In a recent poll of the best horror movies, Empire magazine listed The Shining as number one. Any such list should be greeted with suspicion, but it’s as easy to find as many reasons as not to herald Stanley Kubrick’s incredible film as potentially the genre’s best. It has elements of everything you might come to understand as essential to a horror film and delivered with customary, clinical precision by one of the finest filmmakers of all time. Kubrick invests the film with calm innovation at every turn. The result is an audience-baiting thriller masquerading as fine art. Perfect cinema then. The man’s oeuvre could sometimes be cold and detached, but the lack of sentimentality here is as crucial as it is cruel.
If this is to be your first visit to The Overlook Hotel, you’re in for a perverse treat. The story begins with Jack Torrance (a perfectly cast Jack Nicholson) accepting a job as caretaker at the hotel when it closes for the winter. He and his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), along with their son Danny (Danny Lloyd), will become the sole occupants of the strange, cavernous building for several months, cut-off from civilisation by a snowy mountain pass. Jack intends to fill his days by writing his great novel in-between the minimal work needed to keep the place ticking over, but are they the only occupants? Ghostly sightings and latent psychic ability (manifested as an imaginary friend called Tony) beguile Danny. Meanwhile his father seems to be losing his mind to the hotel’s more permanent residents. Poor Wendy is stuck in-between, trying to support her husband while protecting her son.
The psychological question hanging over the small family provides the substance. Is the hotel haunted, or is it all in their minds? Read it either way you wish, the effect on Jack Torrance is unchanged and it still gives Kubrick the scope to explore the building both visually and narratively. By the final act, it doesn’t even matter what you think anymore. It’s like we’ve been watching an intricate domino display being built to deliver a cathartic and perfectly executed conclusion. And yet, threads are left to tantalise and be picked at during the inevitable future viewings you’ll try to deny yourself. Just what the hell is in room 237?!
Jack Nicholson has arguably never been better, even more so than in Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest a few years earlier (curiously a role that might be seen as the polar opposite of this one). His propensity for over-acting is corralled by the Kubrick method of dozens upon dozens of takes, his natural intensity steadily allowed to build. Shelley Duvall’s trick is merely maintaining consistency in his shadow. That isn’t intended to be a backhanded compliment; her role is largely reactionary, but it was no small task to always be slightly muddled, submissive and at breaking point.
Meanwhile the performance Kubrick coaxes out of young Danny Lloyd is extraordinary as, on him, the very concept of ‘Shining’ rests. He is perhaps the lead character, strictly speaking. So often horror films use the easy sentimental route of exploiting the child, which is all well and good, unless the kid is, frankly, annoying, then the film entire suffers. Not so here and he’s probably one of the best haunted children in cinema. This was Danny’s only role, but sort of counts as quitting while he’s ahead in that case. Kubrick was the kind of director actors spent a lifetime wanting to work with; Lloyd had done so before he was ten! Or maybe he was put off by Kubrick’s legendary intensity.
The supporting cast are few and Scatman Crothers stands out in the memorable role of Dick Hallorann, doggedly trying to get back to the hotel. He shares Danny’s Shining ability and knows something is going wrong. Meanwhile as Jack leans closer towards utterly bonkers, he finds a couple of friends eager to nudge him along; quietly intense barman Lloyd (Joe Turkel) and a very subservient waiter called Delbert (Philip Stone). Stone especially gets under your skin. So quiet, calm and still, the man is terrifying, yet does very little except whisper poison. “If I may be so bold, sir”.
Scatman fans outside of the US will especially enjoy this edition of The Shining, as he gets a decent bite of the missing 25 minutes that have been finally restored for this UK release. Kubrick favoured the 119 minute cut as the extra footage is largely exposition, and the shorter edition is therefore the more intelligent and sharper. In Kubrick terms though, it’s hardly bloated! It’s a credit to the production that you just can’t have too much of that gorgeous, silky smooth visual. It’s still a masterpiece and catnip for fans. There’s a bit more of Tony (Danny’s imaginary friend), but the real scenes of interest are those expanding on Jack’s troubled background. Horror master Stephen King wrote the book on which the film is based, but despite his unique aesthetic being a key ingredient, by all accounts he hated the film mainly because his version of Jack is a normal guy. Nicholson is too sinister to be normal and the longer cut emphasises this edge even more.
Perhaps though, that is the secret to The Shining. Kubrick appears to hide nothing in the adaptation, front-loading the horror imagery, underlining the source. The music by Wendy Carlos is key to creating a persistent discomfort, in much the same electronic method that John Carpenter brought to The Thing or Halloween (perhaps a keyboard with funky samples is the real trick to successful horror?), along with Alien-style horns, heartbeat rhythm and what might be Native American percussion. The book featured an Native American graveyard, which didn’t survive the adaptation, except maybe in the music and certainly the decor of some parts of the hotel. It’s another of the not-entirely explained ingredients that made The Shining such an enigma.
By the end, when the violence has played out, the unsettling sense of dread persists long after the credits roll. If this was your first visit the The Overlook Hotel, you may wonder how you managed to stay as long as you did. It gives the viewer scant easy reward for the investment. Against your better judgement, you’re likely to return and try to unlock the secret of room 237. Most of Kubrick’s work benefits from multiple viewings anyway, more so than most other directors. Very few artists have that ability, and some films just shine more than others.
This edition is identical to the previous UK blu-ray release, but for the longer cut of the film, so it’s a frustrating release for existing fans who may already have it. The extra features are the same and they have inevitably lost their own shine for Kubrick devotees considering this new edition
Only the US cut is included; but it’s the US cut of The Shining! 25 minutes more Kubrick. 25 more minutes that do slightly change the flavour of a much-loved film. It’s essential viewing whether you know the film or not, so the importance of the extra features is superfluous, but valuable to new viewers.
Commentary by Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown and Kubrick Biographer John Baxter: A superb commentary. The Shining is known for the innovation of of the long tracking shots, so Garrett, who invented steadicam, offers a brilliant insight. As does John, unlocking some of the elusive Kubrick method. The two aren’t in conversation either, so there are very few dead spots as the editing covers each other.
View from The Overlook:
Crafting The Shining: (30m) A scatter-shot, but concisely thorough look at the development of the film, the departure from the book and how it was filmed.
The Visions of Stanley Kubrick: (18m) Captures the unique visual approach of the director, and beyond The Shining. It’s an interesting look at how brilliant a photographer Kubrick was and how he transferred that knowledge of lenses and their effect onto cinema.
The Making of The Shining: (35m) Includes optional commentary by Vivian Kubrick. A cinéma-vérité documentary, so an acquired taste, but it shows another angle to the making of the film in a very open way.
Wendy Carlos, Composer: (8m) A short, but interesting interview with Wendy Carlos, who demonstrates some of her revolutionary work for The Shining, including a piece that wasn’t used.
The video quality is wonderful, capturing all the detail of that famous carpet and truly horrific chintzy hallways. It appears to be the same transfer as previously released. It’s a beautifully lit film with a textures so well defined they have a tactile quality.
Return to The Overlook Hotel for a little longer this time.