Hello, Danny. Come and play with us. Come and play with us. Forever. And ever. And ever.
In past reviews, I've made mention of my mental list of movies that I've never seen that I must see. The Shining happened to be on that list when I found out that we had received a review copy of Warner Brothers' latest DVD release of Stanley Kubrick's famous movie. So, I pulled my editorial strings and it found its way into my hands. Was it everything I hoped it would be?
Facts of the Case
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) are a small family with their share of problems. Jack is an aspiring writer, three months on the wagon after his alcoholism caused family problems. Danny has mysterious "episodes," which any horror movie aficionado will identify as either a special "gift" or as demon possession (in this case, it seems to be a little of both). Wendy is caught in the middle, always striving to keep a perky smile with her stiff upper lip. Their lives become noteworthy when Jack accepts a position as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, an austere lodge that closes during the winter despite its close proximity to abundant snow. No sooner has the trio settled in than the foreboding mansion begins to exert its wily influence on Jack and Danny. The mental strain sets them on a downward spiral that can only finish in tragedy…
As I said in the Opening Statement, this was the first time I had seen The Shining in its entirety. I had seen bits and pieces of it in the past, and no one who is as versed in film lore as I can escape knowing its twists and turns. Well, while I'm at it, I might as well confess that I am not a disciple of Stanley Kubrick. Spartacus was vaguely interesting but too long, Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange were brilliant, and I am one of the minority who thought Eyes Wide Shut was an excellent film (and one of the even smaller majority who thought it had a positive moral). However, I must side with Judge Patrick Naugle, who says 2001: A Space Odyssey was overly long and boring. Compared to Arthur C. Clarke's riveting novel, the film is pretentious bullocks. There. Now that I've aired my opinion of the half of Stanley Kubrick's body of work I've seen, how do I feel about The Shining? To be honest, rather mixed. First the positive.
Stanley Kubrick was known as a meticulous filmmaker, and that attention to detail and precision is quite obvious in The Shining. While the exteriors of the Overlook Hotel were shot on location at the Timberline Lodge in my native Oregon, the posh interiors of the hotel were built on soundstages at the EMI Studios in England. Filming lasted close to a year, starting in May 1978 and not wrapping until April 1979. It was one of the first films to make extensive use of the Steadicam, a device that allows a camera operator to carry around a camera while maintaining the fluid, stable look of a stationary or dolly-mounted camera. His actors give precise, controlled line readings that speak for his influence as a director—it's even claimed that he forced Shelley Duvall to endure over 100 takes of a particular scene. (And is it just me, or is Shelley Duvall rather attractive in that ugly duckling sort of way?)
If you had to toss The Shining into a broad genre, it would be classified as a horror film. As such, it's filled with the requisite creeps and chills. Particularly effective is the score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. With its screeching strings, the dissonant, atonal music is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score. The scene with the Creepy Little Girls (quoted in The Charge) is unsettling in its directness, but I found the scene between Nicholson and Philip Stone as the deceased caretaker, Delbert Grady, in the hotel's Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired ballroom bathroom to be even more disturbing. The scene with the naked chick who turns into a decaying, crusty old lady? I was scared of naked women for, oh, at least a couple hours. And of course, there's the infamous "Heeere's Johnny!" scene. Who wouldn't have the bejeesus scared out of them by Jack Nicholson with an axe?
So that's the positives. What about the negatives?
At two hours, 22 minutes, it's the longest 142-minute movie I've ever seen. Crikey, some of the scenes just seem to drag on forever. It would be one thing if they built tension, but it's another when they just instill boredom. Maybe there's a reason Kubrick cut twenty minutes from the film for its international release. There's only so much you can take of Jack Nicholson mugging and yammering to an imaginary bartender, or little Danny chattering to himself in an allegedly creepy voice, or Shelley Duvall looking vexed. Snore, yawn. It's bad for a film when the good scenes are few and far between. I'm not saying The Shining is bad, but the flotsam and jetsam bog it down.
Macaulay Culkin…Jonathan Lipnicki…these annoying child actors owe a debt of gratitude to Danny Lloyd, who paved the way for generations of cloying kids. His "creepy voice" sounds like he's choking on a wad of Bubblelicious, and the little finger movement for the imaginary friend who lives in his mouth? Ugh. "Danny isn't here anymore Mrs. Torrance." Ooh, I'm afraid! What kind of child-possessing hellspawn is courteous enough to address someone like he's a young Southern gentleman? What ever happened to fellatio in Hell?
Speaking of, that leads to Warner Brothers' new DVD. The film is presented in 1.33:1 full frame, which is an open matte transfer of its 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Allegedly, this preserves Kubrick's wishes for the film's home video presentation. Whatever. This is friggin' DVD, and the dude was nuts if he thought it was better to alter a film from its theatrical presentation. It was created from a "new 2000 digital master from restored elements." I have not seen the original DVD, so I cannot speak on how it stacks up against the earlier release. The image overall is pleasant, with no color bleeding, minimal edge enhancement, and few dust blips. However, it would have benefited from the extra resolution, and it's obvious that there is extra room at the top and bottom of the frame that is filled with extraneous composition. There's no point whatsoever in the continued insistence in 4:3 full frame. Apparently, it's quite okay with the Kubrick estate (or whoever made the lame decision to continue the open matte policy) to alter the original mono soundtrack to a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. For a remix, it's rather pleasant. The score is spread throughout the channels, and the dialogue is spatially integrated. However, certain elements have a hollow feeling that are telltale giveaways of its monaural roots.
(For comparative purposes, here's what our former editor, Sean McGinnis, had to say about the original release: "The video of this DVD is little better than your average VHS. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this was a VHS copy prior to becoming a DVD. The film elements were a wreck, with abundant scratches, nicks and scars…The image is soft. Really soft…After two and half hours of this, I felt like I was watching the screen wearing someone's prescription glasses.")
The extras appear to be the same as the original release: "The Making of The Shining" documentary filmed by Kubrick's daughter, Vivian, and a theatrical trailer. The documentary is around 30 minutes long, and is a rambling look at the making of the film, with interviews, film clips, and behind the scenes footage. It's minorly interesting, though definitely not a prime purchasing point. There is also a commentary track for this documentary, though I did not sample it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As usual, I blew most my negative comments in the Evidence section. My apologies.
Reviewing this film, it reminds me of a quote from The Simpsons (but then, just about everything somehow reminds me of The Simpsons). Actually, it reminds me of two things, but only one that's germane to criticism of the movie. The one that's not was a segment of a "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween episode called "The Shinning" because they wanted to avoid lawsuits (as remarked in the episode). The other, relevant quote is also from a Halloween episode, the first one actually. Lisa reads Bart Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven," and Bart is rather unimpressed with its supposed scariness. Lisa tells him, "Well it was written in 1845. Maybe people were easier to scare back then." He replies, "Oh, yeah. Like when you look at 'Friday the Thirteenth, Part 1.' Pretty tame by today's standards." A lot has happened in horror movies since 1980, when The Shining hit the silver screen. While it bears little resemblance to A Nightmare On Elm Street or Scream, it's difficult not to weigh the visceral, gruesome chills of those movies with the plodding, lethargic "scares" of The Shinning…err, I mean, The Shining.
Is it just me, or does anyone else find Scatman Crothers' "Dick" Hallorann very dated and not a little racist and sexist? His inflection runs the risk of sounding like a jive daddy. The shots of his apartment with the pin-ups of nude black girls with giant afros are laughable in a most pathetic way. He appeared in all sorts of blaxploitation films—Truck Turner, Detroit 9000, Black Belt Jones—but here that persona is out of place to the point of being offensive.
If you already own the original DVD, then rejoice! There's no point in upgrading, unless you require the new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, or think that the "digitally restored and remastered" video is worth an additional $24.98. If you've never seen the film, then a rental might be a good way to spend 142 minutes, as long as you have a hefty cup of java standing by.
I haven't mentioned until now that The Shining was based on a novel by horrormeister Stephen King. Reportedly, King was dissatisfied with Kubrick's rather loose retelling of the novel. A television miniseries produced in 1997 stuck much closer to the novel; unfortunately, Warner Bros. has not released it on DVD.
I hate to harp on the aspect ratio issue, but here's a little example. On the left is the image as it is displayed in full frame on the DVD. On the right, I've cropped it to its theatrical ratio of 1.66:1.
I ask you: which framing has more dramatic tension? The one where the figures are tightly framed, or the one where there's miles of room above and below? And lest you think I'm cherry-picking a prime example, I tried the same experiment with all three pictures I placed in this review. The other two also improved significantly with the theatrical aspect ratio. The next time Warner Bros. chooses to release these Kubrick films on DVD, I hope they'll opt to release it as it was seen theatrically.
Stanley Kubrick's legacy needs no judgment from this court, despite this judge's misgivings about the quality of this particular film. The Shining is free to play forever. And ever. And ever…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "The Making of The Shining" Documentary, With Commentary By Vivian Kubrick
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