Since we are less than a week out from Halloween, let’s take a minute and talk about one of my personal favorite horror films. It has become such a favorite of mine that I generally watch it on Halloween day as a matter of tradition. This testament to the macabre is The Shining (1980) by legendary director Stanley Kubrick.
What by today’s horror standards would be considered a “slow burn”, The Shining details a descent into madness that is unrivaled in film. From that long opening establishing shot of the drive to the Overlook Hotel to the frantic race through the hedge maze in the blinding snow, to the very last reveal, Kubrick constructs a visual master’s class on direction.
It is important to not place all the credit onto the shoulders of Kubrick, but to also marvel at the work of the actors. Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall both give performances which are outstanding and in some cases defining. That image of Jack (Nicholson) busting through the door with the ax in hand delivering the famous line; “Heeeere’s Johnny!”, is indelible.
In all actuality, The Shining is full of moments and scenes on par with that iconic series of frames. The very first trailer for The Shining that was shown in cinemas consisted of just the stationary shot of the elevator doors sitting closed while gallons and gallons of blood start spilling out. How awesome is that? The trailer doesn’t tell you anything about the movie, just the title, director and who’s in it… all overlaying a scene with an ocean of blood! Even better, Kubrick said it was “rusty water” in order to make it pass the MPAA board!
In my opinion too many good films are slightly maimed by their trailers. Two great examples of this are What Lies Beneath (2000) and Cast Away (2000) which coincidentally both came out the same year and have the same director (Robert Zemeckis). Even though I said we would have a five year grace period for spoiler warnings and the trailers really do give these things away, I am going to do one here anyway. Soooo…
The trailer for What Lies Beneath literally tells you that Harrison Ford is the villain, while half the actual movie is built around this being a HUGE surprise… bad trailer! Then Cast Away goes and does the exact same thing (well mostly, it doesn’t say that Tom Hanks is the villain or anything), it blatantly shows that Tom Hanks gets off the island… bad trailer! I understand the need to show flashy things to get people into the cinema, but please take a page from The Shining, don’t do it at the expense of giving away the plot.
Okay, stepping off one soap box and onto another.
I know Stephen King did not like Kubrick’s film version of his novel, but I think it is the best adaptation of one of his novels to date. Carrie (1976) and Pet Sematary (1989) are both good (namely the killer Ramones song at the end of Pet Sematary) but they cannot hold a candle to The Shining (maybe The Green Mile (1999) or Shawshank Redemption (1994) come close). King’s description of the movie version as “a fancy car without an engine” is particularly unfair, especially when you look at the subtle craft found in the film itself. As an experiment, try and find the color red spread throughout the movie, it is everywhere. Granted, King had only been a big name writer for less than a decade, but he stands by his opinion of this adaptation.
I, of course, disagree. I think Kubrick actually streamlines and improves the plot and builds a much creepier story. The unorthodox way Kubrick treated Duvall, which by all accounts was traumatizing, got the best performance imaginable. She really does look beat down, tired and stress out so that by the time Jack (Nicholson) loses it, she is genuinely terrified. Even Jack Nicholson expressed how difficult it was working with Kubrick, but the ends justifies the means sometimes.
In summary, The Shining is actually in my Top Ten favorite movies of all time, mostly due to the outstanding cinematography, direction and acting. The story is wonderful of course, but if you take away visually striking scenes like Danny (Danny Lloyd) riding his big wheel around the hotel, or the part with the twin Grady girls, or that truly odd and scary scene of the people in the animal masks, the story is only so good.
Kubrick and company elevate the story and transcend the plot to make an insanely great example of “modern horror”. If you go away with nothing else from this post, go away with this axiom…