by Janet Maslin
The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s spellbinding foray into the realm of the horror film, is at its most gloriously diabolical as Jack and Wendy Torrance take the grand tour. They are being shown through the Overlook, the cavernous, isolated hotel where they and their young son Danny will be spending the winter as caretakers, supposedly without any company. Jack pronounces the place “Cozy!” But still everything in the Overlook signals trouble, trouble that unfolds at a leisurely pace almost as playful as it is hair-raising. Meticulously detailed and never less than fascinating, The Shining may be the first movie that ever made its audience jump with a title that simply says “Tuesday.”
In the hotel, the Torrances find dozens of empty rooms, ominously huge windows, knives all over the kitchen, and a maze on the front lawn. As it later turns out, there are ghosts and more ghosts, and one of the elevators is full of blood. The Overlook would undoubtedly amount to one of the screen’s scarier haunted houses even without its special feature, a feature that gives The Shining its richness and its unexpected intimacy. The Overlook is something far more fearsome than a haunted house—it’s a home.
In The Shining, which opens today at the Sutton and other theaters, Mr. Kubrick tries simultaneously to unfold a story of the occult and a family drama. The domestic half of the tale is by far the more effective, partly because the supernatural story knows frustratingly little rhyme or reason, even by supernatural standards. Dead twins haunt Danny and then stop haunting him; a mirror reflects some things and not others; the ghosts aren’t quite subjective and they aren’t quite real. Even the film’s most startling horrific images seem overbearing and perhaps even irrelevant, like Mr. Kubrick’s celebrated monolith in 2001.
Many of the film’s more bewildering nightmarish touches are ill-explained holdovers from Stephen King’s novel, upon which Mr. Kubrick and Diane Johnson base their shrewd and economical screenplay. Most of their alterations in the story, which has been changed and improved considerably, have the effect of letting it run deeper. Mr. King has an episode, for instance, in which Danny is terrorized by a specter in one of the deserted rooms. After this, his father, Jack, returns to the same room to investigate.
Mr. Kubrick, aside from changing the room number from 217 to 237 for mysterious reasons of his own, entirely transforms the scene. In the book, what Danny sees is explicitly described, and his father catches a glimpse of the same creature. The film’s Danny is silent after his encounter, which is not depicted. And his father, as the camera tracks slowly into the room in a frenzy of anticipation, is confronted by one of Mr. Kubrick’s most heart-stopping inventions, an image halfway between eroticism and terror.
The Shining stands on the brink of a physicality that has been very much absent from Mr. Kubrick’s other work, and that would surely have been welcome here. This is the story of a man gradually driven to destroy his wife and child, and it stops just short of pinpointing his rage. The marriage between Jack (Jack Nicholson) and Wendy (Shelly Duvall) is a listless one, and it is revealed obliquely: through the raggedness and dowdiness of Wendy’s wardrobe, through Jack’s constant irritation at her, through the immaculate cleanliness of the Overlook’s bathrooms and kitchen, through the eerie way they turn this enormous building into something cramped and claustrophobic. This is as close as Mr. Kubrick has come to dealing with both female and male characters or to grappling with domesticity. There are occasional moments in The Shining when their union alone seems enough to drive Jack mad.
The “Gold Room,” a clever amplification of the hotel ballroom in Mr. King’s novel, becomes the place where Jack’s rage about his fiscal and familial responsibilities is revealed. It’s also the place where the movie begins to go wrong, lapsing into bright, splashy effects reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange (though the Gold Room sequences produce the film’s closing shot, a startling photograph of Mr. Nicholson). The Shining begins, by this point, to show traces of sensationalism, and the effects don’t necessarily pay off. The film’s climactic chase virtually fizzles out before it reaches a resolution.
Mr. Nicholson’s Jack is one of his most vibrant characterizations, furiously alive in every frame and fueled by an explosive anger. Mr. Nicholson is also devilishly funny, from his sarcastic edge at the film’s beginning to his cry of “Heeere’s Johnny!” as he chops down a bathroom door to get to Miss Duvall. Though Miss Duvall’s Wendy at first seems a strange match for Mr. Nicholson, she eventually takes shape as an almost freakish cipher, her early banality making her terror all the more extreme. Danny Lloyd, as Danny, and Scatman Crothers, as the hotel chef who, like Danny, has psychic powers, both give keen, steady performances as the story’s relatively naturalistic figures. Barry Nelson is a model of false assurance as the hotel manager.
Mr. Kubrick, using the works of various composers, has assembled another stunningly effective score. John Alcott’s cinematography is lovely, although The Shining seems intentionally less glossy than Mr. Kubrick’s other films. Like the characters, it has a certain ironic homeliness—as when Wendy sits in the hotel’s elegant lobby, propped before a television screen during a blizzard. She’s watching Jennifer O’Neill play the ultimate in sweetly mindless femininity, in Summer of ’42.
Published: The New York Times, May 23, 1980