(Spoiler alert! Although I doubt people would read a review of the commentary before seeing the movie itself, but just in case….)
A shining example of just how good horror films can be, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is as effective and horrifying as my puns. Loosely based on Stephen King’s book of the same name – and we’re talking hula-hoop-on-a-stickman loose – The Shining focuses on a family of three that spends the winter isolated in the massive Overlook Hotel deep in the Colorado mountains after Jack (Jack Nicholson), husband to Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and father to Danny (Danny Lloyd), takes a job as the off-season caretaker. Except they’re not alone. Not really. The Overlook, a presence in itself, is overbooked with malevolent ghosts that would be only too happy to find a room for the family.
Adapting the book
Although it shares the same basic premise as King’s book (something of a classic in its own right), Kubrick took a fundamentally different approach to the story. As film historian John Baxter explains on the DVD commentary, “King’s novel is a novel about a hotel which is haunted…. But for Kubrick it was the story of the family gradually going over the edge and the hotel exacerbating that, making it worse, and finally driving them to the brink” (00:19:05). To put it bluntly, “It’s the story of a family going insane together” (00:10:35). Baxter credits Kubrick’s co-writer, Diane Johnson, with playing a significant role in bringing out this difference (00:19:05).
Capturing the horror
Baxter shares the commentary track with Garrett Brown, who invented the Steadicam and operated it throughout the majority of The Shining’s ridiculously long shoot, although it seems they were recorded separately. Throughout the commentary, they discuss some of the techniques that Kubrick employed to realize his very precise vision. Baxter, for instance, states that Kubrick “loved” to frame his shots symmetrically. “He insisted that every image be framed in the proportions of 1.66 to 1…. He wanted things placed centrally, he wanted the people to fill the frame, he wanted to make us stare” (00:07:05).
Regarding Kubrick’s use of special effects, Brown says, “The only special effect that we did in the entire film that might be in the same league as some of the effects done so casually today was Stanley found an apartment high up on a nearby apartment block, and he built just that centre section of the maze down at the base of the apartment, and dressed it in with coloured gravel, and made a zooming shot down into that bit of maze with doubles for Shelley and Danny and that centre of the maze is actually matted into a identical [sic] zoom on the maze model, which was quite a good model, and that’s it folks, that’s it for special effects. The rest of it actually happened in some form or another” (00:39:15).
Baxter and Brown’s commentary on the nearly two-and-a-half hour film is too much to cover in a single blog entry. Next time we’ll share what they had to say about some of the technical tips used during filming, Kubrick’s decision to change the book’s finale, and The Shining‘s similarities to Kubrick’s other genre piece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What do you think? Where does The Shining fall on your list of favourite horror films? Do you agree with Baxter’s view that it’s a film about “a family going insane together?” How do you think the film compares to the book? Leave some comments below and let us know!
The Shining (1980) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick | Written by Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson | Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd | Commentary by Garrett Brown (Steadicam inventor/operator) and John Baxter (film historian) | DVD release date: 2007