The Shining (1980) Review

One of the few cases where a filmmaker (Stanley Kubrick) takes a popular novel (by Stephen King), makes some big changes and the film comes out the drastically better product. Kubrick intended on making a good old fashioned ghost story with this and I will testify that he succeeded in grand fashion. This movie was like no other horror film that I had seen at the time and it did rattle my cage.

It has my vote for some of the creepiest scenes of all time; from the bathtub scene to the discovery that Wendy makes about what her husband had been doing with his time. It is one of the movies that really did scare me when I saw it as a teenager (several years after it’s initial release).

Jack Nicholson is a complete beast in the role of the father that begins to lose his grip on reality. His descent into madness is slow and methodical, which is what you’d expect in a Kubrick film. This is one of his best roles in a career filled with one brilliant performance after another. The great thing about Nicholson, is that even when he plays ‘normal’ he still seems kind of crazy. In the scenes where he has to portray a normal guy trying to get a job, he still has an edginess to him. I don’t think I would have hired him.

The arguments that Torrence has with his wife are very intense. Nicholson is very believable as a man who’s spiraling out of control.


The premise of Kubrick’s story is mostly the same. A man, Jack Torrence, gets a job as a cartetaker for the isolated Overlook hotel. It closes during the winter months because of its location and the cost of the road upkeep. This is perfect for Jack, an aspiring writer who looks to use the time to write his great American novel. He’ll be alone except for his wife Wendy and their young son Danny (Danny Lloyd).

The son, Danny, happens to be clairvoyant, though, having an ‘imaginary friend’ who may not be so imaginary that tells him things. The director used a clever  (and simple) way of having the imaginary friend manifest himself. It has quite a creepy effect in the story. While his dad is miles away accepting the job, the imaginary friend. “Tony” tries to warn the boy about the hotel which has some dark secrets.

Later, the family arrives at the hotel while the employees are shutting down for the winter. They meet the staff cook, played by the eternally affable Scatman Crothers.

When he takes Danny to get ice cream while his parents are touring the hotel he reveals that he too has psychic abilities like Danny. He almost immediately begins to worry about the family when the boy asks a few odd quetions about certain rooms in the hotel and such.

It doesn’t take long for the fun to begin as Nicholson’s character begins to show signs of mental breakdown. And that’s all you need to know… There is a steady buildup of tension and the feelings of isolation that the family begins to suffer from.

The audience is aware of things that the characters in the story aren’t necessarily aware of, until they’re actually faced with a physical threat.

As I mentioned, Kubrick made quite a few changes to King’s original story. Although, alcoholism is a part of the story, Kubrick got rid of King’s ‘message’. The boiler in the basement of the hotel is briefly mentioned, but is no longer the representation of  the father’s mindset in the story.

Kubrick also made some big substitutions. The topiary animals are THANKFULLY traded in for a gigantic maze that adds some needed clever twists in the finale. And the weapon of choice  in the book, a croquet mallet is traded in for a much scarier axe.

Kubrick gradually builds up from a slow burn to a virtual horror inferno by film’s end. All of the little details he drops all come together at the finale.  His use of first person viewpoints, the slow moving camera pans and just the way he frames the hotel illustrates the vastness of the Overlook and the character’s frames of mind perfectly.

That the film is partially seen through the eyes of young Danny actually captures a little of the fear of the unknown in a strange place sometimes felt by children of that age.

Right from the beginning Kubrick begins building towards the intended feelings of isolation, by showing the family VW traveling alone on miles of deserted highway just to arrive at the Overlook. The aerial camera weaves along through the mountains and forests that surround the Overlook’s location. He gives a great sense of how alone the family will be before a word is ever spoken or a character is even shown onscreen.

The score for the film greatly adds to the eeriness and to the sense of danger that the family  is in. It’s a very distinctive soundtrack that is every bit as effective as the best horror soundtracks (Psycho, Jaws, Alien, The Exorcist,Halloween, etc…) and is one of my personal favorites.

One thing I didn’t get at the time I originally saw this was how much the film works because of Duvall’s performance as the wife who takes the brunt of his madness. She is definitely underrated in this with Nicholson and Llloyd getting a lot of the attention.

She takes the brunt of her husband’s breakdown, while also having to deal with her son’s psychic episodes (of which she’s unaware that he’s actually precognitive). Winters doesn’t give off the vibe of action heroine, so when she has to take action it’s all the more suspenseful whether she’s capable of defending herself along with her son against  the forces at work in the hotel with no  (or very little) help from the outside world. Duvall really is an underrated talent, but Kubrick  knew what he was doing in casting the atypical female lead.

Young Danny Lloyd was highly memorable in this, but a lot of the credit has to go to the director when young children are involved. It’s interesting to note that Lloyd didn’t even know they were making a horror film until many years later.

The late Scatman Crothers is great as the ill fated cook, too. I always liked him, no matter what the film was. he seemed to be in a great deal of things back then, maybe most importantly to ME playing the voice of Hong Kong Phooey (fan-riffic!).

Stephen King was outraged that Kubrick stripped his novel down and changed the meaning of his story, but this was a good example of a prose writer who has no clue about storytelling when it comes to other media.

Just see that TV movie version of this that was produced many years later. It’s a complete dog, but King stands by his claim that it’s the superior version. He’s wrong, of course.

This is easily one of the best horror flicks ever made. It’s just a well made movie. It made my own Top 100 Movies of the 1980s and the Best Films of 1980, as well. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a good ghost story (or just a great movie).

5 of 5

 

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2 Responses to “The Shining (1980) Review”

  1. [...] The Shining (Kubrick’s horror classic that is far superior to the book. I’ve read [...]

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