Classic Review: The Shining

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: Shockingly effective, if not always horrifying.

Review:  Very strange things take place in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’; and it’s certainly extreme in its depiction of isolation-induced insanity, its suspenseful build-up, and its violent and graphic imagery.  But I’m just not sure if any of it was really frightening.

A young couple agrees to spend the winter caretaking a remote hotel hidden deep within the mountains.  For husband Jack (Jack Nicholson), a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic, this seems a perfect place to work on his new novel, with plenty of solitude and time on his hands.  As the winter settles in, however, he begins acting strangely towards his wife (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd), and it seems he is cracking under cabin fever.  Not only that, but it seems the hotel itself, scarred by a violent and dark past, is calling out to him, sending him twisted visions and messages.  Danny, who possesses a unique telepathic gift called “Shining”, is also receiving strange, horrific visions.  It’s only a matter of time before both the elements and the supernatural push these people to their breaking point.

That’s the gist of the story, but while watching the movie it’s rather difficult to figure out what exactly is going on.  Because of the dual ideas of dementia and paranormal activity, the film has a way of confusing the audience, making them wonder what’s real and what’s imagined.  Are these people really seeing ghosts, or is it all in their heads?  Are evil spirits driving Jack, or has he just snapped under the isolation?  They are interesting questions that are, unfortunately, left unanswered.  Granted, such ambiguity is a trademark of director Stanley Kubrick, so I suppose I can’t be all that surprised.

This is, of course, one of only thirteen films made by Stanley Kubrick in his lifetime, and it certainly shows Kubrick’s strong direction.  He was man of unique ideas and opinions, and they always showed through in his works.  It’s possible he had some particularly weird notions about this film.  According to Kubrick himself, any story involving ghosts was inherently “optimistic” because it seemed to promise a life after death.  In that weird sense, ‘The Shining’ is a hopeful, arguably religious experience.  Do I really think this film is optimistic?  No, the idea of “optimism” in a film about evil spirits, simply because they imply eternal life, is a sad irony, and I doubt Kubrick was going for that.

There’s a lot in this movie that’s gruesome and mysterious.  It has a spine-chilling score and weird cinematography at times.  Nicholson gives a truly creepy performance as Jack grows ever more deranged.  It all should be scary, but I just didn’t think it was.  It’s not that I was bored or uninvolved; I just wasn’t terrified.  Something about the film didn’t tie all the elements together.  Granted, there were some very shocking moments, and the idea of the film certainly has great potential, but the overall story didn’t scare me the way it should have.  Things felt too distant.  The characters were strange and far away to me.  I guess I wasn’t as involved with them as I was with mysteries of the hotel they were in, and it’s hard to feel afraid for characters you don’t feel much for.

Even if it’s not particularly scary overall, this is still a solid, suspenseful, and very entertaining film.  A strong story (based on Stephen King’s original novel) with unique camera work and music, coupled with really great work on Nicholson’s end, make it a classic in my book.  One watch will promise at least a few shocking moments, and you might just find yourself surprisingly engaged in the story, even if you have no problems going to bed that night.


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