...not your average horror movie, but, then, Kubrick was not your average movie director.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

When critics appraise director Stanley Kubrick's extended output, they often count 1980's "The Shining" as the odd duck, the one that never made it, the one that didn't quite live up to the great man's reputation. In point of fact, "The Shining" has been something of an embarrassment for Kubrick aficionados. Even his final effort, "Eyes Wide Shut," got better notices than "The Shining," although that may have been a sympathy reaction because the director died just before its release. Yet "The Shining" remains one of Kubrick's most popular pictures, the movie most non-Kubrick fans enjoy the most. Is this to suggest the director was intentionally aiming his film at a lowbrow audience? I hope not. I'm a Kubrick fan, I appreciate his other work, and I love this film. Well, admittedly, I'm pretty lowbrow, too.

Taken for what it is, an extremely well-made horror flick with a typically ambiguous Kubrick theme about the lingering effects of evil, "The Shining" stands head and shoulders over most of its competition. Needless to say, it's good have it digitally remastered on HD DVD.

Based on the novel by Stephen King, "The Shining" tells the story of a former alcoholic (Jack Nicholson) who takes his wife (Shelley Duvall) and five-year-old son (Danny Lloyd) to spend a winter as caretakers of an old, rambling, isolated hotel in the mountains. The conflict? The ghosts of past atrocities committed at the hotel still haunt the place, including that of a previous caretaker who took an ax to his entire family. And the young son happens to be psychic, which adds to the dilemma; he has what the film calls "the shining," the ability to read the future and talk to spirits. Before you can say "Boo," the child is seeing all kinds of weird stuff, like the bloodied corpses of twin girls whose father murdered them at the hotel. Combine these spooky goings-on with the boy's well-founded fear of his father, who hurt him earlier in an alcoholic rage, and we know the poor kid is not exactly in for a pleasant winter vacation. As we suspect, it doesn't take long before old Jack starts to crack under the strain of solitude, "cabin fever" it's sometimes called, seeing spirits, turning into an ax-wielding monster, and tearing after his wife and son.

Whatever its critics have said, I believe the film succeeds on almost every level. The first hour is an appropriate introduction and exposition. It builds a mood of quiet tension. We can readily see there is something just a little wrong with the father, but we can't yet pin it down. By the second hour, all hell breaks loose, and in the last few minutes it's sheer terror. "The Shining" is one of the few horror films that can still give a person chills the fifth and sixth times around and make one's hair stand on end.

Over the years I've heard people fault "The Shining" on three major counts: It goes on too long, the director is too constrained, and Nicholson is out of control. Let's take these concerns one at a time. First, is the movie really too long? Well, there is hardly a scene the director could have deleted. Maybe he could have dropped the interview toward the beginning between the boy and the social-worker psychologist. Anything else? Nothing I can think of. Kubrick is a filmmaker who tells his stories largely through imagery, so naturally he's going to use a variety of prolonged mood shots. It's a beautiful motion picture to look at, whether it's for the glorious outdoor scenery or the equally impressive indoors of the grand hotel. I'd say it is probably the best-looking horror movie ever made, and I love those long tracking shots through the hallways (which parallel so well the movie's glorious opening shots of the family car winding along a mountain road to the lodge). The director makes the hotel itself (shooting the exteriors at Oregon's Timberline Lodge) into a dynamic persona in the drama. Besides, Kubrick did later cut the film for television, and it only made it worse.

Second, is the director really too distant, too aloof from his characters? Again, I think not. Like Edgar Allan Poe, Kubrick uses his characters to carry out his story line; they exist as vehicles to create an effect rather than as three-dimensional human beings in and of themselves. Not that we don't feel for the wife and child and their predicament; in fact, we come to care about them very much by the end of the film. It's just that their personalities are not as important as what they're experiencing.

Third, is Nicholson truly unrestrained? Critics have commented on the apparent conflict between the ever-cool, ever-calculating director and the volatile actor, most of the criticism suggesting that Nicholson had more input than he should have had, and the director allowed him to go over the top. However, the HD DVD's accompanying documentary, which Kubrick's daughter made during the film's shooting, refutes the argument. One sequence shows Kubrick telling Nicholson they will have to reshoot a scene (Kubrick was notoriously exacting and would reshoot scenes more times than most directors would have the patience or budget for) because Nicholson wasn't acting "mean" enough! I believe the director wrote, suggested, or encouraged most of what Nicholson did in the film. The upshot, in any case, is a tour-de-force acting job. "Heeere's Johnny!" As much as for any of his many fine film roles, it may be for this demonic performance that many people remember Nicholson best.

"The Shining" is not your average horror movie, but, then, Kubrick was not your average movie director. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "To be great is to be misunderstood," in which case I think it's clear that Kubrick was, indeed, great.

I was not entirely happy with either of WB's first two DVD releases of this movie, so I was a little apprehensive about this new HD DVD issue. I shouldn't have been. It is quite good, almost as good as the original print, I'm sure. Using a digitally remastered edition, a VC-1 encode, and 1080 lines of resolution, the video engineers come up with a quality product. Gone are the occasional age spots, the fades, and the grain, replaced by bright, deep colors, strong black levels, and an extraordinarily clean image. Gone, too, is the full-screen aspect ratio of the original camera negative that Kubrick requested before he died, replaced by the film's American theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. The overall focus is slightly soft, but it is probably what Kubrick wanted and about what I remember from the movie house.

The HD DVD provides an English soundtrack in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1. The TrueHD sounds to me a tad fuller, but neither track offers much in the way of surround sound. That's OK, though, given that there is little in the movie beyond music and dialogue to reproduce, anyway. The audio does a good job rendering all the atmospheric music that Kubrick chose to accompany the story--Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta," for instance, and selections from Wendy Carlos, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Krzysztof Penderecki. Since many of the excerpts Kubrick used he took from commercially available stereo recordings (the Bartok is a von Karajan DG performance, for example), one can understand that the sonic impression may not be as spectacular as one would get from, say, a new action movie; yet the sound is wide ranging and fairly quiet and does its job with a minimum of fuss.

The first major extra is an audio commentary with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown and Kubrick biographer John Baxter. Kubrick brought Brown in especially for the film, and his and Baxter's insights are illuminating. Then there are three featurettes and documentary, all in standard definition. The featurettes are "View from the Overlook: Crafting The Shining," thirty minutes, with filmmakers, writers, and critics weighing in on the film; "The Visions of Stanley Kubrick," a seventeen-minute continuation of the previous featurette, with people like Jack Nicholson, Sidney Pollack, Hugh Hudson, William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas all having a go at Kubrick; and "Wendy Carlos, Composer," a seven-minute session with the movie's musical director reflecting on the music. The last major item on the disc is the documentary "The Making of The Shining" by the director's daughter, Vivian Kubrick, who was seventeen at the time she filmed it. It's a behind-the-scenes affair, about thirty-five minutes long, shot much like a home movie during the feature film's production, containing interviews with cast and crew, and providing a good deal of inside information. You can choose to watch it with or without Ms. Kubrick's later commentary.

Things wrap up with forty scene selections but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. As always with a Warner Bros. HD DVD, there are also pop-up menus, bookmarks, a guide to elapsed time, a zoom-and-pan feature, and an Elite Red HD case.

Parting Thoughts:
Back to "The Shining": Supposedly, Stephen King hated Kubrick's interpretation of his book so much that in 1997 he wrote his own screenplay for a television miniseries. The result was a long, tedious, non-frightening experience that only proved how taut and well constructed Kubrick's treatment was. "The Shining" is a damn fine scary film, made all the better in this new HD DVD release.

Warner Bros. have made "The Shining" available in HD DVD, Blu-ray, and standard-definition. All three formats are available separately, and the SD versions are also available in the big "Stanley Kubrick Director's Series" box, which includes "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Shining," "Full Metal Jacket," "Eyes Wide Shut," and the documentary "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures." Most of the films in SD come in two-disc special editions, with the exception of the single-disc "Full Metal Jacket" and the Kubrick documentary.

Oh, and remember, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play....."


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