Halloween Countdown: 6 - The Shining (1980)

I have seen this film on several occasions and it has never sat well with me, it has always felt a little off. I know that it is lauded as a Stanley Kubrick classic and a great horror masterpiece but it just never lived up to that for me. However, it wasn't until I read the original Stephen King book recently that it fell into place. 

King's novel is the story of a man's last shot at redemption in an isolated hotel with his wife and son. How he is driven slowly insane by the ghosts of the hotel that feed off the psychic abilities of his son and his guilt over the choices he has made in his life. This creates a tense story filled with fear and inner conflict building to a tragic end. 

Kubrick's film however seems to be about a psychotic man forcing his family to move to an isolated hotel so that he can possibly do some writing but after some mild nudging from a ghostly barman decides to kill his family. This creates a tension of a very different kind as we wait for the inevitable finale that has become such a famous part of pop culture. 

This is not to say that this is a bad film. The way it is shot is great and the third act of the film is very good. There are also some pretty good scares when you are watching this sat alone in the dark. It is a competent horror film but there are some major flaws that really take me out of film. 

The biggest issue I have with this film is the primary cast. 

I really like Jack Nicholson, and find him incredibly watchable in the right role with the right direction (see The Departed or 1989 Batman). That does not mean he is the right person to play the central character of this story, Jack Torrance a struggling writer looking to make good on his potential. From the moment he appears on screen we know where this is going simply because we get crazy Nicholson. When he has his first scene with the family unit he talks to them with flippant annoyance and almost disdain. Nicholson is playing, or being directed to play, a man who is only one step away from beating his family anyway. The choice to play the character this way and drop the inner conflict that he should go through before reaching the inevitable decent into madness makes the character a little shallow and the outright villain rather than the tragic figure he should be. 

As for Shelly Duvall I have to admit that I don't find her that good in anything that she has done. It is well documented that she had major run ins with Kubrick over the direction of her character (Wendy Torrance) in this film and rightly so. She wanted to play the character closer to the book, an intelligent woman that has stood by her husband through some bad times. What we get is a whimpering Olive Oil before she played Olive Oil (Popeye 1980). The character becomes so grating and redundant by the third act that I would not be surprised if this direction was taken by Kubrick as a punishment for her arguments. 

As a quick note, I will add that the young boy who play the son, Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) is actually quite good and adds an element of sympathy to the film. Although, much of Danny's story from the book has been dropped. 

So what do we have at the centre of this film? A psychotic husband and his dependent wife. At no point in this film do I ever buy that these two people met, fell in love and had a life together before this film starts. There is no chemistry or sense of family and the interplay that should be demonstrated on screen. 

In King's novel the Hotel is very much a character itself and the events and life that have happened there is vital to understanding the downfall of this poor family. There are images, some horrific some ordinary that pop up throughout the book but all are explained and tied to events in the history of the hotel. This does not translate well to the film, although some of the images are used. The most famous is the two little girls and the events that surrounded them and their father, the previous caretaker. This is fine and makes a lot of sense both in the book and the film. However, in the third act as Wendy is roaming round the hotel she sees a series of things (man covered in blood, a man dressed as a dog etc.) that are tied to very specific events that have been a part of Jack Torrance's torment. In the film they come across as being random for the sack of trying to random and spooky. It was this section of the film that never sat well with me before I read the book; now that I have it just makes me think that Kubrick liked the images but not the story.