Early in “The Shining,” Jack Nicholson’s clearly unwell Jack Torrance tells his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) the story of the Donner Party, the group of pioneers that resorted to cannibalism after they became snowbound. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to predict that things will not go well when Jack, Danny and Wendy (Shelly Duvall) spend the winter holed up at the Overlook Hotel, but then, “The Shining” isn’t interested in suspense so much as it’s interested in seeing a family’s worst fears slowly become reality.
Stanley Kubrick’s formal control is at its peak here, as the film’s methodical, humming dread builds over many fluid Steadicam shots of Danny circling the hotel on his Big Wheel or Jack battling writer’s block, only to be broken up by startling, arrhythmic jolts that are made more terrifying by the fact that they come not from corners of the frame, as expected in most horror films, but by the center. He’s aided by the soundtrack choices of Bela Bartok and Krzysztof Penderecki, the latter of whom seems to have written his percussive numbers as a way to simulate the feeling of going bonkers. And while some find Nicholson and Duvall’s heightened performances to be a bit much, the first is likely the most frighteningly accurate portrait of a rage-fueled, mentally ill alcoholic ever put on screen (listen to the tapes of Mel Gibson screaming at his ex-girlfriend if you doubt it), and the latter’s hysteria is perfectly pitched to the film, not to mention understandable given that she’s being chased by ghosts and an ax-wielding Jack Nicholson.
“The Shining” has inspired as many people to pore over it with a Kubrickian level of obsession as any film in history, to the point where it inspired a documentary that allowed five obsessives to pore over key scenes with their pet theories. Is it all a metaphor for Native American genocide? Or for the Holocaust? Or a coded confession that Kubrick faked the moon landing? Does it have little of Stephen King’s story of battles with alcoholism, or does it make the fear of it all the more palpable by shifting the perspective to those who have to live with the man who’s slowly losing it? What’s so striking about “The Shining” is that no matter what explanation is given, there’s always something that remains mysterious and inexplicable (and all the more terrifying because of it) even as it seems to actively encourage obsession. It’s not just one of the scariest movies ever made: it’s the great cinematic Rorschach test.
More thoughts from the web:
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
The unhurried pace, extended dialogue scenes and those sudden, sinister inter-titles (“One Month Later”, “4pm”) contribute to the insidious unease. Nicholson’s performance as the abusive father who is tipped over the edge is a thrillingly scabrous, black-comic turn, and the final shot of his face in daylight is a masterstroke. “The Shining” doesn’t look like a genre film. It looks like a Kubrick film, bearing the same relationship to horror as “Eyes Wide Shut” does to eroticism. Read more.
Ashley Clark, Little White Lies
Snaking around the expanse of the Overlook, the camera assumes an omniscient, implicating power; a supernatural presence in itself. Even more chilling is the sound design, a deeply unsettling contrast of dead silence and piercing noise. The score is a tangle of discordant, high-pitched stabs and eerie howls that includes works by modernist composers like Bartok, Krzysztof Penderecki and the mournful synth dirge of Wendy Carlos. Thanks to the judicious sound editing, even the title cards are frightening. Read more.
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
The movie is not about ghosts but about madness and the energies it sets loose in an isolated situation primed to magnify them. Jack is an alcoholic and child abuser who has reportedly not had a drink for five months but is anything but a “recovering alcoholic.” When he imagines he drinks with the imaginary bartender, he is as drunk as if he were really drinking, and the imaginary booze triggers all his alcoholic demons, including an erotic vision that turns into a nightmare. We believe Hallorann when he senses Danny has psychic powers, but it’s clear Danny is not their master; as he picks up his father’s madness and the story of the murdered girls, he conflates it into his fears of another attack by Jack. Wendy, who is terrified by her enraged husband, perhaps also receives versions of this psychic output. They all lose reality together. Read more.
Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine
Owing a massive debt to the still-new Steadicam device, “The Shining’s” gliding, prowling cinematography gives off the impression of momentum even as the three main characters are stalling out, letting tedium and seclusion open up all their festering familial resentments. One early sequence places Wendy and Danny within the bowels of the Overlook’s overtly Jungian hedge maze. Jack, frustrated and spending all his writing time in the hotel lobby throwing a tennis ball against the wall, strolls over to a model of the maze. A POV shot of Jack’s overhead gaze tracks in slowly until you notice that the two tiny figures of Wendy and Danny are wandering at the center of the shot. It’s a memorable summary image for their situation—even given a foreshadowing moment of seeming omniscience, Jack can’t free himself from his family any more than his family can escape the sprawling maze—and it’s punctuated by the fact that it is one of the only trick shots in the entire film. Read more.
Josh Larsen, Larsen On Film/Filmspotting
“The Shining” is above all a movie about spaces, and how few things are more frightening than not knowing which way to go. The picture begins with a detailed tour, as the Overlook Hotel manager (Barry Nelson) guides Jack Torrance (Nicholson) through the premises before handing him the keys for the long, lonely winter. It’s crucial that we know – or think we know – where each of the Overlook’s corridors leads. This way we have a sense of (false) safety established before Kubrick manipulates our movement through the space he and production designer Roy Walker have so intricately established. Read more.
Janet Maslin, The New York Times
What will scare an audience? Kubrick approaches the matter playfully, as when he films a little boy riding a tricycle, lowering the camera to handlebar-level and exaggerating the sound of the wheels rolling across evenly-spaced rugs on a wooden floor. The image is a harmless one, and still Kubrick makes it chilling. Indeed, the early parts of “The Shining,” which draw their ominousness from household artifacts and the hints of an unhappy marriage, are far more frightening than the standard horrorfilm fiendishness of the ending. Read more.
Nathan Rabin, The Dissolve
In serving the Overlook and Lloyd—who implicitly posits homicide as a reasonable price to pay for an unlimited bar tab and unlimited bourbon—Jack is really serving his alcoholism and his addiction. In his ghost-assisted delirium, Jack’s most important relationship is with alcohol. His addiction tells him that this is the only relationship he needs and will ever need, and that he must destroy anything that gets between him and his passionately re-committed love affair with booze. For instance, the “outsiders” Lloyd ominously warns him Danny is trying to summon to the Overlook. For an alcoholic lost in sickness, the idea of accepting help from “outsiders”—like AA or a rehab center—is tantamount to failure, if not outright spiritual death. And like Jack, The Overlook is a dry drunk, a booze-saturated place that has managed to eschew alcohol for whole seasons at a time while retaining the toxic air and creepy vibes of a whiskey-addled pleasure palace of über-perversity. The nightmarish qualities of alcohol have permeated The Overlook’s aura on a visceral level: It all but sweats with the DTs. Read more.