When I put out a vote on my social media to pick my next review, I deliberately picked horror films, with it being October now, and I must admit, this film was a last-minute addition.
I wanted four horror films, and more to the point, four horror films in my collection, with an already established reputation so I could cast my eye over it as admittedly someone who doesn’t always ‘get’ horror (hence why I don’t own many, I suppose) and as much as I appreciate the votes and how many people cared to participate, you don’t half give me the difficult jobs don’t you?
Not only am I now tasked with reviewing a film universally beloved (unless your name is Stephen King) by film audiences, but a film by Stanley Kubrick, of all people! It’s like asking an art critic to review the Mona Lisa, everyone seems to love it, it’s an iconic staple, and nothing I have to say is likely to add any new discussions.
But even as a Kubrick-lover, I might still find something interesting to say about it, and I’m not likely to just disregard the will of my readership… well, unless you’d asked me to review Transformers then I’d disregard them pretty quickly.
Based off the 1977 novel of the same name, The Shining sees the Torrence family: Jack, Wendy and Danny (Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd, respectively) take residence of the Overlook Hotel one winter, with Jac, a struggling writer, employed as its live-in caretaker. Soon, a malevolent force begins to terrorise the family and turn the snowy hotel into a freezing hall of horrors.
Reviewing a well-regarded film such as this is always no small task, as I’ve said multiple times before. Although I have done so in the past; I find reviewing such films to be somewhat redundant, especially when most of the points I would like to make have already been made tenfold by other reviewers, and probably more eloquently to boot.
I also think that it makes for a boring read, for anyone reading this who probably knows The Shining, and has heard the same praise sent its way for the past forty years, and I like to keep my reviews as entertaining as possible for a wide audience, so I’m going to mix things up a bit in this review, to keep it interesting, I’m going to explore where this film stands among Kubrick’s body of work while giving my thoughts on the film, I’ll also muse on Kubrick’s technique’s and his questionable treatment of his talent, as I think this will make for a much more interesting read overall.
As much as this is diverting from the usual formula, I’d like to at least give you my thoughts on the film too, after all, it’s what I’m here for, but you don’t need me, or anyone else, to tell you that The Shining is good, no, more than good, it is an excellent film, masterfully executed horror with the kind of atmosphere most directors dream of, but this is to be expected, given who was behind the camera.
Kubrick is (rightly) today celebrated as a visionary, a genius. Exceptionally hot-headed as he was, it was in the pursuit of perfection; after all, this is the man who famously ordered more than one-hundred takes for the iconic door scene (just think of all those wasted doors) exhibiting the kind of behaviour that would have you written off as being ‘hard to work with’ if you were starting out, but because of his pedigree, it was just accepted that this was what he was like, this is how he achieved such greatness in the first place.
Now, I can’t tell you how or why more than one hundred takes were necessary for that scene, this is a knowledge unique to Kubrick, he was looking for something more, something a mere mortal could not understand, he got the most out of every scene and every actor, even if it meant pushing them to the edge of a break-down.
It is this label as an auteur genius that gets Kubrick a free ride when it comes to the treatment of his actors, a free ride that I will not extend to him, not only is such treatment unnecessary, it’s simply irresponsible. I understand the need for a little bit of tension maybe, and some wonderful things have come from combinations who maybe didn’t see eye-to-eye, but the reported atmosphere surrounding The Shing’s filming can only be described as toxic.
I don’t for one second believe that Shelley Duvall’s performance was improved in any way by the torment she received on-set (her hair even started falling out during filming due to stress) and I don’t think that Jack Nicholson’s performance was improved at all by the constant tinkering of the script and long shooting days; of course, I have no proof of this, but come on, he’s Jack Nicholson for crying out loud! Furthermore, Duvall was no slouch either, having already picked up a BAFTA nomination, what I’m saying is, there was no need to create this toxic environment in the name of making a good film, because all the parts were there, come to think of it, I’m amazed it ended up as good as it did, given the somewhat stormy relationships on-set.
Maybe I’d go so far as saying that this may have helped the films oppressive atmosphere, but I doubt it had a factor in it at all. It’s a good script, based on good material, with the best of the best both behind and in front of the camera. There would have been better ways to build the atmosphere of a film than torturing the actors involved.
Although I’m not willing to roll over and forgive Kubrick’s treatment of people on-set, it doesn’t stop his work being some of the best the art of film has to offer.
Although he had been directing films since the 1950s, to me, Kubrick came into his own in the mid-to-late ’60s. Seemingly invigorated by the tidal wave of cultural change, Kubrick embraced this new era, and his films have become known as groundbreakers and trailblazers.
Dr Strangelove was an anti-war satire, taking shots at the ongoing ‘Cold War’ between the USA and Russia, an incredibly brave thing to do in 1964, anti-war satire wasn’t a thing in cinema at that time, at least in the mainstream, it would be another few years before Mel Brooks would successfully parody Nazis, it seemed off-limits, but it soon appeared that nothing was too far for Kubrick.
Following that, he made the science-fiction film that remains the template for many such films to this day: 2001: A Space Odyssey, inadvertently lighting a spark for a new generation of sci-fi, for proof of this watch the spaceships entrance scene in this film, and compare it to the opening of A New Hope, it’s homage almost to the point of plagiarism, but it just shows the far-reaching influence of his work.
He wasn’t a director to be pinned-down either, simply put, he made what he wanted to make. Be it a bizarre fantasy thriller like A Clockwork Orange, or a gritty war film like Full Metal Jacket, he wasn’t a director that stuck with one genre, he wouldn’t stick within the limits, he’d made his big studio films within accepted rules, and now he wanted to break them.
In my opinion, The Shining is Kubrick’s second-best film, still a masterpiece in its own right, and a masterclass in pacing and atmosphere, but it doesn’t top the enormity of 2001, doesn’t have the same far-reaching implications. I love it, and it’s such a close call, but it’s also a reflection on his talent that a film as accomplished as The Shining could only be considered his SECOND best effort, he was a talent the likes of which we haven’t seen since, and probably never will again.
In recent years especially, it’s become harder and harder to separate art from the artist, and there are many accounts to read online of all the ways Shelley Duvall was affected by her experiences during this film, with a lot more research and time gone into them than I could ever do, but as a film critic, my focus is the art, the above paragraphs are merely a glimpse into the full story, and I don’t condone a second of it, as much as I want to focus on film, I must make my case very clear that I don’t approve of it, and as I said, his behaviour on set was unnecessary and irresponsible.
The film is a masterpiece both of its genre, and cinema overall, but I couldn’t blame you if you chose not to watch it.