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The Shining (1980,USA/UK)

18/02/2012

Director: Stanley Kubrick            Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers

I’m not normally one for the extra features that come packaged with movies these days. I find it difficult enough to find the time to watch films, never mind spend more time watching often sub-standard, thrown together “featurettes” that frequently are little more than self congratulating back slapping by the filmmakers. In the case of the Stanley Kubrick blu ray box set however I’ve plowed through nearly everything included on the discs. Why? Because with Kubrick, especially with The Shining, you spend so much of the film in a combination of absorbed fascination at the story and jaw agape amazement at the visuals that you really don’t have much time to consider the technical aspects of how it was all achieved.

Kubrick’s notoriously unsettling foray into the horror genre (heavily adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name) centres around Jack Torrance (Nicholson) the newly appointed winter caretaker of the remote, sprawling Overlook Hotel high up in the Colorado mountains. Accompanied by his wife Wendy (Duvall) and son Danny (Lloyd) he starts to mentally unravel, tortured by the isolation in the hotel and disturbing visions, psychic after images of its sinister past.

Everybody is familiar with Jack Nicholsons leering face, framed by a splintered door as he bellows his famously improvised “Heeeere’s Johnny”, even people who haven’t seen the film, such is the extent to which this image has penetrated popular culture. Improvised it may well have been but this moment is, like so much in the film, the product of working methods that saw the cast and crew stretched to their limits, shooting dozens of takes of each scene, repeating them over and over to the point of madness and it’s this madness, this awful, exhausted frustration that he captured on screen to such great effect. Duvall had it the worst, pushed to breaking point by Kubrick, the crew actively discouraged to give her sympathy and support in the face of Stanley’s punishing filming schedule. The result though (which she readily admits herself) was an outstanding performance as Wendy, terrified out of her wits and frantic beyond comprehension, all given extra authenticity by her genuine emotional distress.

The set design (yes, unbelievably all the interiors of the Overlook Hotel are a purpose built set) is extraordinary, an exquisite hybrid assembled from thousands of interiors from real life hotels. It’s vast and the use of extremely wide angle lenses makes the vastness overwhelming. The Torrance family seem so isolated, so insignificant in such a grand space. The wide angle lenses also provide amazing depth of field, accentuating ever authentic detail of the environment. There are no creeping close ups to prepare you for some amateurish jump scare here. Rather, the potential for something horrible lies in every direction, ever dark corner of the sprawling hotel. The (at the time) pioneering Steadi-cam technology employed by Kubrick to capture the action drop you right in it with Jack, Wendy amd Danny. You never really know when and where the next horror will arise and this creates an atmosphere far more oppressive than your average, run of the mill haunted house movie.

Of course, Kubrick being Kubrick, this is anything but a run of the mill haunted house movie. There are those who criticise him for his departure from the text but his reinvention of the story to shift the emphasis from evil spirits that haunt the hotel to the horror of losing your mind in an isolated and eerie place is really effective and definitely, at least to me, a far more terrifying concept than that of ghosties and ghoulies. Jack’s suppressed resentment of his family is made pretty evident from the beginning and it’s this thread that gets pulled and pulled until eventually he completely unravels. As a concept it is far more terrifying than that of ghosts wandering the hallways, especially for a sceptical rationalist like me, because I can imagine having to deal with a psychotic break (my own or someone elses), it’s a plausible situation to be faced with, wherea ghosts, spirits and demons don’t scare me any more than orcs and goblins do because they don’t exist. When you add the fact that very few people can pull off “unhinged” better than Jack Nicholson you end up with something pretty potent.

Once again, the blu ray transfer is a treat. Every detail of the sumptious hotel is perfectly reproduced as is the madness in Jack’s eyes. The transfer has clearly been carried out with the same care and attention that were shown to 2001 and A Clockwork Orange which is only fitting for such a striking work of art. And it undoubtedly is a work of art, being as aesthetically stunning as it is technically accomplished. More importantly, it’s a film you experience in your guts, that most elusive of things, a horror film that is genuinely scary.

This, incidentally, is not the original movie trailer but it makes me laugh every single time:

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