken tracking shots to further elevate suspense) all add to the film’s downright “evil” atmosphere.
THE SHINING is a masterpiece. It’s the best cinematic adaptation to come out of Stephen King’s work, even with creative liberties that actually improve upon the source material. Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd will all be remembered for their roles in this film. It stands out as Kubrick’s best movie, which is quite an impressive feat when you consider the man’s career. From a claustrophobic atmosphere of suffocating dread to some of the scariest scenes ever put on film, THE SHINING is a timeless horror epic that is sure to terrify audiences forever…and ever…and ever. This is one of the best (if not, the best) horror films ever made, period!