Most people’s first thought of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING will be one of three images: the ghost girls, the woman in the bath and Jack Nicholson axing his way through the bathroom door. Few western horrors, except for perhaps THE EXORCIST are as iconic, are such an integral part of the pop culture furniture. And to think, Stephen King didn’t like it!
When aspiring author Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) accepts the position of overwinter caretaker of the isolated Overlook hotel in Colorado, he could hardly guess the horrors he is about to subject his family to. For the Overlook carries a burden within its walls, a history of murder, madness and malice, and Jack’s young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) has unique gifts, the kind that make him very appealing to the hotel’s unquiet dead…
Stephen King might not have liked it as an adaptation, particularly the reading of his lead becoming an antagonist, but Jack starting out on the edge (are you really going to trust Nicholson claiming that “nobody’s saner than me” with that grin?) before he arrived at the Overlook, supernatural events only exacerbating his preexisting mental health issues, really works. The hotel may be the home of a corrupting, black-and-white evil formed out of the atrocities committed within its walls, but it can only shape and mould what is already in the human heart, mind and soul; we are very susceptible to all kinds of influences as a species.
The acting is all very “big”, with Nicholson delivering what is essentially a proto-Joker and Shelley Duvall rarely allowed to be anything other than a nervous wreck. No, she shouldn’t have been put through the physical and emotional turmoil Kubrick insisted on, but it did result in the reality of her fragile nature. You tend to forget how good Danny Lloyd’s performance was, one of the all-time great child actor performances that has multiple levels to it.
This might be unsurprising to hear about a Kubrick film, but The Shining is staggering on a technical level. Everything bar the front of the Overlook at the beginning was purpose-built at Elstree Studios and that Steadicam (used to great effect in corridors) was in its infancy. That invention was so new, in fact, that its originator Garrett Brown was still operating it himself (doing split shifts with ROCKY II over the Atlantic). It’s the stillness of the camera that gets you, the rigidity. Nothing is obscuring your view and you’re not being allowed to look away even if you want to.
The sets are meticulous bordering on obsessive, because no one building boasted all the features Kubrick wanted we get a Frankenstein mix of all of the best, and worst, grandest and chintziest hotels you’ve ever stayed in. Never mind butting heads with his actors over incessant retakes, you have to feel for Kubrick’s long-suffering production design team that had to produce such an ingenious and versatile labyrinth of corridors and rooms to his exacting standards.
For all the blood and cross-cutting to horrific haunted house imagery, what makes The Shining such an effective horror is how it manipulates mundane images and sounds. Long corridors are made scary, and to this day I feel uneasy in hotels in case I turn a corner and see the Grady girls waiting for me at the other end of a corridor. The whir and the clatter of Danny’s trike as it goes from floorboard to carpet, floorboard to carpet is made scary. Being on your own in a large building with all the lights on is made scary. The soundtrack not playing ball, rarely clueing you in in when the next scare is coming until it’s there is scary.
The Shining arguably changes what King was trying to achieve with his story, but I’d take Kubrick’s version any day of the week. This take has humanity starting out a bit wrong, malevolent spirits only taking our worse natures further than they would go naturally. Humans are scarier than ghosts or psychic powers, an idea which carries more weight and leaves a lasting impression beyond the shocking visuals and uneasy tension-building. As a different Joker to Nicholson’s put it, “madness is like gravity: all it takes is a little…push!”. SSP