Retro review – The Shining: Stanley Kubrick’s almost masterpiece

The Shining movie posterIn the words of Stanley Kubrick himself, it’s easy to make a good film, difficult to make a great one, and it takes a miracle to make a masterpiece. For many, The Shining (1980) sits firmly in that third group, a true masterpiece both of the horror genre and cinema at large.

You can imagine my excitement then, when I heard that my local Cineworld were hosting a limited screening of the remastered director’s cut of the film. Having been thoroughly terrified by The Shining during my first viewing well over 10 years ago, and with the upcoming release of its sequel Doctor Sleep only days away, I relished the chance to recapture the terror of the Overlook Hotel in remastered 4k.

So how does the film hold up almost 40 years later? Firstly, it’s important to note that this isn’t your typical 80s horror film. In no way a visceral terror like Carpenter’s The Thing, or a pure spook-fest like Poltergeist, The Shining is a film that draws on deeper themes than the monster under the bed. With explicit references to domestic child abuse, comments on the fragility of the human mind and an unrelenting atmosphere of claustrophobic oppression, it’s somewhat of a unique experience. There are almost no cheap scares here, everything burns slowly, every unnerving twist and turn is expertly foreshadowed, there’s no huge body count, there are no supernatural monsters to be defeated, and aside from a brief chase scene, there isn’t really much in the way of a climactic showdown.

Narratively, the film provides nothing extraordinary, with the relatively simple plot of a family trapped in a hotel for the winter serving as more of a backdrop for the progressive build-up of atmospheric horror. The Shining really isn’t about narrative anyway though, it’s about rising tension working in tandem with ambitious set pieces, and it is these spectacular set pieces that really hold up decades later. I can’t think of many scenes within the genre that burn an image onto your brain quite as effectively as the corridor of blood scene. The room 237 scene, recently pastiched in 2018’s Ready Player One, holds up immensely well also. In an era of CGI-heavy scares, it’s surprisingly refreshing to revisit scenes of pure unadulterated, practical effect driven horror.

Still from The Shining

Despite the sporadic appearance of ghosts during the lengthy 156-minute runtime, it’s recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance that provides the real threat to the other characters. 39 years on, Jack Nicholson is a joy to watch in a mesmeric, career-defining performance. Often, I find myself put off by Nicholson’s tortured enunciation but here, as with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it just works. Jack’s mental deterioration is measured, it’s believable, and it all builds into an aptly terrifying crescendo. Nicholson encapsulates the rapid tumble down the steep slope of insanity perfectly.

The direction in The Shining is also outstanding. Each scene is expertly crafted, with Kubrick demonstrating his ability to draw fear from even the most mundane of locations. The opening crawl for example, is a masterclass in tone setting. In a few frames he creates more tension than most directors can achieve over 2 hours and does so with nothing more than a sinister soundtrack and an overbearing camera angle. Essentially, the film remains eminently praisable on many levels.

But is The Shining a masterpiece? Unfortunately, it’s not without its flaws. I’m not usually one to criticise a film based on runtime, but there is a lot of dead weight that is simply not needed. One such example is the unnecessarily extensive exposition from the hotel’s guests/ghosts. More specifically, the entire 10-minute scene spent with former caretaker and amateur butcher Grady. This scene, both unnecessary and unscary, seemingly only exists to set up Jack’s miraculous escape from the pantry later in the film. I also find the treatment of Scatman Crothers’ Dick Halloran a bit disappointing.

By the end of the film, his character arc is essentially reduced to that of a vehicle for a vehicle, literally transporting the escape vehicle to the Overlook Hotel, only to be killed moments later. Whilst I don’t necessarily object to this from a writing perspective, it feels a little too horror-filmy and, as a result, almost feels out of place in a film largely devoid of traditional genre tropes.

Upon a second viewing, without the benefit of blood-tinted spectacles you get from the first-time experience, I really found myself questioning a lot of the narrative choices in the final third. There is no real thematic conclusion to the film. We get a vast number of pseudo pay-offs that don’t really accomplish the task of tying things up. Was the Indian burial ground responsible for the haunting? Did Jack and Wendy also have the Shining? Are the ghosts corporeal, if not then how did Jack get out of the pantry? If they are, then why didn’t they just kill the family themselves?

I also take issue with the strange, closing shot of the film. Following Jack’s death, the camera zooms in on an old photo of the hotel guests circa 1921, a second zoom in reveals Jack as a member of the crowd. What exactly is the message here? Was Jack always a part of the hotel? Did he become part of it once he’d lost his mind? Is he in fact the reincarnation of Native American holy man Sitting Bull? This was assumedly added to create an air of mystery however, it just feels a little cheap, lazy and nonsensical.

All of this adds up to a surprisingly lukewarm conclusion. Is The Shining a masterpiece? In terms of atmosphere, direction and acting, most certainly. But its numerous flaws prevent it crossing the line from great to superb. So, where does this leave us as we approach the release of Doctor Sleep? What made The Shining great was Kubrick’s ambitious direction and Nicholson’s unnerving performance, which I fear will be noticeably absent from the sequel.

Judging by the trailers, Doctor Sleep director and Haunting of Hill House helmsman, Mike Flanagan is more than aware of this, with the sequel looking like much more of a narrative driven affair. We will have to wait until 31st of October to see if the sequel can recreate the raw horror of the original however, is it likely to surpass it? Almost certainly not. Although The Shining doesn’t quite reach masterpiece status, its still remains a titan of the genre, and fully deserving of its place in the horror hall of fame.

You can watch the latest trailer for Doctor Sleep below:

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