Retro Review: The Shining (1980)

Slow couple of months for new horror, so I thought it’d be a good time to do some retro reviews. You know, instead of doing real work.

Anyway, I turn first to what may well be the most popular horror film of all time (a statistic I might be able to verify if I wasn’t so incurably lazy). Clocking in at a grueling 2 hours, 23 minutes, we have The Shiningdirected by Stanley Kubrick and starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, some little kid, a Big Wheel, and an elevator full of blood (the last of whom I’m pretty sure went on to be nominated for an Oscar for his work on Argo).

The plot proceeds thusly: Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson), a down-on-his-luck abusive recovering alcoholic former schoolteacher aspiring writer (THERE WILL BE A QUIZ) moves to the Overlook Hotel in sunny Colorado with his wife Wendy (played by Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl, which is already a better joke than anything I could have come up with) and their son Danny (played by some kid).

So the Torrances move up to the Overlook to act as caretakers during the off-season, during which time Jack also hopes to get some work done on his undefined writing project. Turns out Danny has ESP, and so does the late Scatman Crothers, who plays the Overlook’s head chef. Crothers’ character, Dick Halloran, explains all about telepathy and whatnot to little Danny before returning home to his swinging pimp pad in Miami. In the most unabashed foreshadowing in the history of horror, it’s revealed quite early on that a previous caretaker (the role Jack is now assuming) went crazy and slaughtered his family. Little by little we come to see that the Overlook is haunted by all kinds of folks. Then you get your requisite creepy stuff, escalating toward insanity, with Jack, Amityville-style, going on a rampage and trying to kill everybody.

This is a Kubrick film, and while I’ve only seen a small segment of his portfolio, I am not, so far as I can tell, a fan (Full Metal Jacket being a notable exception). From my limited experience, Kubrick seems to have been a big fan of intense, suffocating, artificial awkwardness, and that is the overall flavor of The Shining. It tastes like awkward. I mean, twenty seconds of Scatman Crothers’ quivering face in extreme closeup is far less scary than it is uncomfortable. And not even horror uncomfortable. More like unintentionally intimate contact with a large stranger on a crowded subway awkward.

“Who put these photos of naked women on my damned walls?! Oh wait. Shit. It was me.”

I know, this is regarded as a classic, and perhaps it merits more serious treatment. But the damned thing is filmed like an episode of the Twilight Zone, if Twilight Zone was directed by, you know… Stanley Kubrick.

A big part of the problem is that I dislike being told how to feel. The score of this film–relentlessly “eerie,” loud, jarring, and often just so cheesy–gives absolutely no room for interpretation. “This is when you should be CREEPED OUT!” I imagine Kubrick yelling from his director’s chair at the end of the day when all the actors had left and he was alone on set. “Now give me my Oscar!” It doesn’t help that many of the scenes that are telegraphed as creepy just aren’t, like the Bloodevator (TM) or the obnoxious twins in blue dresses.

The really scary thing about this scene? The gross parental neglect.

The really scary thing about this scene? The gross parental neglect.

I know I’m not making any friends with this review. This film is beyond beloved. At the time of writing The Shining has a 90% rating from critics, and a 91% from fans on Rotten Tomatoes (the latter of which is based on more than 400,000 ratings). People are rabid about The Shining, and while I don’t understand it, I certainly respect the opinion of the masses. Kind of. But there’s just so much cheese here. Slow fade-outs, whiny violins, campy camera angles: I sort of feel that if anyone other than Kubrick had directed it, the cinematography would have been immediately likened to B slasher flicks by critics.

I like Jack Nicholson, I really do; but he’s just too goofy to be frightening. During his first chat with Lloyd the bartender in the Golden Room, I swear I thought he was going to cross his eyes and smack his lips like a cartoon character after downing his bourbon. I like comedy, for sure, but is that what they were going for here? If that’s what I wanted as a viewer, I probably wouldn’t have picked a Stephen King story. Certainly not a Kubrick film. And why does Shelley Duvall dress like she shops at the Goodwill in the Magic Kingdom?

Not pictured: her freakin' GALOSHES.

Not pictured: her freakin’ GALOSHES.

The part where Jackie makes out with the naked lady, only to look up and see her reflection in a mirror which reveals her as a gross rotting corpse (also really old) is certainly unpleasant. But again, it was broadcast way in advance by the whiny string music in the background. And the way it’s revealed, far from being frightening (which relies at least in part on timing), is soap opera-ish. Like, when Jack’s face registers shock, it could just as easily be because he sees his own long-lost evil twin holding a gun on him and his nakey lady.  And that would be more in line with the general atmosphere of the film as a whole.

I do like the treatment of ESP with Danny and Scatman. Danny’s got an “imaginary friend” named Tony, who occasionally speaks through him and incessantly mutters “Redrum… redrum….” in an annoying raspy voice that must have done permanent damage to the poor actor’s vocal chords. But the idea of Tony, a benevolent (if creepy) spirit who tries to help, is cool, as is the strange camaraderie between Scatman and Danny (who both “shine”). And Shelley Duvall is a great actor, even if she’s just unbearably weird. She’s the most pitiable horror heroine I can think of, and I was definitely rooting for her.

But I just don’t get the appeal. The film is okay. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the horror greats before or after that actually managed to incorporate fear into their scripts.

Actually I think that might be the reason for the appeal. This is horror for people who don’t like horror. This is horror for people who sort of dig Hitchcock and frequently wore bell-bottoms in their youth. Those aren’t bad things. But they’re not my things. Well actually, Hitchcock’s cool. Look, it sounded good in my head, Mr. Blogedit McGrammarbags.

But look! I have a new rating system! Ice cream wasn’t enough of a presence around this joint, so beginning now all films will get a rating out of five scoops. Because ICE CREAM!


6 thoughts on “Retro Review: The Shining (1980)

  1. Love your review. I love The Shining, but then again, I love b-slashers more than almost anything else.

    I watch this as a horror movie, not a Kubrick movie. It doesn’t feel like 2001, Dr. Strangelove, or Clockwork (the three that I watch the most).

    • Thanks! Yeah, I know I’m pretty much alone in my Shining-hate. I loved the novel, for what that’s worth, but the film just doesn’t do it for me.

      I’m really not all that familiar with Kubrick’s works, so I also view the Shining as a horror film. That’s where it fails for me. It sort of feels more like a horror spoof than an actual horror film.

      • I loved the novel as well, but saw the movie years before I ever even considered picking it up. I think people get defensive about The Shining because it unsettled so many of us as kids. It was one of the earlier horror movies that I saw.

        While I thought the novel was great and tense, the more faithful adaptation (that King wrote the teleplay for) lacked any replay value. The dated CGI nearly sinks the whole thing.

        What I particularly liked about your article is that you critiqued the movie on its own merits. It’s a shame when people can’t accept that films and novels are two different mediums with inherent differences.

        It’s fun to think of such a well regarded film in a different way.

      • You make a good point about the Shining as a source of traumatic nostalgia. Heh. I don’t think I saw it until I was significantly older, probably in my late teens. I bet if I’d seen it at age five I wouldn’t have slept for months.

        Thanks for the kind words. I agree that different media should be evaluated differently. I think you sort of put your finger on why people react the way they do, though. People have a sense of ownership of certain stories, and on a certain level I can understand why they get upset when an adaptation fails to meet their own standards. But as they say, you can please some of the people some of the time, etc. etc.

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