Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #20
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: May 23, 1980 (USA)
Sub-Genre: Supernatural/Haunted House
Country of Origin: UK/USA
Running Time: 144 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson
Based on a novel by Stephen King
Cinematography: John Alcott
Score: Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
Editing: Ray Lovejoy
Studios: Peregrine Productions, Producers Circle
Distributor: Warner Bros
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Joe Turkel, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Anne Jackson, Tony Burton, Barry Dennen and Lisa & Louise Burns as the Grady girls
Suggested Audio Candy
Béla Bartók “Music For Strings, Percussion, & Celesta”
“Danny, I’m coming!” I can hear Jack’s blood-curdling howl swirling around in my psyche at a mere seconds notice over thirty years after I first heard it uttered and it instantly transports me back to the snow-laden grounds of the Overlook Hotel. I feel the chill on my collar as I frantically glance left and right, with both options seemingly leading to dead ends. All the while, I can discern the sound of Jack’s teeth grinding as he pursues me doggedly through the labyrinth with the taste of blood on his lips. Should he pinpoint my coordinates, then he will invariably chop me up for firewood, so I guess the only option is to just keep moving. And where the fuck is mom when I need her?
By this point in my primary introduction to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, I too had been sent to the very edge of my sanity by Shelley Duvall. I find it a challenge too far recalling any other character in cinematic history quite so pitiful and spineless. So I decide to Google her and, to my utter astonishment, there was actually something vaguely arousing about her. In my wildest and most vivid imaginings I never expected to find Olive Oyl even mildly alluring so this left me soundly flabbergasted. This leads me to the conclusion that she must be a first-rate actress, as her grating turn as Wendy leaves me with the irresistible longing to cave her cranium in just as Jack had stated he would.
With all of this talk of Duvall’s gormless fishwife, there seems no better time to revisit Kubrick’s grand 1980 masterpiece and throw a little more love its way. The legendary Stephen King makes no secret of his disgust towards the silver screen translation of his treasured novel, The Shining. Kubrick seemed doomed to disappoint from the offset after rejecting a screenplay penned by King himself, before hiring Nicholson and Duvall to play the parts of Jack and Wendy, incensing the author further. The resulting movie then took a number of liberties with its source material, leading devout King fans to hold it in contempt for its flagrant deviation. In the great man’s words it is “a fancy car without an engine”. Whilst holding his hands up to its indisputable style, he believes it to be at the cost of any kind of substance.
Whilst he could well have a point, we are talking about Kubrick here. He was, without any shadow of doubt, one of the true visionaries of our generation or, indeed, any. Granted, he may have been somewhat off his trolley, but the man’s flawless résumé speaks volumes for his aptitude as a filmmaker. There is no question that he wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with. Always the perfectionist, Stanley often spent days re-shooting scenes in search of the perfect take and this often left his actors immensely frustrated. His photographic eye for visual composition, paired with a multitude of other eccentricities, made him effortlessly one of the most troublesome directors to work for. However, when you take a look at his wares, then it becomes clear that there are few more accomplished filmmakers than he.
Critically his films may not have set the world alight but artistically they were, without exception, near flawless. This was never more evident than with his parting gift, Eyes Wide Shut which was disgracefully misinterpreted upon its initial release and took years to receive the acclaim of which it was so richly deserving. Kubrick’s exclusive eye for detail can never be replaced and each of his works are vital, lavish and richly realized across the board.
The Shining keeps giving with every subsequent revisit to its solitude and terror, yet still I feel it necessary to search for hidden hilarity. I fondly recall Scatman Crothers’ seemingly eternal pilgrimage as he leaves behind the creature comforts of his private quarters to face horrendous conditions for a fair share of his screen time. Eventually, after hours of braving the blizzards in his trusty slow plough, he arrives at his location but, before he can stamp the sleet from his boots, he is greeted by the most unwelcoming welcome party in cinematic history. I’m not convinced that Kubrick was aiming for the funny bone with his demise but I like to refer to it as a happy accident.
Yet no matter how many times I watch The Shining, any glee quickly subsides and is swiftly replaced with pounding temples and pulse that races at a potentially fatal rate of knots. However, despite containing numerous instances of sheer terror more than potent enough to stay with its audience for the remainder of their mortality, it isn’t the most distressing characteristic of Kubrick’s blueprint of madness. It’s his choice of location that really taps into our vulnerability. The Overlook Hotel is vast but feels increasingly stifling by the time the middle act draws to a close. Indeed it evokes uneasiness from the moment we step inside but we feel the walls closing in around us as the story unfurls and, for all of Jack Nicholson’s unquestionable menace as the caretaker, the true star of the piece is arguably the hotel itself.
There are a number of explanations for the sinking feeling that The Shining encourages but here are a few particular doozies. Those ominous Kubrickian hallways play their part, particularly when the twins show up for playtime. Jack’s gradual descent into madness is truly unnerving to witness. Then, of course, we have the angst in Wendy’s contorted face as she begins to resemble a rodent from Davy Jones’ locker in parallel with her long-suffering husband’s mental decline. By the time his already tenuous grasp on reality has dissipated, the viewer feels as if they have spent the whole fucking winter stuck in The Overlook Hotel with her too and therein lays the true horror.
The fact that Duvall’s sniveling performance reeks of authenticity is largely due to her troubled working relationship with her director. He appeared to have his daggers out for her from the start, dressing her down in front of other cast members and belittling her at every turn. Whatever his reasons for singling her out, and I would imagine it was all for the sake of art, it worked a treat as she plays the victim with remarkable conviction. I sometimes wonder whether the pair remained in contact after shooting wrapped but imagine the answer to that conundrum would be a resounding no. It is no small wonder that she ended up Popeye’s bitch although I’m sure a long winter cooped up with her would have led the sailor to necking his spinach just to snap her scrawny little neck.
Let’s not forget Danny boy. Played to perfection by Danny Lloyd, this young tyke provides the ideal foil for the two leads as he too is quietly seduced by the hotel’s dark heart. While Danny’s extra sensory gift is explored in far greater detail during King’s novel than here, his exploration of the manor is captured brilliantly by Kubrick’s roving lens. Despite the horrific scenes which he appears to be witnessing, his director was fiercely protective on set and shielded him as best as he could from anything even remotely disturbing.
I have left it until now to state the plain obvious but cannot finish without a nod of appreciation to Nicholson whose turn as Jack Torrance provides arguably the highlight of a particularly long and distinguished career in film. He is simply outstanding in every single scene and inhabits his character with an integrity that few others could ever dream of. By far the most fascinating exchanges come courtesy of Jack’s fascinating interactions with bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel) during a second act that literally oozes dreamlike ambiance. Whilst these interactions chronicle his spiraling condition, it is the nonchalance of his opposite number as he subtlety suggests the best course of action that truly chills our bones. Similarly unsettling is the closing image which tops off the experience in majestic fashion, leaving us feeling frightfully ill at ease.
Regardless of whether or not King approves, I will forever consider The Shining as the finest elucidation of the great man’s formidable prose and would implore anybody not to have shared this sublime work of art to break their duck post-haste. The mighty Kubrick breathes life into each frame and does so with such eloquence that it seems downright insolent to abstain from its unquestionable eminence. Is it ultimately style over substance? Perhaps it is but, when the eye behind the lens is without equal, you just take the rough with the smooth.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers and Pelt-Nuzzlers: The corridor of blood scene as captured by the lens of a master craftsman is utter transcendence and the color red is present in virtually every frame. However, any fleeting grue is secondary to that pressure cooker tension bubbling away consistently throughout. Note to any pubescent teens watching for the first time. Should the desire to spank the monkey prove too strong to deny during Jack’s bathroom rendezvous, then be sure to finish up quickly as it quickly provides a stark reminder why soaking too long in the tub isn’t advisable and will instantly flip your erectile kill switch.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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