The Shining (DVD, 2010, P&S) Reviews
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The Shining (DVD, 2010, P&S)

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"Danny's not here, Mrs. Torrance"

Nov 9, 2005 (Updated Nov 10, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Atmosphere of foreboding; great visuals; splendid sets; outstanding soundtrack; camp performances

Cons:Script problems: lack of foundation for some horror elements; too little initial normality

The Bottom Line: Just a tad short of the best horror films ever.

If little Danny Torrance and the Overlook Hotel's chef Dick Hallorann can converse via mental telepathy and thought broadcasting, I ought to be able to transmit this review to your eyes without actually typing or putting pen to paper. Let's give it a try.


Hmm, looks like we'll need a little more practice. Well, back to the drawing board and Mr. Kubrick's The Shining (1980).

Historical Background: Stanley Kubrick was no ordinary filmmaker, if there even is such a thing. He stood apart in several respects. Early in his career, Kubrick made a reputation for himself as one of the most daring and innovative directors to come along. Born the son of a physician in Bronx, New York in 1928, Kubrick got an early start as a visual artist. He took up photography while still a boy and had a job as a photographer with Look magazine when he was just seventeen. When he was twenty-two he quit that job to pursue his dream of a career as a filmmaker. His first feature film, Fear and Desire (1953), was made with money borrowed from friends and relatives. In 1954, Kubrick formed a production company with James B. Harris, through which Kubrick made The Killing (1954), starring Sterling Hayden. Then came Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), Kubrick's first commercial success.

It was after Spartacus that Kubrick truly began to court controversy and test the limits of good taste, starting with his controversial Lolita (1962), a film about pedophilia. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) sparked debate for treating nuclear warfare comically and satirically, 2001: A space Odyssey (1968) for its technical innovations, and A Clockwork Orange (1971) because of its sexual violence and possible connection with copycat crimes. Up to that point in his life, Kubrick had produced landmark films at a fairly steady pace but those masterpieces would prove difficult to follow. Kubrick began to experience something akin to writer's block and the time between films grew progressively longer. It was four years before Barry Lyndon (1975) was completed, five more to completion of the present film, The Shining (1980), seven years until the release of Full Metal Jacket (1987), and then a dozen years before Eyes Wide Shut (1999) would emerge. It is perhaps not surprising then that among the themes in Stephen King's novel, The Shining (1977), to which Kubrick had purchased the rights, it was the relatively minor theme of writer's block that Kubrick chose to give added emphasis is his film.

The Story: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a writer and former teacher, has landed a job as winter custodian for a remote resort hotel. There, he hopes to rekindle his literary aspirations. Accompanying Jack is his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and young son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). All Jack has to do is keep the ravages of nature at bay with a few fix-it jobs and keep from going stir-crazy from cabin fever. This hotel has already seen more than its share of madness. A former caretaker, Delbert Grady, went nuts, slaughtering his wife and twin daughters before committing suicide. The Torrances will have their work cut out for them, since they each come to the job with a bit of psychological baggage. Jack is a recovering alcohol, five months on the mend, and he's got writer's block. The Torrances' marriage is a bit rocky due to Jack's grouchiness and an old incident in which he yanked Danny's arm so hard in an alcohol-fueled rage that he dislocated the kid's shoulder. For his part, Danny hears voices (mental telepathy? hallucinations?) and has an imaginary friend named Tony who alternatively lives in his mouth or in one of his fingers. Almost immediately, Danny sees visions of the murdered twins, who invite him to come play with them – forever. Sometimes they're splattered in blood.

The hotel is a cool place to live in some respects. There are spacious ballrooms and a thirteen-foot-high hedge outside cut into a giant maze. The Torrances have their own designated quarters that they characterize as "cozy." On the other hand, this hotel seems to resonate with ghosts of its violent history, especially the hapless Grady bunch. It's not long before the Torrances are at each other's throats, one way and another. After a blizzard hits the area, they're completely isolated from the rest of the world and only the hotel's chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who shares Danny's capacity for mental telepathy, seems at all concerned about how the snowbound family might be getting along.

Themes: The main theme, I suppose, is never isolate yourself in a snowbound mountain resort in the dead of winter with a crazed husband and a kid whose finger talks. My diagnosis for Jack Torrance is postacute alcohol withdrawal syndrome combined with cabin fever and latent schizophrenia. Although overt, physiologically measurable symptoms of alcohol withdrawal typically abate in 7-10 days, the postacute phase last up to six months after the last drink. Jack had stopped drinking five months before the story of the film takes place. Postacute withdrawal symptoms include impairments in abstract thinking, conceptualization, ability to concentrate, and memory storage and retrieval, along with increased emotionality, overreaction to stress, poor self-image, and overconcern with discomfort. Jack's writer's block could be attributed to inability to concentrate and impaired conceptualization and memory. I think it's also fair to say that he overreacted to stress. Poor Dick Hallorann, on the other hand, could hardly be accused of overconcern with discomfort after Jack plants an ax in his chest! As for little Danny, given that a dislocated shoulder caused one of his finger to start talking, I imagine Wendy should anticipate all ten of his toes gabbin' up a storm after the events depicted in The Shining.

On a more serious note, Kubrick was a confirmed misanthrope who thought little of human nature and especially major human institutions, which he felt were mostly run by lunatics. I tend to agree. As Kubrick aged he became something of a recluse. The idea of a major resort where everyone turns loony must have appealed to his sensibilities.

Production Values: Three well known attributes of Kubrick as a filmmaker are all relevant in assessing the place of The Shining as a film. Kubrick's great strength as a filmmaker was his ability to create magnificent visual images, using whatever technology was cutting edge at the time each film was made. Certainly a technical mastery was evident in Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange. In The Shining, among other technical innovations, Kubrick made maximum use of the fledgling Steadicam technology that had just then become available. Kubrick's use of this new technique in the scenes of Danny peddling his riding cart through the hotel corridors and in the shrubbery maze are unforgettable. There are a variety of other breathtaking camera angles, including some aerial shots. So, once again, Kubrick gives us a picture that is just terrific to look at.

If Kubrick was a widely acknowledged master of the visual techniques in his films, he was equally the object of some barbed criticism for his management of narrative progression. There are times, in various Kubrick films, when it seems as if he is content to let the narrative simply tie together the brilliant visuals that he has conceived rather than choosing visuals that serve the exposition of the story. Kubrick's visuals can be counted on to generate mood and atmosphere, but not always to contribute to a coherent narrative progression. Thus, toward the end of The Shining, unexplained spooky visuals begin to appear that augment the general sense of terror inherent in the situation but also seem to come out of nowhere in relation to the story. Viewers can enjoy the film by choosing to suspend any requirement for narrative logic and simply let the impressively horrific atmosphere of the film wash over their psyches, but not if they're trying to make narrative sense out of the film.

A third Kubrick attribute that is relevant in relation to The Shining is Kubrick's attitude toward novels as source material for his films. Kubrick often used novels as source material but he typically didn't concern himself with "faithfulness" in his adaptations. When Kubrick purchased the rights to a novel, he was really only purchasing the broad ideas. He would then actively reshape the materials to suit his own particular vision of the subject matter. It's no accident that the full title of the present film is Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The liberties that Kubrick took with Stephen King's novel may be problematic for King or for his ardent fans, but it is certainly no problem from my vantage point as a film lover. Even for authors as revered as Jane Austen, Will Shakespeare, or Charles Dickens, I'm not a purist, though I expect deviations from the originals introduced by filmmakers to have some kind of rationale, such as rendering the story more cinematic or condensing it. Stephen King's prose is nothing that I value to any such extent, however. I'm far more interested in what Kubrick had to say on the topic than King. Besides, we've seen all too many faithful adaptations of King's novels, for either cinema or television, that have been rather shabby affairs (e.g., Sleepwalkers (1992), The Stand (1994), and The Shining (1997). In Kubrick's hands, the story is more psychological and less supernatural than it was for King, which fits my preferences to a tee. Stephen King purists be damned! Give me Kubrick!

That's not to say that there aren't problems with Kubrick's script in The Shining. In fact, the only thing keeping this film from being the equal of the best horror films ever made are script weaknesses. Those weakness, however, are not in the ways that Kubrick deviated from King's novel. Generally, where Kubrick has parted ways with the novel, it improved the film. At the same time, however, Kubrick introduced some of the kinds of narrative weaknesses that he has previously exhibited in other films. One major weakness is that Kubrick fails to establish any foundation of normality in his main characters before initiating the progression into insanity and terror. I've frequently stated in other reviews that the horror films that I personally find most effectively horrifying are those grounded in reality. The more fanciful a horror film, the less it is truly horrifying, at least for me. The second major weakness is one I alluded to above: the failure to provide any basis for some of the horrific images, such as the blood gushing out of the elevator or the collection of specters that suddenly appear briefly near the film's end. There's also a lack of clarity about how much of what happens represents supernatural events and how much mental instability. For much of the film, viewers can attribute the bizarre occurrences either to supernatural factors or to mental instability in Jack (postacute alcohol withdrawal symptoms, paranoid schizophrenia, problems with anger management) and/or Danny (clairvoyance, overactive fantasy life). Ultimately, however, Wendy also begins experiencing horrifying visions without any basis having been established for mental instability on her part. It might have been more effective to keep everything rational from at least one character's vantage point. There's nothing scarier than watching a sane person having to cope with an insane world, but here everyone goes nuts.

Despite those script weaknesses, I view this film as far more successful than not. I can't rank it with the greatest films of the horror genre, by which I mean especially The Exorcist and Psycho, but I rank it in the very next tier, just below the horror masterpieces. The horror in this film comes from atmosphere and pace, implied doom, emptiness and foreboding, and striking visual images. One impressive quality of The Shining is that Kubrick violates a whole slew of the conventions of the genre, instead of simply giving us another dose of the same old tired clichés. Instead of dark, Gothic corridors and halls, Kubrick gives us bright illumination and vivid, regal colors, such as in the hotel's Colorado Lounge, the cavernous Gold Ballroom, and a lavender-colored men's room. Kubrick uses the hotel's cramped kitchen and the Torrances' apartment to add a measure of claustrophobia when needed. Instead of a lot of snappy jump cuts to startle viewers out of their wits, Kubrick gives us a lot of long takes and a methodical pace that allows tension to percolate and grow. And like the other classics of the horror genre, The Shining provides viewers with some special moments, in the form of horrific images or quotable dialog (e.g., "Here's Johnny;" "I'm home;" "Danny's not here, Mrs. Torrance"), that are memorable.

The soundtrack for The Shining is rather special, though it was all pre-composed. Kubrick personally selected excerpts from music by Bela Bartok, Hector Berlioz, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Krzysztof Penderecki, which is a fine assortment of mostly twentieth century classical masters (along with one nineteenth century giant). The music adds greatly to the haunting atmosphere of the film.

What about the acting? Personally, I think it's outstanding, in a camp sort of way, except for the limitation that I spoke of above, relating to the script. All three of the Torrances are rather flaky, one way or another, right from the get-go. I would have preferred to see all three initially presented as more of an all-American family. Then the fall from grace would have been all the more profound. Nicholson, who is widely known for his depiction of crazed characters (e.g., One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Batman (1989), and just being a Laker fan), starts into his wild man act before the film is a half-hour old. There's too little held back for the final push. Similarly, poor Shelley Duvall is run through the ringer so many times in the film that there's nothing extra left for the climax. How many times can little Danny anticipate murder, whether forward or backwards, as "redrum?" "Redrum" gets drummed and re-drummed into the minds of the audience. If this was Kubrick's idea of building up to a climax, he must have worn his sex partners down to tatters. I attribute these problems, however, to the script, rather than the performances.

Nicholson's great career included roles in Five Easy Pieces (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), Chinatown (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), The Passenger (1975), Terms of Endearment (1983), Prizzi's Honor (1985), Batman (1989), A Few Good Men (1992), As Good As it Gets (1997), and About Schmidt (2002). Shelley Duvall, with those bug eyes, makes an ideal ingénue for a horror film. Her other film work has included McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves Like Us (1974), Annie Hall (1977), 3 Women (1977), Time Bandits (1981), Roxanne (1987), and The Portrait of a Lady (1996). Scatman Crothers, Joe Turkel, and Barry Nelson all gave nicely measured supporting performances, contrasting nicely with the crazed Torrances. Danny Lloyd was well utilized as Danny Torrance.

Bottom-Line: Warner Brothers originally came out with awful DVD transfers of several Kubrick films, but then had the decency to correct the deficit. Be sure to rent or buy the digitally restored and remastered version. Kubrick preferred his films to be released in fullscreen format and Warner Brothers has complied with a 1.33:1 ratio aspect. The soundtrack has been remastered into digital 5.1. The DVD includes a good quality behind-the-scenes documentary that was shot by Kubrick's daughter Vivian Kubrick concurrent with the shooting of the film itself. You can also listen to her commentary track for the documentary. The DVD provides scene access, soundtrack in English or French, and optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. This film is definitely worth a look not only for horror fans but for selective viewers who only want the best each genre has to offer.

Recommend this product? Yes

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