A Dull “Shining” (1980 Review)

Jack Nicholson goes from Zero to Crazy in 3.5 seconds in The Shining

The Shining
Rating: R
Run Time: 2 hours 26 minutes
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duval, Danny Lloyd
Writers: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson (Based on Stephen King’s novel)
Director: Stanley Kubrick

(Originally published May 23, 1980, in The Huntington Park (CA) Daily Signal)

2020 NOTE: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has, over the years, become one of my favorite films. But that sure wasn’t the case when it opened in May 1980. Here’s my review from its opening weekend. So, did I have it right then, or has the film’s reputation softened my take on it?

Less than 30 seconds into The Shining, master director Stanley Kubrick’s new film, in a high aerial shot of a car winding through stunningly beautiful mountain scenery, the shadow of the helicopter from which the scene was shot is clearly visible for several seconds.

Coming from the director who proved his genius for perfection in such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and A Clockwork Orange, the viewer figures there must be some specific reason why such an obvious slip was left in the finished print. 

About 30 minutes into the film, the reason becomes painfully clear; Nobody cared enough to bother removing it. 

The Shining is a major disappointment. Billed as “A Masterpiece of Modern Horror,” the film is patchy at best, embarrassingly amateur at its worst. Aside from an occasional flash of brilliance it is tedious and, the fatal blow, not all that scary.

Based on Stephen King’s grisly novel bout a mad hotel caretaker who wants to chop his wife and psychic son to bits with a large axe while the place is closed for the winter, the movie could have been a real screamer. The story deals heavily in phychic phenomena, insanity, ghosts, possession and bloody violence. In most cases, put them all together they spell horror. Here, the result is deadly tedium.

Aside from Kubrick’s apparent inability to successfully mesh the elements of the story, theentire project is boobytrapped by an outlandishly inadequate performance by Jack Nicholson. From the opening frames of the film it is obvious that Nicholson, as the maniacal farther, is off his rocker. His demonic eyebrows, which are shaped like bell curves, twitch uncontrollably up and down he is eyes dart unceasingly back and forth. When speaking to his son, who suspects his father’s motives, Nicholson intones “I wish we could stay here…FOREVER!!” and we immediately know this guy belongs in a rubber from closet. 

In mugging and hamming his way through the film, Nicholson simply destroys any possible suspense the movie might have had. If he had given any impression of teetering on the brink of a blow-up, rather than having thrown himself in the insanity feet first, as he does here, The Shining might have been able to sustain some level of anticipation. As it is, we wish he would just get out his ax and get it over with. 

As with all Kubrick films, the photography is first-rate. FIlmed at Timberline Lodge near Mt. Hood in Oregon, the movie, photographed by John Alcott, captures the haunting beauty of the  mountains in the wintertime. 

Clearly, there is a higher intelligence behind The Shining. There are certainly well-crafted moments of horror, and early shots of the young boy riding his tricycle through the hallways of the hotel nicely foreshadow the later, brilliant sequence in which he is pursued through a hedge maze by his ax-wielding old man. But these fine passages are only more frustrtating, since they reveal what he director is capable of and just how good the movie could have been. 

Maybe we as an audience are just too sophisticated now. Perhaps a decade of thrills in films like The Exorcist, Carrie and The Omen has left us shellshocked. 

Still, Kubrick has made his reputation as a man who tackles a specific established film genre and makes it his own. He made the definitive Hollywood spectacle in Spartacus. He created the ultimate comment on the Cold War with Dr. Strangelove. He set the all-time standard for science fiction films with 2001. The senseless violence and indiscriminate hatred of the 60s was forever illuminated in A Clockwork Orange. 

With that track record, Kubrick’s followers had every reason to expect a solid, literate and ultimately harrowing film in The Shining. He let them down. 

END NOTE (2020) Some have pointed out that my criticism involving a helicopter shadow in the opening scene is unfair, since it was probably due to a projectionist’s error. Maybe, but I saw The Shining at its first U.S. press screening at the MGM Studio screening room in Burbank, and I can only assume it was precisely the way the director wanted it to be seen. Unlike most widescreen presentations of The Shining, this screening was in the nearly square Academy ratio of 1.37-1. And despite my original dislike for the film, I still prefer that version as it adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the film.

Published by

Bill Newcott

Award-Winning Film Critic, Columnist, TV Host and Creator of AARP's Movies For Grownups, Bill writes for publications including National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post, Delaware Beach Life, Alaska Beyond and Northwest Travel.

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