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.