Should I Watch..? 'The Shining'
What's the big deal?
The Shining is a dramatic horror film released in 1980 and is a loose adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, the film follows couple Jack and Wendy Torrance and their young son Danny after Jack accepts a job being caretaker of a remote hotel in Colorado over the winter. But as a severe snow storm cuts them off from the rest of society, the hotel's murky past and cabin fever has a catastrophic effect on Jack which puts Wendy and Danny in grave danger. The film stars Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers and is notable for being one of the first films to make extensive use of the then-newly invented Steadicam. Kubrick's film differs from King's novel and is much more ambiguous, creating several theories as to the film's meaning. The film made a modest profit in the US with earnings around $44 million and a fairly mixed reception from critics - even King himself has expressed dissatisfaction with the film. But in the years since, the film has come to be regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made and frequently tops lists of the scariest films in history.
What's it about?
Former school teacher and struggling writer Jack Torrance accepts a job at the remote Overlook Hotel, situating high up in the Colorado Rockies. As the hotel shuts over the winter due to extreme snowfall, Jack is hired to act as a caretaker to the hotel once it closes - staying at the Overlook together with his wife Wendy and young son Danny. Relishing the peace and quiet to try and finish his writing, Jack is largely unaware of Danny's troubling imaginary friend Tony and the alarming psychic abilities Danny seems to have.
As they move to the Overlook and Jack is given a tour of the premises by manager Stuart Ullman, Danny is shocked to discover that the hotel's chef Dick Hallorann also appears to have latent psychic powers that he calls 'the shining'. Jack, meanwhile, discovers what happened to a previous caretaker at the hotel who went mad and brutally murdered his family. As they are left alone and the snow begins to draw in, Jack begins experiencing some odd behavioural changes while Danny starts having some deeply disturbing visions...
Lloyd, the bartender
Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson*
Release Date (UK)
5th October, 1980
15 (2007 re-rating)
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Actress (Duvall), Worst Director
What's to like?
It doesn't take long for you, as a viewer watching the film, to realise that Kubrick was a director of supreme skill and expertise. His perfectionist manner might not have made him the nicest director to work for but it feels as though every shot in The Shining is an exquisitely designed piece of art. From the innovative use of Steadicam following young Danny around the deserted corridors on his trike to the dizzying top-down shot of the maze with Danny and Wendy wandering around, the film is composed of countless images and shots that stay with you long after the film has finished. The culmination of all this, of course, is a delightfully creepy atmosphere and a film that reveals its secrets only reluctantly.
The three principal cast members - Nicholson, Duvall and Lloyd - all bring something unique to the picture. Nicholson is no stranger to playing characters on the brink of madness but here, he lets go of the chain and allows himself to become fully immersed in that dark and primitive side of humanity. Lloyd is perhaps the biggest surprise, vanishing back into obscurity after his composed performance as both Danny and Tony, making both roles feel very different from each other and doing well not to make such strangeness become silly. But Duvall, despite not having the most fleshed out character, deserves every bit of praise (and sympathy) as poor Wendy who is rightly terrified out of her mind- both by Nicholson's performance and Kubrick's exacting standards. Crothers also puts in a great performance as Hallorann, equally terrified that something bad is going down at the Overlook.
- The Overlook itself was deliberately constructed to resemble an amalgamation of hotels across the US - the exterior was based on Timberline Lodge in Oregon while the longue and lobby were based on the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. Despite this, the film was shot almost entirely on set in Elstree Studios in England.
- Kubrick's reputation for numerous retakes was not a myth - one scene featuring Crothers required over 100 different takes and the director was notoriously harsh with Duvall in particular, to the point where the stress of her role caused her hair to fall out. The shot of the blood emerging from the elevator doors took only three takes but required nine days to set up each time and almost a year of planning.
- Outtakes of the opening panorama shots were reused for the closing moments of Ridley Scott's original version of Blade Runner in 1982. Joe Turkel also appeared in that film as the inventor of replicants, Dr Eldon Tyrell.
- In order to get his cast and crew in the right frame of mind, Kubrick screened films such as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and David Lynch's disturbing Eraserhead.
What's not to like?
Having been on my list of films that I really should have seen before now (my so-called List Of Shame), I can't help but feel a little short-changed. Almost everyone I've ever spoken to about this film insists that it's one of the scariest they've ever seen and I'm afraid that I don't agree. The film is undeniably creepy, atmospheric and chilling at times but the film lacks the sort of jump-scare moments I was expecting. Frankly, I found the film more unsettling than frightening but that's OK - I prefer my horror films to work on a psychological level rather than treating me like an idiot on a ghost train, trying to spook me with sudden cuts and fake-looking effects. In a good way, it reminded me of classic Japanese horror films like Ring that will happily mess with your mind for a couple of hours or longer if you're unlucky.
But frankly, such discussion is besides the point. Not only is The Shining one of the most artistic and exquisite horror films you're ever likely to see but it's also one of the best made. Horror films these days display a chronic lack of imagination or originality, so much so that Wes Craven could produce a satirical horror film called Scream and which is now considered a staple horror film. I've no interest in disfigured serial killers picking off a group of good-looking teenagers one-by-one in a remote location - we've all seen that movie countless times. Give me something more cerebral, that doesn't provide all the answers for its audience (the secret to good horror is that it's often the unknown that most frightening - once you've seen the killer in full, the mystique is forever removed). Give me something genuinely brilliant. Give me this film.
Should I watch it?
Assuming that it's not on your List Of Shame, The Shining is one of the finest and best-produced horror films since the black-and-white classics of the 1940s and 50s. Disturbing and enlivened with nerve-shredding performances from its cast, this is a film that not only rewards multiple viewings but also viewers trying to seek answers within. It's not the most faithful adaptation of a book but as I now want to read King's novel, it's passed the test as far as I'm concerned.
Great For: hotel night managers (like yours truly, not so long ago!), fright fans, horror aficionados
Not So Great For: Duvall's mental health, the easily scared, fans of the book
What else should I watch?
Stephen King is no stranger to having his work adapted into a film although The Shining was only the second such film after 1976's Carrie. While most films based on his work have tended to fall into obscurity or that other staple of horror films - endless sequels, prequels and reboots - the master of horror has occasionally produced stories that have led to more inspired fare. Perhaps the greatest of these is The Shawshank Redemption, a life-affirming prison drama with no trace of King's usual macabre style. Other efforts include Kathy Bates' mortifying appearance as James Caan's number one fan in Misery, The Green Mile and perhaps King's greatest novel brought terrifyingly to life, It.
It's difficult to say where The Shining ranks in terms of the greatest horror films of all time as I believe that different people will find things scarier than others. The Exorcist is one film that is often cited as one of the best horror films of all time while others might claim the title belongs to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper's gore-splattered but hugely influential classic. But is it really any better than, say, George Romero's iconic Night Of The Living Dead or my personal favourite, Hideo Nakata's brilliant psychological horror Ring, a film so genuinely brutal that I haven't the heart to watch the sequel.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox