Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a writer suffering from writer’s block. He takes a job as an off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, deep in the Colorado Rockies, where he will stay for five months with just his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son, Jake (Danny Lloyd). Whilst at the hotel, all three members of the Torrance family experience otherworldly visions that slowly send Jack insane. Meanwhile, Danny’s ‘gift’ of the shining – the ability to see and hear things that haven’t happened yet or that happened a long time ago – grows stronger.
The Shining is widely regarded as a terrifying film, one of the best horror films made in the past 40 years, but to me it holds a deeper terror, not just because it’s the first truly scary film I can remember watching (and being far too young to watch it when I did). You see, I’ve seen The Shining twice, and both times I’ve watched it have been shrouded in a very real death of someone I know. The first time I saw it my best friend’s brother’s best friend was found dead the next morning. This time, I was interrupted about halfway through the film with a phone call from a friend, informing me that a mutual friend of ours, who neither of us had seen for a while, had been killed in a motorcycle crash. Basically, this is possibly the scariest film I know of, because I can never watch it again for fear of someone I know dying. This adds a whole new dimension to a film that’s scary enough to begin with.
On the surface, there isn’t a lot of traditionally scary elements to The Shining, especially not by modern horror standards. Instead, there’s more of an increasing sense of unease and mental disturbance as Jack descends into the horrors of his own mind, assisted by the various terrifying images thrown up by the hotel. Like the young twin girls Danny sees around the hotel, the elevator erupting with an ocean of blood, or the beautiful naked woman in room 237, who becomes a scabbed and putrid hag in Jack’s arms. And of course there’s the questionable shot of the man in a business suit, probably receiving a favour from a man dressed as a bear, that I’m sure his wife and kids would not be too happy to find out about.
As horror films go, this is impressively effective without having to resort to cheap jump-scares or a monstrous killer on the loose. I’m not often scared by films, but this one has left me a little off ever since, and not just for the personal reasons mentioned earlier. I’m a big fan of how the original protagonist – Jack – eventually becomes the antagonist once perspective focuses more on Jake and Wendy. If I were to pick a fault though, it might be that there’s a few too many elements taking place simultaneously. Firstly, the hotel was apparently built on an Indian burial ground, thereby adding an explanation to the ghostly goings on. This should have been enough, but there’s also Danny’s psychic abilities, which he shares with the hotel’s chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Cruthers), who has the most absurd pictures on his bedroom wall. Then there’s the mysterious suicide of the former caretaker, who killed himself with a shotgun after axing his family in the winter of 1970. And Danny’s finger is his imaginary friend, Tony, who talks to him and tells him what to do. Personally, I think Jack would have gone insane with just the intense writer’s block and having to be locked up with Shelley Duvall and an insane child for 5 months.
The film is pretty much perfectly cast, and Nicholson gives one of the most defining performances of his career. He shows real potential here for his future role as the Joker in Batman, especially once the madness sets in and his maniacal grin and eyebrows take over his face. Elsewhere his prominent brow and bright, glaring eyes are well used to strike fear into all who watch. Duvall is well cast too, though this isn’t a compliment as I think her character is supposed to be supremely annoying, and she succeeds in spades. It’s not often that you root for the axe-wielding psychopath over the innocent damsel in distress in a film, but I have absolutely no qualms about doing so here.
This being a Kubrick film, it’s a given that a certain amount of flair has been utilised in the cinematography. The most famous example, and my personal favourite, is the long tracking shot following Danny as he wheels around the hotel on his tricycle. Infamously the camera was turned upside down to get it closer to the ground, offering a lower-than-child’s-eye perspective that really adds to the sense of dread, as does the incessant squeaking of the wheels as Danny follows an impossibly labyrinthine path around the hotel, a theme that recurs throughout the film.
The film is rife with too many unanswered questions and unquestioned answers, but due to Kubrick’s meticulous nature these can be assumed as being deliberate, present not only to infuriate the audience, but to keep them discussing the film forever more. Add to this some great quotable lines (“I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m just gonna bash your brains in.”), some of the most famous scenes in cinema (“Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”), stellar performances, stunning visuals and a truly haunting score, and you’ve got not just a great horror film, but a great film in any genre. It’s just a shame I can’t watch it ever again.
Choose film 9/10