There is a certain generation of directors whose filmography would span genres and they would use their unique voice to tell all sorts of stories with equal parts respect and creativity. Every director would have a checklist of their genre films, including their horror piece. Francis Ford Coppola directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula between wrapping up the Godfather trilogy and before heading to his comedy film. William Friedkin directed The Exorcist between a detective story and a thriller set in the South American jungle. Even Rob Reiner directed Misery between his classic rom-com and courtroom dramas.
Among these directors is Stanley Kubrick, whose work is so varied yet so meticulously executed that almost all of his genre pieces could be accurately considered the high water mark for that category. The Shining is often considered one of the ultimate horror classics. Now, almost 40 years after its release, let’s see if the horror classic is up to snuff with modern horror.
Spoiler Alert: It absolutely is. Kubrick is a master, and I think The Shining is where his skill absolutely shines (pun definitely intended). The filmmaking it takes to get visceral reactions out of an audience can be so ham-fisted or barely present, but Kubrick has just the right amount of mystery and structure that the film works so well. From the beginning, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a menace. Everything about him is so creepy, thanks to Nicholson’s wonderful performance, and his relationship with his family often seems strained. Danny (Danny Lloyd) is surprisingly well acted, especially considering the notorious amount of takes Kubrick is known for. He’s just a kid. Nothing annoying or overly juvenile about him, which is perfect. Wendy (Shelly Duvall) is a character I have some problems with, but with the character given, Duvall gives a fantastic terrified reaction, something that pays off in the climax of the film.
Planting the seed of a strained family, we go into the Overlook with a transition of a wonderful, droning score and helicopter shots of them driving into isolation. The Overlook as a setting is fascinating. With a novel you can take the time to explain the deep mythology of the hotel, but in a movie merely the hints and vestiges of past events can be shown. The horror settles in the rise and fall of these vestiges showing up, mainly manifesting in Jack.
This film isn’t without its faults though. For one, the crash zooms. They aren’t used often but when they show up they took me right out of the film. Kubrick was often on the cutting edge of filmmaking technology, using the most recent advancements to the tell a story in it’s best form. The crash zoom was one of these recent advancements and, for the time, it was an unsettling and properly placed effect. Now, probably due to the frequent and often comedic use of crash zooms in social media, it made me laugh. I was sucked back in by whatever supernatural event the zoom was emphasizing, but nonetheless the spell was broken a few times.
The other part that bothers me is Wendy’s character. Stephen King, author of the novel The Shining, has a main talking point about how flimsy and weak Wendy was adapted to be. She has a submissive quality to her and while in the book it’s often chalked up to a fear of Jack’s history of alcoholism, in this film she is just lower by default. The alcoholism and fear is there, but not as present as it was in the book. Her rescue of Danny and the escape at the end is admirable, but the rest of the film shows that husband-wife relationship completely differently from the book to a fault. Creative liberty is fine, but this was at the expense of another character to more deeply relate to in the face of Jack’s rampage.
This film is undeniably a classic. Kubrick’s work varies in quality for me, but The Shining is the work of a real master. I saw it in a theater and that was an absolutely unnerving experience. It is a slow burn but once the climax gets rolling, you won’t feel comfortable in your skin for hours after watching it. The images, sounds, and movements all come together to create an almost perfect horror movie.