No But Listen: On The Shining

Hello, and welcome to another entry to our patented No But Listen debate articles! In these articles, we take on a movie-related subject that we both feel passionately about in completely different ways, and fight it out for the delight of the viewing public. Last time, we looked at the controversial appeal of Ryan Gosling. This time, we’re looking at The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 dabble in the horror genre. Without further ado!

The Obvious Case For The Shining (Kevin)

I have the easy job once again, as it is up to me to defend one of the most acclaimed films of all time. You can hate The Shining for many understandable reasons: it is a bad adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, Jack being crazy from the beginning does rob the film of some tension, and Jack Nicholson’s performance is the wrong side of Jim Carrey at times. But, at the same time, these examples could be used to defend the film: Stanley Kubrick is known for pissing the heck off the writers whose novels he adapts. Apart from King, he has angered the authors of A Clockwork Orange and what would become Dr Strangelove, pouring his own vision into each of them and irritating the people who originally envisioned them in the process. The Shining is no different.

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As an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, The Shining stinks. It’s true, but I’ve always been able to forgive bad adaptations if they are offering something that the source material doesn’t. The novel is an excellent ghost story, led by a father that fights his demons and ultimately loses. The film, for me, is scarier due to the fact that the Overlook only had to give Jack a small push into violent insanity rather than terrorize him into it as in the book. That aggression is always close to the surface, and the different situations in which Jack’s masculinity poisons him are horrific to watch. This is a man that will bite his wife’s head off for wanting to talk to him, but will smile like an idiot when someone spills a tray of drinks on him because he wants to be seen as the laid-back gentleman of everyone’s dreams.

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Jack Nicholson’s performance is hammy, there’s no doubt about that: in fact this may have been the first of the JACK! Nicholson performances. But when I look closer, especially in his interactions with Wendy, Nicholson is carefully constructing each line, each facial tick, and each body movement to keep her, and us, off-balance. Jack seems to be enjoying going insane, and that’s where the terror comes from. It’s a performance that never fails to unnerve me.

Nicholson’s scenery-chewing mania also helps to contrast Wendy’s slower descent into grief at the loss of her husband to the hotel. Even though I really like Jack Nicholson’s performance, Shelly Duvall as Wendy runs away with the film. In the face of madness, Wendy is an absolute badass. She doesn’t become hardened and steely, like many film characters (especially women) faced with a similar threat, but she does get the job done. The “here’s Johnny” scene may be remembered for Jack, but it’s Wendy’s devastating and horrified reaction to the man she loves coming to kill her and her son that provides the real horror in what is one of the most accomplished horror movies of all time.

The Less Obvious Case Against The Shining (Louise)

Look, I’m not dumb enough to sit here and argue that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a bad movie. In fact, I’m a die-hard fan of much of Kubrick’s work and much of what I adore about his filmmaking is on show here: those innovatively stunning long takes, his striking grasp of cinematography that renders the Overlook hotel to this day one of the most instantly recognisable locales in cinema, the pants-shittingly unsettling jump scares. I can’t count the number of times that I have been told by a fan of this movie to watch it again, to give it another chance with Kubrick’s genius in mind (see: the entirety of the Room 237 documentary). And it’s not that I want to dislike it. Kubrick is one of my favourite directors and horror is, without a doubt, my favourite genre, so a movie like The Shining should be a no-brainer.  But, despite the myriad good things I can find to say about it, The Shining is a film that I find just…well, bad.

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I think the biggest problem with The Shining is Jack Nicholson. I know that the film diverges pointedly from the book in major ways, blah blah blah, but it is still an adaptation of Stephen King’s classic (the quality of which is up for debate as well, but that’s for another time), comparison impossible to avoid, and the Jack Torrance we see in this movie is a pale echo of the one we get in the book. Most of that is down to Jack Nicholson’s bafflingly awful performance. It’s Jim Carey in The Mask, but played incongruently po-faced to no real effect. He’s pretty much an asshole from the second the movie opens, and his descent into comical insanity feels generic and thin, not least because Jack Nicholson fails to imbue his performance with any kind of depth or intelligence. I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever seen a performance by Nicholson where he’s not been evidently playing some version of himself and this is not different, except that his bludgeoningly broad performance stands out like an axe to the face in a movie so carefully made up of small, flawlessly arranged details.

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And speaking of an axe to the face, let’s talk about Dick Halloran. Now, no shade to Scatman Crothers who does everything he can with the role, but Dick Halloran is just a fucking joke of a character. I can’t think of the last time I saw a character so evidently functional over anything else given this much screentime. His purpose in the movie is to explain to Danny what the Shining is, and to drop off the snowmobile at the end of the film. That’s it. And that would be fine, if the film didn’t keep breaking up it’s final act – which should be where the tension ratchets without pause – with cuts back to him in something that looks like a montage plucked straight from The Simpsons travelling over hill and dale to get to Danny and Wendy. He arrives, after a solid chunk of the third act is dedicated to his journey to the Overlook, and gets an axe to the back and dies. That’s it. I don’t care if it’s meant to be unexpected or jarring: it’s stupid and feels pried in to the story when that time would have been better spent back at the Overlook in the cat-and-mouse chase between Wendy, Danny, and Jack.

So those are our takes on The Shining. What do you make of the classic horror? Do you love it, hate it, or fall somewhere in between? Let us know in the comments below!

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