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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Retro Review: The Shining

This review might cause some waves, since for whatever reason, this movie seems to have somewhat divided the horror fan community. Not so much the mainstream audience, which views it as an unquestioned classic, but rather the Stephen King die-hards, some of whom embrace it, and others who--like the author himself--reject it utterly.

Well, I fall in the camp of those who worship at the altar of the great Stanley Kubrick, and this film is just about his finest hour, along with the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange. In this blogger's humble opinion, Kubrick's The Shining holds a very special place as perhaps the finest-made horror film of all time, right up there with The Bride of Frankenstein, Psycho and The Exorcist.

Comparing this cinematic diamond with a TV movie starring one of the guys from Wings is like comparing Morton's Steakhouse to Jack in the Box. Yes, I get that the '90s TV version is far more faithful to the book, but that's not finally the point. What's the point of being more faithful if the movie is inferior? Let's face it, Kubrick was a cinematic mastermind, and he knew better how Stephen King's epic novel would work on film than King himself did. Plain and simple.

Take a look at what we have here. A film that's brilliantly shot, thanks in part to cinematographer John Alcott, who had previously worked with Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon (and, incidentally, shot Terror Train right after this). With a sense of light and color that achieves a level of perfection few films ever do. The scene with Jack and Grady in the men's room is a thing of beauty, that can be watched with the sound off and you still wouldn't be able to take your eyes off it. Its a classic example of the Kubrick style.

It's been said that most of Kubrick's films deal with two main themes: The first being dehumanization, and the other being the complete and utter collapse of what seemed to be a perfect scenario. And in The Shining, we certainly see both themes in full display, explored as only Kubrick could, both visually and contextually. It may be true that Jack Nicholson comes off as a little crazy right from the very beginning, as opposed to the perfectly normal Jack Torrance of the book, but nevertheless, his transformation to murderous psychopath is breathtaking to behold.

Some accuse the film of glacial pacing. I think these are the same people who complain that baseball is a slow sport. It's all about what goes on inside your head, the expectation. I find the film to be perfectly paced, drawing you in slowly with an unmatched sense of foreboding--aided in no small part by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind's unforgettable score.

Jack Nicholson does what he does best in the lead role. Say what you will about his deviation from the character in the novel, but you can't stop watching him for a second when he's on screen. The bar scene... the typewriter scene... and of course, "Here's Johnny!" Whether playing it over-the-top or subtle--and yes, there is a lot of subtlety to his performance here--it's arguably the greatest role of Nicholson's legendary career.

Also terrific in a supporting part is the charismatic Scatman Crothers as the ill-fated Dick Hallorann. And of course my personal favorite, the menacing Delbert Grady, played with relish by Philip Stone, who had previously played Malcolm McDowell's dad in A Clockwork Orange. Little Danny Lloyd gives one of the great child performances as Danny Torrance, and it's good that he does, since the film sort of hinges on his dread being believable. The weakest link in the chain may very well be Shelley Duvall, who seems somehow out of place as Jack's wife, perhaps owing in part to her reported on-set animosity with Kubrick. Still, I've always felt that her hysterical panic in the famous axe scene is utterly authentic and suitably chilling.

The imagery is pure Kubrick, presenting the viewer with visuals that stay in the brain long after the movie is over. The barely glimpsed shot of the hacked-up Grady twins; the old lady in the bathtub; that creepy dude in the bear suit--this is surreal, nightmarish horror at its very best.

I take nothing away from Stephen King, who is undoubtedly one of the finest, and possibly the most important, writer of horror fiction in the 20th century, and today. But the track record for movie versions of his novels is not the best. For whatever reason, something often seems to get lost in the translation, and this is why I humbly submit that maybe King doesn't quite understand how best to transfer his ideas from the page to the screen.

And even though he bashed Kubrick to anyone who would listen, nevertheless the fact remains that King was blessed by having a filmmaker of Kubrick's calibre take on his work. In the process, he created what is easily one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and definitely the greatest adaptation of King's horror-related work ever mounted, with Carrie being a close second. Is it faithful to King's book? Not really--Kubrick, egomaniac that he was, took the source material and ran with it, twisting it into his own unique vision. And for that I say, thank goodness.

19 comments:

frgodbeyjr said...

GREAT review Brian! I couldn't agree with you more. The Shining has always been my favorite movie period... mainly for Nicholson's performance. It's chilling, creepy, and tension filled. That makes for a great horror movie. I think that is why the older horror movies were so much more fearful because of the tension... NOT the gore. Don't get me wrong, I like gore, but it does not make a movie horrific...tension and fear... a perfect marriage! Well done Brian!

gord said...

In my opinion;

Immaculately filmed.

But without a shred of believability or tension.

I thought the pacing and everything was fine, but I just didn't buy Jack's transformation. This could be because Nicholson always seems like a crazy person even when acting 'normal'. But one would think an actor could change that...anyways...I thought the change was too sudden and severe. And considering this movie is a billion hours long, I would have loved to have seen more time taken with the transformation, and really turn it into something frightening.

I just didn't find the 'crazy father' bit all that exciting, or intense. As I said earlier maybe because Jack's always wacko, but I think if more time had been spent initially setting him up as a nicer guy, better father etc. and then made the transformation less comically severe (see image of him staring evil-y/blankly out windows while wife and Danny play outside in the snow) I would have been more taken aback at how this once normal husband had been driven to madness.

And yeah Duvall was generally awful.

gord said...

Also, I like how I basically wrote the same thing twice in my two paragraphs..

I'm so tired!

Anonymous said...

This is my 2nd favorite movie of all time, right behind Pinocchio if you can believe that.

It's funny how the reasons some people don't like it are all very intentional. Jack Torrence looking crazy from the beginning? Completely intentional. From beginning to end, the movie has two narratives, the one where ghosts exists, and the other where Jack is simply a violent man, with a wife who knows it but won't admit it to herself. Shelley Duvall is obviously perfect in that role.

I urge everyone to read the 21 chapters long analysis of the movie at a site named Collative Learning. Kubrick placed hints of the story's secrets in just about every line and imagery of the film, you just have to keep your mind open. I still find new things every time I watch it.

gord said...

I was gonna add into my complaints that of course you could argue he's always been mad and hated his family, etc etc so I shall read this review you speak of Anonymous one.

B-Sol said...

Yeah, I have to agree with Anonymous. I think Kubrick deviates from King in that his Torrance ALWAYS has those seeds of insanity inside him. I do think it's intentional. That would argue for the whole thing being in Jack's head--except that the freezer scene seems in indicate that the Overlook really is haunted...

F-Man said...

There we go, found out you can use a name.

That freezer scene is tricky. When you see the corridors outside the room, there seems to be another door that would have been hidden behind the food. Maybe Jack found it? Or maybe just a movie mistake, but I don't believe in those types of mistakes in a Kubrick movie, especially not this one where he went out of his way to create a maze that plays trick on your mind.

Or my favorite theory; Danny unlocked it, in a scheme to later freeze and kill his father for good. Worked pretty well.

Planet of Terror said...

Wow, eerie dude. I gushed about my love for this film and why it continues to terrorize me a few weeks back. Great minds think alike!

http://planetofterror.blogspot.com/2009/05/favorite-horror-movie-musings-shining.html

Samuel Wilson said...

What Kubrick achieves in the film isn't tension so much as dread, and that comes from the deliberate pacing and the accumulation of details, including a bit away from the hotel that I find one of the creepiest: the overturned truck on the snowy highway that Crothers drives past. I also want to add a shout-out to Joe Turkel, who dates back to Paths of Glory with Kubrick, as the bartender. Movie makers have always treated books as raw material to mold to their creative needs, and it is Stephen King's good fortune to be so used by Stanley Kubrick.

B-Sol said...

Here, here!

RayRay said...

As B-Sol knows, while I do love me some good movies, [and bad ones], I am more of a book guy. I always watch a film adaption, and no matter how good it was, always come away secure in the knowledge that the book was better.

The Shining is one of the very few exceptions to this general rule. While the original book by King was fantastic, stem to stern, Kubrick did it better.

B-Sol was right to point out how poorly King's work translates into film. Carrie was very good, and I thougth Pet Semetary was also. Christine was okay. The Stand was passable, but IT was borderline awful.

But The Shining is a true masterpiece, in and out of a genre. King was foolish to badmouth a master like Kubrick, who has made some of my favorite movies, Full Metal Jacket being another great one. Kubrick was at the height of his powers with The Shining, and King should have stopped his petulance and embraced it. For the faithful adaption is a far cry from the greatness that Kubrick's was vision.

gord said...

Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who didn't enjoy this movie.

Oh well, I'll read the Collative links, and then watch the film again looking at is as a separate entity and trying not to compare it to the novel.

B-Sol said...

You're definitely not the only one, Gord. As I've said, there is a vocal subsection of King fans who don't like it. I'm just not one of them.

gord said...

Well where are those fans to back me up/protect me from all you ruffians!

B-Sol said...

Hmmm. Well, maybe it wasn't as vocal a subsection as I thought...

Adam_Y said...

I doubt I'm the only one who thinks that Stephen King screen adaptations are generally better when he has less involvement. Sure, he's a great author but he's just got no pacing when it comes to cinema...

Obviously this is not always the case, but it's a strong enough trend not to ignore.

Great films from King novels and short stories... 'Carrie', 'Green Mile', 'The Shining', 'Running man', 'Misery'..

Compared to the almost great but eventually disappointing TV adaptations like 'It' and the very terrible 'The Langoliers'.

The notable oddity is 'Kingdom Hospital' where King was involved in someone else's work... Lars Von Trier. That was pretty good.

So, my conclusion is this... If Stephen writes it, he should have nothing to do with the adaptation for screen... and if he doesn't write it maybe how should be involved in the screen adaptation.

The crazy world of Stephen King...

movie scary said...

The Shining is a classic, nuff said.

Randy Wheaton said...

The Shining is a great movie and a great book. It is a classic and Jack Nicholson is awesome in it. I do not agree that Shelly Duvall was out of place. I think this is her best performance playing the part of an emotionally/physically abused wife very well. She looked genuinely terrified and you couldn't help, but feel sorry for her in The Shining. Otherwise an excellent review. If you want to check out some great horror movie reviews and other movie reviews come check out my site at The Eradicator Reviews

B-Sol said...

Thanks, Randy! I also appreciate your take on Duvall's performance.

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