Review: The Shining

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Stephen King’s The Shining is basically a novel of character: Isolated with his family for a winter at a snowed-in resort hotel, Jack Torrance faces the collapse of his own mind from an overload of alcoholism, suppressed violence, writer’s block, and personal failure. His son’s clairvoyance—the titular “shine”—is the mechanism whereby the boy is able to save himself and his mother, though not, alas, his father. Well, characterization and warmth have never been the hallmark of Stanley Kubrick’s work, so it’s no wonder that his film of The Shining is ultimately more Kubrick than King. No satisfactory relationship is ever established between the boy’s “shining” and the rest of the plot; and Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), far from fighting against a gradual crumbling of his reason, seems prone to it from the outset. The fatalism of the film’s approach to Jack—underscored by Kubrick’s relentless use of Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer variations on the Dies Irae—serves perfectly the Swiftian misanthropy of the creator of Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon. Kubrick’s view of man is as characteristically 18th-century as his devotion to stylistic formalism. No romantic Roderick Usher disintegration for Kubrick’s Jack Torrance: it’s strictly “Orders from the House.” Milieu, not character, is the basis of the madness and of the film itself. The Shining might be (like The Omen, The Exorcist, and their host of imitators) a “Devil made me do it” movie, where lack of responsibility for one’s actions is “explained” by supernatural intervention; but Kubrick is more concrete about the identity of his Devil.

If it looks as if the film can’t decide whether the hotel’s possession of Torrance is the literal cause of Jack’s madness or merely a hallucinatory metaphor for it, it’s because Kubrick has his eye on a more compelling image. The hedge maze, originally created as a substitute for the living topiary of the novel (which Kubrick found cinematically unworkable), becomes a terrifying emblem of the complex and entrapping power of structure. It’s as if Kubrick the filmmaker were looking with irony at the darker side of his own devotion to structural perfection. His careful division of the film into sections classified according to event, day, and ultimately hour is a sort of temporal zoom-in that pulls us toward the inevitable, just as all those track-ins and follow shots allow the Overlook itself to literally suck us in. The obsessive preservation of symmetry in Kubrick’s compositions relates the precision of his artistry to the orderliness of our own perceptions, and to the terrible orderliness of the madman’s mind.

In thus simultaneously celebrating and questioning his own stylistic integrity, Kubrick achieves what Stephen King, the writer, achieved in his novel about Jack Torrance, the writer, even while violating much of the letter and spirit of the book. The result is something that has rarely been attained in the past: a palpable horror with the lights on. The impact of King’s novel and stories has been to bring the constant threat of primitive terror into the cozy, well-lighted settings of contemporary America; and when it’s more than halfway through the film before you see a single scene in the dark, you realize that Kubrick’s gotten at the heart of what King does best. The Shining isn’t “the first epic horror film,” “the scariest movie ever made,” or “the definitive horror movie.” But as one of the ghostly guests of the Overlook says, waving his glass at an appalled Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) as dissolution of family unit and human mind both resolve into bloodshed: “Great party, isn’t it?”

THE SHINING
Direction: Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, after the novel by Stephen King. Cinematography: John Alcott. Production design: Roy Walker. Editing: Ray Lovejoy. Music: Bartók, Penderecki, Ligeti, plus Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. Production: Kubrick.
The players: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel, Anne Jackson, Tony Burton, Barry Dennen.

© 1981 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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