The Shining Review

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is a fascinating, maddening piece of work. Devotees of Stephen King's original novel hate it for taking extreme liberties (though they were assuaged with the production of a King-sanctioned TV miniseries in the mid-1990s), while horror fans have often been left similarly unsatisfied because of the way it constantly pulls the rug out in terms of meeting generic expectations. Hardcore Kubrick fans, unsurprisingly, defend the film to the hilt, and have supplied any number of interpretations (apparently it's an allegory of the American Indian experience, for those who want to dig deeper than Kubrick possibly intended).

Although my own views of the film have fluctuated wildly since I first saw it in the early 1980s, I've always found it a technically brilliant, often genuinely unnerving film that boasts three remarkable lead performances (though it's arguable that Jack Nicholson never really recovered from The Shining: he's spent much of the last two decades ploughing a very similar furrow), but depending on what mood I'm in, I either find it a near-masterpiece (no other horror film has quite the same look and feel) or a seemingly endless series of frustrating dead ends, much like the maze that dominates both the narrative and the visuals (it's echoed in the designs of the hotel's floors and carpeting).

A blend of old-fashioned ghost story and modern psychological horror film, The Shining is almost entirely set in the Overlook Hotel high up in the Rocky Mountains. Closed during the winter months, when snowfalls make it largely inaccessible, in theory its sole occupants are caretaker Jack Torrance (Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) - but when both Danny and Jack start seeing things, it becomes clear that they're not as alone as they thought they were. But is the hotel genuinely haunted, or are these visions the product of Danny's heightened telepathic awareness, or "shining"? And is Jack's gradual descent into psychosis fuelled by his artistic frustration (he suffers from severe writers' block), his return to the booze, or something beyond his control?

Although The Shining wasn't the first film to make use of the Steadicam (the now ubiquitous gyroscopic camera mount that allows remarkably smooth camera movements across normally impossible or unfriendly terrain), it was the first to really push it to its full potential. Kubrick had always been keen on extended tracking shots, but The Shining let him indulge his tastes to the full, with some extraordinary shots where the camera follows young Danny on his tricycle at floor level, and an even more impressive climax in the snow-covered hedge maze.

When the R1 Kubrick DVD box set was released in mid-1999, it came in for a great deal of abuse, and The Shining was widely singled out as one of the worst offenders - with a fair amount of justification. To start off on a positive note, though, the DVD contains the 144-minute cut of the film, which is the longest version that's been made available on a commercial video medium, even if it doesn't contain an additional two minutes that Kubrick removed shortly after the film's premiere (by contrast, the European version was cut by a further 25 minutes). And Warners have provided a generous 40 chapter stops, which include links to the Bartok, Ligeti and Penderecki pieces used in the soundtrack as well as specific dramatic moments.

That's the good news, but the bad news is that the print is sometimes in very poor condition, with a quite unacceptable level of spots and scratches considering that Kubrick films made 25 years earlier have made it to DVD in far better shape. The issue of the aspect ratio was much discussed at the time of the DVD's release - the DVD is in 4:3, though thankfully it's open-matte rather than pan-and-scan: the film would have been shown at 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 in cinemas.

In practice, this means that the film can be watched using a 16:9 TV's zoom mode with no obvious compositional ill effects (indeed, it eliminates the notorious helicopter shadow at the beginning!) - but the transfer isn't anamorphic and, worse, is decidedly grainy. The sound is the original mono, which isn't a problem, but it's been transferred at an unusually low level, and turning the volume up to compensate reveals more background hiss than I'd expect for a 1980 release. All in all, this DVD is far from unwatchable, but given Kubrick's renowned perfectionism it's hard to believe he'd have sanctioned this version if he'd known what the DVD format is capable of when pushed to its full potential.

There are just two extras, but they're both well worth having - indeed, one of them arguably makes the DVD worth buying despite its defects. The original theatrical trailer is a model of how to advertise a film while showing as little as possible, and it works brilliantly: most of the running time just consists of a shot of open lift doors, accompanied by scrolling credits and a weird electronic score that's unique to the trailer. And those of us who've seen the film knows exactly what's going to emerge from the lift - but it must have packed one hell of a punch back in 1980.

But the meatiest extra is the 35-minute documentary 'Making The Shining'. Before the DVD came out, this was the major Kubrick bootleg item (alongside Kubrick's long-unavailable first feature Fear and Desire), having been screened just once by the BBC back in 1980 and not repeated until just after his untimely death in early 1999. The main reason for all this curiosity is that it contains just about the only sound footage of Kubrick at work - and the only reason the famously reclusive director sanctioned this portrait was that it was shot by his eighteen-year-old daughter Vivian.

This is a mixed blessing, since her inexperience frequently tells: there's a lot of meandering and a marked absence of much in the way of any kind of organising rationale or context-setting - it helps enormously if you've already seen the film! The interviews are generally banal and unrevealing - and a significant absentee here is, unsurprisingly, Kubrick himself. But the on-set footage is frequently riveting, not least because of its extreme rarity - and no punches are pulled: we see him getting visibly annoyed with Shelley Duvall at one point after she keeps missing her cue (Duvall then inadvertently reveals just how long her prolonged stay in Britain was when she colloquially uses the word "bollocking"!)

So is it worth buying this DVD? Well, I've heard that the R2 version will be anamorphic, though I'd check the running time and extras before splashing out. But my advice for now would be to wait and see, since the R1 DVD's drawbacks are a little too pronounced for me to give it a wholehearted recommendation.

UPDATE: 2001 saw the release of a vastly superior R1 DVD, with a digitally remastered picture from a restored print (which looks absolutely stunning - it's still 4:3, but apparently this genuinely was Kubrick's preferred ratio) and a surprisingly subtle and effective 5.1 soundtrack remix. The extras are nominally the same, but the documentary has also been extensively restored, and comes with an engaging commentary from Vivian Kubrick, in which she reminisces about the film and about her father. This new DVD is in an entirely different league from its predecessor, and I'd give it 9 for picture, 8 for sound, 4 for extras and 8 overall. Just be careful you get this version - the only difference is that it says "Digitally Restored and Remastered" on the cover!

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