Who needs an endorsement from the author when he reportedly says, “I think he set out to make a film that hurts people,” which is supposedly what Stephen King said after watching Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of “The Shining.” True, any film that goes out of its’ way to try and do real damage to a viewer would be irresponsible, but Kubrick is anything but irresponsible. What he’s doing in his take on “The Shining” is boiling the horror genre down to its’ most essential element- pure, psychological horror. It’s something lacking in most of the cheapo genre entries we see year after year, but the genre’s best entries- even going as far back as the silent classics “Nosferatu” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”- excel at evoking. True, there are some gruesome scenes as well, but they serve to turn the screws of psychological horror as well. The combination is what makes Kubrick’s film a visceral, virtuoso thriller.
…well, that and the combination of star Jack Nicholson and the role of Jack Torrence as Kubrick imagined it. Although I’ve heard it said that Nicholson’s Torrence goes off the deep end too quickly, how much of the film’s momentum would have been lost had Kubrick developed the Torrences- including loopy, weak-willed wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and troubled son Danny (Danny Lloyd)- into an archetypal American family? Kubrick sets up his approach early on, when Wendy is talking with a doctor after Danny passes out. The scene is strictly exposition (much like the prior scene of Jack and the managers of the Overlook Hotel), but it does something even more important- it defines the characteristics that we’ll see come out of each character once they’re settled in at the Overlook for the seven-month stay. Wendy’s words about her husband and son don’t paint a portrait of a healthy family unit, but a tenuous bond that’s an inch away from snapping. Of course, fans of the book would’ve known what was coming; for that matter, so would viewers unfamiliar with the source material.
The reason is Nicholson, by now an established star for his work in, among others, “Chinatown,” “Easy Rider,” and the Oscar-winning “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Elements from all of those performances can be found in his Jack Torrence, as well as the raw materials for his Joker in “Batman” and Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men.” True, he would branch out in different directions courtesy the likes of James L. Brooks and Alexander Payne (among others), but “The Shining” is something of a focal point in his career. It was a culmination of what came before and- detours aside- a glimpse of what was to come. All the elements of the “Jack” persona are on display in “The Shining”- that rascally charm, that off-the-wall energy, and that wicked wit- and by the time he breaks down that bathroom door with a axe shouting, “Heeere’s Johnny!”, you’re caught up in his wake, and as scared shitless as Wendy and Danny. What was most inspired about Kubrick’s vision for Jack Torrence is that he saw Nicholson playing him- he fit Kubrick’s interests, and Nicholson’s work is a tour de force achievement for both.
And with that performance as his center of gravity, Kubrick builds the remainder of the film, which is a film of expansive scope (in terms of the sheer size of the Hotel, the hedge maze outside of it, and the long path leading towards), yet almost unbearable claustrophobia. By exploiting the Hotel’s size as a means of putting each character in utter isolation with one another, he increases the tension, mentally crushing down not only Jack, but also Wendy (whom Duvall, in the film’s most underappreciated performance, plays with just the right notes of terror and homeliness) and Danny, who’s had visions of death and pain shown to him though his ability to “shine” by way of Tony, “the little boy who lives in my mouth.” (It’s not much of a stretch to say that every “creepy kid” we’ve seen in horror films over the years is derived from Danny. None have equaled him, however, in the creep factor, a tribute to Lloyd, who only did one more film after this one.) Kubrick’s strategy- in keeping with King’s original concept- in making the Hotel as isolating as possible, to not only the characters inside of it but to the outside world, allows the director to create bold visuals (the opening panning shots as Jack heads to the Hotel, the gliding steadicam shots as Danny drives around on his toy bicycle and when walking around in the hedge maze, as well as the wide shots in the Hotel that make the characters seem smaller in relative size to the rooms their in), enhancing their impact on the viewer with an extraordinary use of sound, both in the form of sound effects (the echo of a tennis ball against a wall, the contrast in the toy bike over the hard wood floor, then carpet, as it goes down the halls of the Hotel) and music (though an original score was commissioned by Wendy Carlos, Kubrick’s collaborator on “A Clockwork Orange,” the director once again chose to blend obscure and evocative classical tracks with a handful of original cues, similar to his approach on “Orange” and later, “Eyes Wide Shut”). As with many Kubrick films, the dialogue is almost irrelevent- one could simply look at the film with just the music and sound effects, and not only know exactly what’s going on, but also be completely immersed in the story. More than any other horror movie apart from the silent classics, silence is what’s scary in “The Shining.”
In thinking of how to close my review, it occured to me that in that last sentence, I kind of point towards the thematic core of Kubrick’s film. The film is about a fractured family, alone in a vast hotel. They don’t talk about their problems or concerns, and don’t seem to appear to have any interest in being with one another. Of course, the place they’re at might have something to do with it, and come on, other families in less-extreme situations share some of these traits. But ultimately, can you honestly be shocked, looking at the Torrence’s through Kubrick’s microscope, that all three are susceptible, psychologically speaking, to the mysteries that are contained within the Outlook? That said, while it may seem inevitable in retrospect that what takes place happens- and not just because it’s a horror film- that doesn’t make it less terrifying to watch.