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The Shining

Year: 1980
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick/Diane Johnson/Stephen King
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Philip Stone, Barry Nelson, Joe Turkel
Spoiler
Spoiler!

There's a video online of a Hollywood Reporter roundtable where a crabby old Robert Duvall calls the performances in The Shining 'horrible'. Are they horrible, or are they simply stylised? Is there a default for performance and if so should it be realism, expressiveness or sympathy?

Can an actor break out of the bounds of his or her physicality? Jack Nicholson can't help looking purely evil so he was perfect for the latter scenes of Jack Torrance, and nor can Shelley Duvall – with her huge eyes and gawky gait – help but prompt your heart to go out to her. When she slowly approaches Jack's writing table to find he's spent the previous months typing 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy' over and over, the slack-jawed, wide-eyed look of such unbelieving horror on her face as she realises she's locked up with a monster is enough to make you cry and give her a hug.

In one way The Shining is a classic example of changing tastes. As a ten year old in 1980 the mystique surrounding how scary it was made me far too terrified to want to see it, much like the supposed fright quotient of Alien the year before. Today, if it was late at night and you were home alone with a storm outside and no lights on, the scene when Danny (Lloyd) comes around the corner on his trike and sees the Grady girls standing in the corridor in silence might send a cold shiver down your spine, but the film isn't going to give you nightmares for weeks.

It's much more interesting today as a document on the methods of a legendary craftsman than a scary movie. In fact that might be the case because Kubrick might never have intended to make a traditional horror movie. He might have been experimenting with mood and tone – aesthetic devices like The Overlook carpet and the long tracking shots following Danny riding his trike through the halls are nothing if not an exercise in escalating tension. Even the one jump-scare I got from King's original novel (when Danny gives in to his curiosity and goes into room 217 and the undead lady grabs him by the throat) was absent.

Kubrick broke from King's vision in several important respects, from Jack Torrance's final fate to his casting. King hated the casting of the already unhinged-looking Nicholson, saying Torrance's descent into madness should be a decline starting with a normal-looking guy. It was something he tried to rectify in 1997 when he wrote his Mick Garris-directed miniseries Stephen King's The Shining, resulting in a so-so movie that had little of Kubrick's assurance over the moving image.

But he cleverly kept the strong central idea. At its heart The Shining is a simple ghost story, where a history of tawdry goings-on at luxurious Colorado mountain hotel The Overlook have left traces of the spirits who both caused and were affected by them, including the infamous former caretaker Delbert Grady (Stone), who chopped his wife and twin daughters up with an axe and shot himself dead.

To Jack and Wendy it's only ancient history. They can't wait to be holed up alone in the grand hotel for the snowed-in winter taking care of the place, giving Jack a chance to write his novel and Wendy a chance to get their enigmatic (and secretly psychic) son Danny out on his own for awhile.

But no sooner do the staff leave and the snows close in than the mysterious happenings start. As Danny sees more and more disturbing visions thanks to his 'shining', the presence that really owns The Overlook starts to take over Jack's mind, twisting it against his family and poisoning it like the alcohol he's trying to stay away from.

It's all going to end badly, and when it does Kubrick treats the scene where the whole story turns (the revealing of the repeated motif as the word 'murder' reflected in a mirror) with as much reverence as King meant it. The crash zoom to Wendy's face when she realises and then to the door where Danny's drawn the word is the strongest and most shocking of the movie. But you can take your pick of classic moments, from the immortal 'here's Johnny' to the elevators spewing blood that was the basis for the theatrical trailer.

Anyway Duvall, you were in the bloody Gone in 60 Seconds remake, so you can't talk.

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