From the Vault #5: THE SHINING (1980)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from October 31st, 2012, revisited with Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep just around the corner…

I’m going to throw out there a statement that is controversial when you say it about any movie: The Shining is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. There, I said it. That’s right out there and I’m standing by it.

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s well-known psychological horror is a remarkable piece of work, operating on an incredible amount of levels. It’s the most chilling movie I have honestly ever watched; other movies have made me jump more, or squirm, but The Shining every time gets inside my bones, gets inside my head, and refuses to go anywhere. The sign of a truly great movie is one that won’t leave you when the credits roll, and Kubrick’s tale sits in a very select group of films that have done that to me, and continue to on repeat viewing.

Despite a great number of elements coming together to make this so memorable, Kubrick I believe deserves singling out for the highest praise.

His direction, from the opening long shots of the car heading through the Colorado mountains, is stark, eerie, evocative and downright terrifying; he captures perfectly that ominous sense of horror, of evil infecting every frame, not to mention the isolation Jack Nicholson & Shelley Duvall’s Jack & Wendy Torrance go through in the Overlook Hotel with son Danny. He shoots wide, open, instantly developing the spacious Overlook into a character all of its own – wide hallways, impressive towering lounges, all are his playing field and strangely the larger his scope, the colder and more terrifying his canvas paints.

Voices echo, young Danny Torrance cycles around seemingly unending corridors, the hotel as much a gigantic maze as the actual garden maze outside. It’s Kubrick’s framing, his slow camera work giving way to sudden flashes of intense horror, that truly create the atmosphere Nicholson can play in to such a degree. He allows King’s narrative to carefully escalate, building to such a nerve-shattering fever pitch by the much-aped climax the isolation almost becomes claustrophobic; given how huge his setting, the fact Kubrick makes the terror here seem so personal is an incredible achievement.

Credit for that must equally go to the performances that root the picture. After a short preamble setting the scene, Kubrick keeps the action largely to three players and in different ways, they are utterly magnetic. Nicholson is a revelation, a possible career best turn as caretaker Torrance that allows him to morph his natural, dangerous charisma into a performance of sheer, escalating madness; sometimes Jack has a tendency to play Jack, but this is one of those few movies where he just becomes who he is playing – it’s a tour de force.

Duvall to many I’m sure comes across far too twee or OTT in her terror, but Wendy is a difficult part to play; as the psychological victim of Jack’s madness, she is steadily broken down into a morass of fear and confusion and Duvall conveys that viscerally – one senses the breakdown she was having on set through Kubrick’s infamous obsession with relentless takes spilled into her character. Danny Lloyd as their son is equally strong, one of those unnerving child actors very good at bringing out a quiet terror, unsettling you as a viewer – whenever he’s communicating as his (possibly) imaginary friend, he’s utterly creepy.

Praise too for Scatman Crothers, in a small but important role (and he’s involved in one of the most vivid moments of horror), plus Phillip Stone as the truly unnerving Delbert Grady – the moment with he & Torrance in the bathroom is among the most eerie of the piece. Kubrick allows a plethora of such moments – be it simply recreating a 1920’s ballroom, Wendy finding Jack’s book, Danny cycling and encountering the twins and, of course, the woman in the bath – which truly has to be one of the most sickening and disturbing scenes committed to celluloid. It helps too that Kubrick overlays all this with a choice amount of dark, almost Gothic classical strings from an array of composers such as Bartok and Penderecki which give the piece a somewhat sweeping, epic and constantly foreboding mood.

I’m not sure I’m capable of picking anything in the way of holes when it comes to The Shining. If anything, it deserved to be longer, Torrance’s descent into the maelstrom given a shade more build up (as I’m sure the newly unveiled extended cut does – I shall hopefully soon find out), but beyond that this is flawless filmmaking. Stanley Kubrick’s best piece of work, in my opinion, Jack Nicholson’s too – terrifying, beautiful and nightmarish in its lensing, acted with consummate skill and given an atmosphere of such brooding, unnerving intensity its an ordeal to make it to the end, for all the right reasons.

A true masterpiece.

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