The Shining marks a first for writer-director Stanley Kubrick – over the course of his illustrious career as a filmmaker dating back to 1952, this is the first attempt by the director to take a stab at the horror genre. The result, another Stanley Kubrick spectacle sized vision brought to life in the only manner Kubrick knows. Based on the novel of the same name by author Stephen King, the film version deviates from the source material which will undoubtedly upset some purists and even King himself but Kubrick, as he often does with his adaptations, takes what he interprets the story to be, using it as a foundation to build his film around.
Set in the Colorado Rocky Mountains at the remote Overlook hotel, Kubrick immediately instills a sense of isolation in you. Far removed from any type of civilization during the upcoming winter months, any assistance will be hard to come by once the hotel closes its doors for 5 months from October to May. During those months that the Overlook will be closed, a caretaker will be hired to stay at the hotel and tend to the various needs. Interviewing for the position is Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) a former schoolteacher turned writer who sees the isolation as an opportunity to write his next book.
Jack isn’t totally alone, joining him in the stay will be his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny is no ordinary boy – for one he has an imaginary friend named Tony that lives inside him, and Danny suffers from seizures which provide him with unexplainable visions. Head chef of the Overlook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) calls this ability ‘shining’ which Dick also has, connecting the two. At first, everything appears normal, the Overlook provides all the amenities one can hope of for during a 5 month job.
There’s plenty of space, enough food, a maze to explore during the stay. The hotel’s expansiveness still has a way of feeling small and confined due to only a few key locations being exploited for the sake of Kubrick’s narrative. For some, this may very well be paradise but for Jack Torrance who has a history of aggression and violent outbursts, the Overlook quickly consumes him. A month after they arrive, Jack hits the dreaded writer’s block – he can’t sleep and when he does, dreams of murder take control of Jacks psyche.
When Jack dedicates his time to writing, he sits in the never-ending lobby with his typewriter in front of him and a roaring fire set ablaze in the fireplace. Cozy is an understatement. Despite the constant clicking of the typewriter, the atmosphere is peaceful, Kubrick evokes a calming sensation when the three family members are away from one another. Wendy handles the duties of the caretaker, cooking and cleaning, Jack writers and Danny gets on the back of his big wheel and cruises around the winding hallways of the hotel.
But still, the Overlook and its demons have other plans for the Torrance family.
Sparingly but methodically, Kubrick heightens the tension by these visions of ghosts that pop up across the grounds. However, Kubrick doesn’t go for the paranormal approach – objects aren’t moving, or misplaced, unexplainable events don’t just happen – well, maybe one does. The ghosts that Jack is visited by are more a result of is rapidly declining mental health. During the beginning of his psychotic breakdown, Jack falls off the wagon (or so he thinks) and has a conversation with a man named Delbert Grady (Phillip Stone), the last name catching Jack’s attention through his hallucination.
While Delbert cleans Jack’s jacket, the two accuse one another of being the caretaker – Grady citing Jack has always been the caretaker for the Overlook while a Grady has never been the caretaker. This moment could define the root of Jack’s mental health. Open for interpretation but I see Jack suffering from multiple personality disorder. Once Grady claims Jack has always been the caretaker, Jack has a revelation as if a part of his memory he buried deep within came back. Kubrick sprinkles in several of these clues to hint to Jack’s mental disorder, one coming at the end with the final frame.
Charles Grady may very well be Jack Torrance, the same psychotic breakdown that Charles has is the same one that Jack experiences. I could be wrong, but that’s how I see Jack Torrance compartmentalizing his past trauma’s. From the moment we meet him, Jack is the unreliable narrator – trusting his perspective as the events unfold is unwise and Kubrick plays that aspect to the strength of his film. There are no actual ghosts, no supernatural events controlling the Torrance family, the invisible villain is credited to trauma and by extension grief.
For the most part The Shining examines the human mind, often testing the conditions limits by bringing out the worst in humanity. Yes, Jack’s writers block and history with alcohol abuse are at play along with numerous interruptions by Wendy, the insomnia and crippling isolation and loneliness piling on to the already mounting distress Jack is experiencing, turning a mild mannered man into a psychopath.
Jack the actor, turns in a terrifying, engrossing and often sinister performance captivating you with every facial expression, every movement and unpredictable decision he makes. Danny Lloyd does exceptional in his debut, bringing a sense of dread in every blank, expressionless stare he gives, and Shelley Duvall commands your attention with her wide eyed terror but most importantly her reactions as a character that’s a victim to unexplainable mood swings.
Visually, The Shining checks all the boxes to create a psychologically stressful environment. Cinematographer John Alcott, who also shot Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange for Kubrick, delivers another breathtaking spectacle within the framework of the story King creates. Overhead shots of the vast and never-ending Rocky Mountains establish the loneliness, the fear of feeling trapped and claustrophobic while also putting the camera close up on the actors to illicit a more intimate setting. Tracking shots are fluidly moving throughout the many rooms of the Overlook and the addition of the Steadicam allows more creative freedom to put you right in the shoes of this unfortunate family over uneven terrain. Production design by Roy Walker creates an immersive experience with blank walls and a mazelike carpet design to get lost in.
Reds, greens, blues and yellows are vibrant and the effects of the ‘ghosts’ are timeless. The framing decisions stand out especially during Jack’s mental breakdown – the most memorable one will be the shot looking up at Jack as he’s locked in the pantry. Even Alcott can make an unnatural angle look correct.
Though it may not be a faithful adaptation to the novel, The Shining winds up being a prime example of horror done right – its meticulous detail and appealing aesthetic makes the film stand the test of time, keeping one foot in the pop culture zeitgeist and a film ripe for taking inspiration from. Kubrick tackling a horror film proves he can master any genre; however, horror may be a stretch. If anything this is a psychological thriller with horror elements. Regardless, Kubrick directs and writes The Shining as a character study, as most of his film are but this time with an axe and a slew of unforgettable moments that will stay with you well after the final frame.
Screenplay By: Diane Johnson & Stanley Kubrick
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Music By: Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind
Cinematography: John Alcott
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Phillip Stone, Joe Turkel
Edited By: Ray Lovejoy
Release Date: May 23, 1980
Running Time: 2 Hours 26 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%
Based On: The Shining by Stephen King