The second film adaptation of a Stephen King novel after the successful Carrie just four years before, The Shining pushes horror from graphic scares to slow building psychological tension as the audience is subjected to a descent into madness.
Struggling writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes on the position of winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel in the isolates Colorado Rockies, joined by his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd). The Overlook’s cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), shows Wendy and Danny around the hotel, and discovers that Danny has ‘the shining’; a series of psychic abilities that Hallorann also possesses. Hallorann warns Danny about the hotel and tells him that there are bad memories within its walls. When a winter storm leaves the Torrance family isolated, Jack’s sanity is pushed to the edge when he falls afoul of the spirits that haunt the Overlook, including that of the former winter caretaker, who went insane and murdered his wife and daughters before killing himself.
From the very first scenes, The Shining sets itself apart from many other horror film, shying away from dark, cramped hallways and quick cuts; instead giving audiences bright daytime scenes, large rooms, and slow tracking shots. It’s a very different kind of horror film, one that relies upon disorientation and strong character acting to build fear and tension rather than jump scares and half hidden monsters. It’s probably this that helps the film stand the test of time as a classic; the fact that there are no special effects that age badly, nor monster makeup that looks dated.
We don’t have monsters stalking our characters, but the hotel itself. Designed to disorient and bewilder, the Overlook Hotel is alive in its own way, playing with the minds of not just the characters but the audience too. The manager’s office is in the centre of the hotel, yet has a window looking outside; Dick Hollorann takes Wendy and Danny into a room on the left side of the hallway, yet when they exit it’s on the other side; corridors in the hotel appear to hold both rooms and elevators despite only being six feet deep. The very set design is wrong, it doesn’t work, and that adds to the sense of unease that runs throughout.
These design choices, and the way that Kubrick shoots the film, mean that scenes that would normally be disturbing in themselves become the standard with an ever-present pervasive tension and fear. When the spirits of the hotel do actually manifest to terrorise the Torrance family, these moments become heightened. And it’s these moments that have gone on to become some of the most iconic in cinema, especially the scene in which Danny comes across the ghostly vision of the murdered Grady twins; which has been recreated and parodied to the point where even people who haven’t seen The Shining know where it’s from.
However, it’s not just the design and direction that deserve praising; the acting also sets the film above many other entries in the horror genre. With such a small main cast, so much focus is given over to the Torrance family, and both Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall give their all in their portrayal of a family being slowly destroyed by supernatural forces. Always convincing as ‘unhinged’, Nicholson is believable as a man haunted not just by the ghosts of the hotel, but those of his former addiction. In some ways the film could almost be a story of addiction, and the effect that it has on a person and their loved ones; fortunately, Jack isn’t the only character to experience the paranormal, so we don’t have to question if it’s all inside his head.
Duvall is often overlooked for her performance, with Nicholson receiving much of the praise. Whilst Nicholson is great as a man succumbing to madness, Duvall gives the stronger performance, literally screaming for her life in the final acts. Caught in the middle between a husband with a history of addiction and violence, and a son with a strange ability that they don’t understand, she is forced to contend with her world falling apart around her.
Despite being imitated in film and television countless times, The Shining continues to impress, not just as a horror story, but as a masterclass in how to make a film. Though not the most faithful adaptation of a Stephen King novel, it captures the feel of the book in such a way that it’s still one of the best.