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SHINING, THE (director/writer: Stanley Kubrick; screenwriter: Diane Johnson; cinematographer: John Alcott; editor: Ray Lovejoy; music: Wendy Carlos/Rachel Elkind; cast: Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrance), Shelley Duvall (Wendy Torrance), Danny Lloyd (Danny Torrance), Scatman Crothers (Dick Halloran), Philip Stone (Delbert Grady), Pat Hingle (Pete Watson), Barry Nelson (Ullman), Anne Jackson (Doctor), Joe Turkel (Lloyd the Bartender); Runtime: 146; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Stanley Kubrick; Warner Home Video; 1980-UK)
“It’s arguably the talented director’s least appealing film, as it feels empty and soulless.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

I had some problems with Stanley Kubrick’s (“Full Metal Jacket”/”Paths of Glory”/”Barry Lyndon”) adaptation of Stephen King’s terrifying second novel (King has stated in interviews that the book was meant as a metaphor for his own struggle with alcoholism, and took exception to the way Kubrick filmed it), which almost completely changed the book to make it more audience friendly (throwing out most of its originality but still retaining its banality). It became less of a frightening ghost story than it was in the book (in fact Kubrick and the cowriter, American novelist Diane Johnson, showed ambivalent feelings about the horror film genre and tried to make it less of a horror story by redefining the genre and instead used as their theme the disintegration of an American family when trust goes out the window–the wife never trusts hubby after he was in a drunken stupor and broke their son’s arm and the hubby never gets over his guilt-feelings). It’s arguably the talented director’s least appealing film, as it feels empty and soulless–relying far too much on studio-based shock effects to have much of a deeper psychological impact. Though cinematographer John Alcott keeps it visually striking, the music by the likes of Bela Bartok, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Krysztof Penderecki is sometimes effective in striking the right scare mood and the film has its few ironical moments of triumph about a failed marriage, it nevertheless suffers from a miscast over-the-top absurdly hammy performance by Jack Nicholson as the leering psycho who never lifts his character from being cartoonish, a Shelley Duvall characterization that’s reduced to only whimpering and acting hysterically semi-retarded, and under Kubrick’s vision it strays from a conventional classic horror story to look more like a cheesy crowd-pleasing (did a great box office) version of The Exorcist (1973). By using images such as the elevators full of blood, naked women ghosts coming out of a bathtub and mirrors that reveal ghostly signs to get cheap scares and erotic thrills, the film never builds in psychological tension or allows the frustrated couple to be sympathetic characters that the audience can empathize with.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a reformed alcoholic on the wagon and a former schoolteacher who is new to the Denver area and is now hoping to write a novel (in the book it mentions Jack was fired as a teacher in Vermont for striking a pupil, had deep marital problems and had a long-term drinking and anger-management problem). He lands a seemingly ideal winter temp job for a novice writer seeking solitude, as he’s hired from October 30 to May 15 as a caretaker in the isolated luxury Overlook Hotel atop the Rocky Mountains and brings along his fidgety wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his psychic seven year old son Danny (Danny Lloyd)–someone who has the “shining” (can see the past and future events) and who talks to an imaginary friend named Tony who lives in his mouth. We know the kid has the shining because the head chef of the hotel Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) has the shining and before he departs for his Florida winter home meets the kid and immediately finds a soul brother. The good-natured chef also warns the kid not to enter Room 237 because there’s nothing there but it could be trouble if ghosts are reawakened. The hotel manager, Ullman (Barry Nelson), previously told Jack that in 1970 the caretaker named Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) went berserk and put the ax to his wife and twin daughters and finally himself.

The empty resort is filled with demonic supernatural forces and a grouchy Jack is induced by the evil surroundings to become hostile to his family and blame them for all his failures, and when unable to write he either bangs a tennis ball against the hotel wall or hangs out in the empty bar that stocks no liquor but gets him drunk by just soaking in the atmosphere (sort of like a shining). When a severe winter snowstorm hits and the roads to the resort are not passable, a Jack with a feeling of being hopelessly trapped in a dead-end completely freaks out and the bartender ghost Lloyd and the ghost of Grady egg him on to kill his family. When his wife discovers that all he wrote so far was the one line over and over “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” a nutty expression comes over Jack and he picks up an ax and utters the comical retort “Here’s Johnny!” as he breaks down the bathroom door’s panel in his attempt to kill his wife.

Kubrick fails to follow-up with a more moving, dramatic and developed story on the excellent set-up sequence of the innocent family stuck in the snowbound, empty and isolated luxury resort in the dead-of-winter and who are threatened by invisible outside forces (from Native American ghosts to more recent ghosts) and inner turmoil that the adults can’t handle but only the gifted psychic kid can. Thereby what we get from Kubrick is a surprisingly, for a man of his stature, unexceptional film that either dumbs down or rehabilitates King’s novel (depending on your point of view) to the point where it’s enjoyable mostly for the usual greatness of the Kubrick style, his sometimes funny and sometimes poignant statements about a scary marriage from hell and his obsession for getting the small details exactly right.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”