The Shining (1980)

Title: The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Diane Johnson, Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King (the novel)

I’ve been on a bit of a Stanley Kubrick kick lately. It is purely unintentional I swear, but I am a huge fan of his nonetheless so I guess it’s not that surprising that I would be drawn to his films time and time again. The Shining (1980) may just be the first Kubrick film I ever watched. It is also the one I have seen the most number of times. As it was Halloween the other day I thought it would be appropriate to write about one of my favourite ‘horror’ films of all time.

Being a massive Stephen King fan it is hard for me to admit that I really love this adaptation of one of King’s most popular novels (1977). The reason being is that King himself was not pleased with the final product. I do understand his anger and frustration with this film because there is an entire supernatural element that was only briefly discussed, and that element became overshadowed by the great Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the character of Jack Torrance.  The concept behind the title is Danny Torrance’s ability to ‘shine’ and even though Kubrick touched on it in a couple of scenes with Mr. Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) and Danny (Jake Loydd) he still failed to embrace what was indeed a major part of the original novel. That being said and out of the way, there is almost nothing else I do not enjoy about this film. From the epic locations in the mountains, to the massive proportions and beauty of The Overlook Hotel, as well as the electrifying performances of every single one of the actors in the film, there is an artistic presence in every scene.

The plot of the film is a fairly simple one in the beginning but takes on a far more sinister and complicated element as time goes on. It starts with a writer, Jack Torrance, interviewing for the job of winter caretaker of a hotel in the Rocky Mountains. During the interview he is informed that one of the previous caretakers, a Mr. Charles Grady, completely lost his mind one winter and murdered his wife and two daughters before killing himself. The manager doing the interview put it all down to a genuine case of so-called ‘cabin fever’ which he hopes Jack will not succumb to. Jack assures him he will not, and that his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) will be fascinated with this piece of history being a horror film addict herself.

Suddenly we are in an apartment building cluttered with paperbacks, an overflowing ashtray and the distinct sounds of the television showing a children’s cartoon. Wendy and her son Danny are sitting at a kitchen table eating sandwiches, Wendy is reading a paperback novel and Danny is staring at the TV. They discuss the possibility of Jack’s new job and are innocently accepting of this new adventure they are about to embark on. I wouldn’t say they are excited. It is here when we are introduced to Danny’s ‘imaginary’ friend Tony who seems to speak out of the little boy’s finger. We realise that this boy is different and that he knows a lot more than he lets on. Tony does not want to go to The Overlook Hotel and in a way neither does Danny, but little boys in horror films don’t really get the final say no matter how in tune they are with supernatural elements.

On the drive to their new home for the next few months they end up discussing The Donner party, which were a group of settler’s that got snowbound on the mountains and had to resort to cannibalism. Not exactly the most charming conversation to have with a kid, but it sets the scene perfectly and gives us a slight insight into the already unhinged part of Jack’s psyche. It is very clear that Jack (Nicholson) is playing Jack (Torrance) with utter abandon and almost glee. This is definitely Nicholson embracing an inner manic part of himself I believe. This is a role that no one else could play. It is worth noting that the Jack Torrance in the novel did not descend into a state of madness until much later, whereas in the film it is quite clear that there is already something amiss with Jack. The character of Wendy has alluded to the fact that Jack once had a drinking problem and was prone to fits of rage and accidently hurt Danny a few years ago during one of these fits.

Once they are at the hotel and are being shown around, we meet Mr. Hallorann, a very important character in this story. He too has ‘the shining’ and can communicate with Danny in a way that only those with this special ability can understand. My understanding of this ability is that it is a little like ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) and/or telekinesis. Danny also has visions of the future, and in some of these visions we witness one of the most disturbing images in horror film history – the flood of blood down the hallways of The Overlook Hotel. This gushing blood is helped along in its intensity by the haunting music score that is just as much an integral part of this film as the creepy setting and the brilliant players. Danny and Hallorann strike up a friendship due to their existing abilities.  Their ability to communicate with one another telekinetically, Danny’s constant visions of terror and Jack’s (not so slow) descent into madness are the extent of the film’s supernatural feel. For the most part we are aware that Jack was a goner from the start and that it was only a matter of time before he started losing it.

A couple of weeks in and Jack is struggling to write which is something he had meant to do whilst being there. They are now officially ‘snowed in’ and are only able to contact people via CB radio as the telephone lines are now down. The clacking of his typewriting echoing thorough the cavernous rooms of the hotel is disturbing enough on its own. In the meantime Wendy and Danny are attempting to make the hotel home but it never quite seems as though they are completely comfortable. The hotel is simply too big and they are too small. Wendy continues to go about the pretence of forced domesticity whilst Danny riding around the halls on his peddle bike over those demented carpets is scary enough all on its own. Of course then he starts to see the twin girls who were murdered by their father in 1970, and then he manages to stumble into Room 237 (a room he was warned by both Tony and Hallorann to avoid). Room 237 in The Shining is a room where very disturbing things happen to both Danny and Jack. During this very intense time Jack is beginning to hallucinate and strikes up conversations with bartenders and even Charles Grady himself. The parallels between the two men become quite clear especially when Jack admits to Wendy that he experienced a nightmare in which he murdered his own family much like the previous caretaker.

Wendy is suitably terrified and is desperate to protect Danny when she discovers a bruise on his neck. She blames Jack who finds solace in the hotel bar with a barman that isn’t there and a shelf of booze that isn’t there either. When Wendy finds him again in the bar all alone she shares the story of a mystery woman in Room 237, and that it’s very possible that this woman is responsible for Danny’s bruises and not Jack. Jack’s investigation of the dreaded room is another one of those scenes that will forever haunt cinemagoers. The green bathroom and the sound effects that mimic a heartbeat are truly terrifying, and then when he finally discovers the naked woman in the bathtub…. That is Stephen King at his best.

Of course Jack lies about what he found in the room. His insistence that Wendy herself is losing it and that Danny perhaps harmed himself is the final nail in this coffin of terror and manipulation. Jack’s hallucinations take him to the hotel ballroom where he hears music and upon entering the room he finds himself in the midst of a party going on. The ballroom is filled with guests dressed in finery reminiscent of the ‘Gatsby’ era. In the bathroom he meets Grady who tells him that he (Jack) has always been the caretaker of The Overlook, not Grady. He also warns Jack that Danny has been communicating with someone from the outside – “a nigger cook”.

Hallorann and Danny have been using ‘the shine’ to talk to one another. Hallorann knows they are in danger and leaves his sunny vacation spot to fly back to The Overlook to try and help. At this point everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. Wendy has realised now that Jack is indeed disturbed after discovering next to his typewriter a stack of typed pages with the same sentence typed over and over again: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. In a truly terrifying scene Jack chases Wendy up the stairs with her waving a baseball bat in his face.  This particular scene took over 127 takes (a record) owing to Shelley Duvall’s discomfort with the directing style of Kubrick, who was known to be quite pushy and demanding of his actors. She finally hits Jack who falls down the stairs. She then drags him to the massive kitchen and locks him in the dry goods store overnight.

By this point Wendy and Danny are locked up in their little apartment and Danny has woken from another bout of ‘shining’ and walks around the room with a kitchen knife screaming “Redrum! Redrum! Redrum!” which when written on the wall and seen through a mirror actually spells ‘murder’ backwards. Jack, who is still locked in the store room, hallucinates once again and Grady once again appears and unlocks the door for him. He finds his family in their apartment and breaks the door down with an axe. It is then that we view one of the most iconic images in cinema history: the image of Jack Nicholson’s face poking through the splintered wood of the bathroom door calling out “Heeeere’s Johnny!” to his absolutely petrified wife. She ends up stabbing him in the hand which causes him to run off. Shelley Duvall is very, very good at screaming. Very good indeed.

At this point Danny has escaped into the massive maze that borders the hotel property. Hallorann has returned to the hotel on a Snowcat (heavy duty vehicle used in snow) and is murdered by Jack within minutes of walking through the doors. Quite suddenly and unexpectedly it seems the mother and son’s only way of escape and rescue has been cruelly taken away from them. We hardly have time to mourn Hallorann’s sudden loss when we see Jack chasing after poor Danny right though the snowy maze. These scenes are almost painful to watch as Danny runs away in the snow from his maniacal father. The darkness and the snow and the sound of Jack’s screaming are enough to make anyone feel entirely anxious and utterly helpless.

Whilst Danny is running away from his father, Wendy tears through the hotel and as she passes one of the bedrooms she notices a really weird scene in which two people are engaging in what seems to be a sexual act. Not particularly weird if it hadn’t been for the fact that one of the people is wearing an animal mask… She also comes across a room full of skeletons and the same river of blood that Danny saw so often.

In the end Wendy and Danny both manage to escape by locating Hallorann’s Snowcat (the hotel’s vehicles having been previously sabotaged by Jack). Jack is seen the following morning in the middle of the maze frozen to death.

The ballroom music starts to play and we are once again floating down the halls of The Overlook Hotel. There are balloons and streamers and confetti strewn everywhere as though a great party is in progress. The camera focuses on a photograph on the wall of the guests at a party all dressed up. The photograph is dated 1921, and Jack Torrance is standing right in the middle of it grinning at the camera. End.

Stephen King book reviews:

Different Seasons (1982) – Stephen King

Rose Madder (1995) – Stephen King

IT – Stephen King (1986)

Under the Dome (2009) – Stephen King

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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