The Shining (1980)

Director – Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duval, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers

A few years ago, a movie magazine commissioned a psychiatrist to rank the top ten most terrifying films of all time. The entire top ten was, aside from one entry, comprised of movies from the seventies and eighties (the other entry was The Silence of The Lambs).  The Shining topped that list.  Other entries included The Exorcist, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, two other cult films that have been ingrained upon a generation raised during a period of time when the BBFC took a much sterner approach to what passed by its critical scissors.

But what is it about The Shining that has had such a lasting effect on our fragile psyches?  Most horror movies of today, I find, tend to be more visceral: blood, gore and cheap jump out of your seat thrills that require little or no effort on the viewer’s part to engage with the plot or story.  What Kubrick did with The Shining was to engage our attention on so many different levels.  From the opening tracking shot of the Torrance’s VW Beetle snaking it’s way through the Colorado Mountains, to following Danny (Danny Lloyd) as he tricycles his way around the endless hallways of The Overlook Hotel, to the jarring, claustrophobic score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, the slow pace of the movie brings an immediate sense of portentous events to come.  

Jack Torrance (Nicholson), a writer and recovering alcoholic takes his family along to an interview he has secured at The Overlook Hotel.  He is applying for the job as the off-season caretaker; a position he hopes will give him some solitude to help shift his current writer’s block.  During the interview, Ullman, the hotel’s manager, warns him that the solitude during the five-month posting can prove a little too much for some, and that during one year, a previous caretaker had lost his mind and brutally murdered his wife and two daughters with an axe.  Jack confirms that the solitude is just what he’s looking for and that his family will love the experience.  While Jack is having his interview, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny are handed over to Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), the hotel’s chef.  While he gives them a tour, Halloran notices that Danny has a special gift.  He communicates to Danny using just his thoughts, asking him if he likes ice cream.  Halloran later tells him that he too, shares the same gift and his grandmother before him.  She called it, The Shining. The Overlook Hotel has an evil presence and Danny’s abilities allow him to receive violent and disturbing images regarding past events that took place there. The ghosts of the hotel begin to target Jack who slowly begins to descend into madness as he is gradually overtaken by the evil lurking in the hotel.  Wendy becomes increasingly worried about Jack’s behaviour and for the safety of their son after she finds bruises on Danny’s neck.  He says that he received them from a crazy old woman in Room 237.  After investigating the room, Jack finds nothing.  Wendy confronts him and accuses him of hurting Danny, as he had done in the past during his alcoholic days.  Jack seeks solace in the hotel ballroom where the ghosts from the past finally reveal their true intentions for Jack.

Kubrick’s direction is an unflinching look at the psychological breakdown and descent into madness of a man battling not only the hotel’s demons, but also his own internal struggles.  Nicholson gives a career defining performance as Torrance, notable for the infamous line ‘Heeeere’s Johnny!’ as he attempts to smash down a bathroom door with an axe. Prior to Kubrick hiring Nicholson, he had also been in talks with Robert De Niro and Harrison Ford for the role, both of whom, turned it down.  De Niro was later quoted as saying that after he watched the completed film; he had nightmares for a month afterwards.  

Shelley Duvall as Jack’s wife also gives a strong performance as she slowly comes to the realisation that al is not well with her husband, even though Duvall and Kubrick were nominated for a Razzie award the same year. Watch the scene where she approaches the typewriter to read Jack’s manuscript and realises that every page is filled with the line ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’

The most famous detractor of the movie upon release was surprisingly the novelist whose book the movie was adapted from:  Stephen King. He didn’t agree with a lot of the decisions and changes that Kubrick made, including the casting of the lead role. Nicholson had just finished work on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and King was concerned that audiences would identify him too readily with the role of Randall P. MacMurphy.  Kubrick also left out the topiary animals that played a prominent role in the novel stating that the special effects at the time were not up to scratch.  King was keen to cast Jon Voight in the role of Torrance as he had more of an everyman appeal. Torrance’s descent into madness was meant to be a slow gradual process over the first two thirds of the film but King remarked that Nicholson looked crazy from the very beginning.  

The film is also notable for the fact that Garret Brown, the creator of the steadicam worked on the movie.  The Shining was one of the first of six movies to employ the steadicam technique of filmmaking.  Brown even refined the method while working on the movie for the shot of Danny flying around on his tricycle. The movie also challenges us to make choices: Who’s version of narration can you trust? Are the ghosts in the hotel actually real to begin with? And then there’s the question of that photograph as the credits start to roll.

The Shining is a defining moment in horror cinema and has left its mark on popular culture ever since, including episodes of the Simpsons and Family Guy.  Receiving less than favourable reviews upon its release, The Shining still went on to be a box office success.  Critics commented on its slow pace on release but I think that subsequent viewings of the movie prove that the pacing adds to the cold, disturbing and menace and build up of tension throughout the film.

A classic in every sense of the word.

2 thoughts on “The Shining (1980)”

  1. Hi Geoff, it is a very factual and well-researched review – I was not aware of so many trivia about the production, the actors and the direction and you did a great job in putting everything together.

    I think though that the wealth of information leaves less to the feeling. The review feels a little… cold?
    The movie itself is absolutely dreadful and claustrophobic, and Kubrik manages to show us the reality that the hotel occupants see: the obsessions of Jack, the breakdown of Wendy and the innocence of Danny, in the signature tricycle exploration towards the unknown.

    And then to add to it all, there is the maniacality of Kubrik himself, who re-shot each and every scene so many times that actors probably felt they were truly descending into madness. I believe that ‘Danny’ was not allowed to watch the movie until he became an adult.


  2. Hi chijinda,
    Thank you for the comments. I understand what you mean about it being a little cold. There was just so many angles and information to cover on this movie I got carried away with the FACTS!

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