A writer brings his wife and child with him for a job as a caretaker for an isolated hotel during the winter, only to find that there might be an evil presence lurking in the hotel.
Since I first saw this movie in high school it’s constantly been among my favorite horror films of all time. Even before I sat down to rewatch this film (for the umpteenth time) I knew that I’d give this movie five stars. It’s chilling, disturbing, disquieting, and altogether unsettling from start to finish- and by the time the climax comes, you’re nerves are begging you for a break. This is a film that even thirty-five years after it’s release, still has a way of making me hold my breath in certain scenes. Nicholson is absolutely terrifying, and the way that Kubrick has created the world of the Overlook Hotel makes the place a labyrinth of horrors where surprises wait around every corner.
“When my wife tried to prevent me from doing my duty, I corrected her.”
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson, “Easy Rider”) is a writer and a recovering alcoholic who takes a winter caretaker position at the Overlook Hotel. The position will require Jack, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall, “Popeye”), and his son Danny (Danny Lloyd, “Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy”) to move to the hotel for the duration of the winter. The hotel is set twenty-five miles away from the nearest town, and the roads between the lodge and the village are unplowed; it’s nearly impossible for anyone to get to hotel once winter has started. While Jack and his family are touring the hotel, a cook named Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) takes Danny aside and asks him about his ‘imaginary friend’ Tony. Dick tells Danny that he has a special gift known as Shining- a kind of predilection towards psychic energies. He also tells Danny that the Overlook Hotel has had a series of bad things that have happened there, and those things have left behind a sort of presence. As Jack and his family stay the winter, the Hotel seems to take on a life of its own, and the Torrance family begins to wonder if staying there was really a good idea.
I almost don’t even know where to begin, because everything in this movie, in my personal opinion, is as close to perfect as a movie can be. I suppose the only place to start is with the man in charge: Mr. Kubrick himself. The direction in this movie is meticulously crafted, to the point of utter insanity. Out of all of Kubrick’s films, it’s this one that I’ve seen the most (it’s probably in the running for the film I’ve seen most times in my life), and it’s still a film where I notice something new every time. Kubrick hides little messages everywhere in this movie, some of them are more obvious than others, but there are dozens of layers to this film. The attention to detail and hidden messages in the production design was really what stood out to me this time I viewed the film. There are the more obvious things like a book titled “Witch Child” being in view while Wendy talks to the psychiatrist about Danny’s imaginary friend. But there are more subtle things too; like Danny wearing an Apollo 11 shirt at the moment he makes first physical contact with the spirits of the hotel (or, if you give weight to conspiracy theories, you might think its Kubrick’s way of acknowledging that he helped fake the moon lading). Or there’s the fact that there are subtle continuity errors in the background of many scenes, purposefully done by Kubrick to give the hotel a disquieting feeling- chairs disappear, the level of liquids in glasses change, Jack’s typewriter becomes darker as the film goes on. Also meant to confuse and make the viewer uneasy is the fact that the layout of the hotel itself makes little sense; its confusing and disorienting- it feels like the garden labyrinth outside, which is also a recurring theme in the film. There’s a shot where Jack looms over the model of the maze and stares down at it maniacally, foreshadowing the ending (Jack acts a minotaur wandering around the maze enraged, trying to kill, and Danny acts as Theseus). There are also multiple references to Hansel and Gretel and leaving trails of breadcrumbs. But there are also hundreds of moments of foreshadowing, starting with the very first scene, the interview, when the Hotel manager makes references to cabin fever and the effects it had on the previous caretaker Delbert Grady (Philip Stone, “A Clockwork Orange”). I have also heard theories that this film is about the US government’s oppression of the Native Americans, and this time through I absolutely could see how that would be true; there are just too many references, images, and even sounds that reference Native Americans for it to be coincidental. I could probably go on and on and on about how Kubrick’s directing in this film is absolutely incredible, but I wont. There are hundreds of theories surrounding this film, and if you’re as obsessed with this film as I am, then you might also be interested in checking out “Room 237”, a documentary celebrating the Shining and exploring all the possible hidden meanings (it’s a bit slow and sometimes repetitive, but it’s certainly interesting- and it’ll give you fresh insight on the film). Kubrick’s writing is fantastic too, particularly the world building he does at the beginning to lay the groundwork for the rest of the film. By the time the horror is under weigh, we’re already familiar with all of the essential locations for the climax, and wandering around and finding these locations in places that they weren’t originally only adds to the confusing and tension in the final scenes.
I also want to talk about the acting. Now, this movie is pretty impressive in that, for the most part, this movie is about three people being trapped in a home all winter, and those three characters carry the bulk of the film (at the beginning and towards the end there are other characters, sure, but for the most part it’s just the Torrances). Stephen King famously criticized Jack Nicholson’s performance for being flat, but I’d argue against that (he also said Kubrick’s version sucked and then proceeded to write a four and a half hour television adaptation- I haven’t seen that version, but I’d like to someday). I think Nicholson does a great job of giving off the appearance of being slightly unhinged at the very beginning of the film, without overselling it. His slow decent into madness is one that is wonderfully creepy to watch; some of the most disquieting scenes in the movie are the moments when Jack just stares out in the distance, eyes glossy, mouth slack. The scenes in the restaurant where Jack talks to Grady and Lloyd (Joe Turkel, “The Killing”), the bartender, are some of the most chilling conversations I’ve ever seen in a horror film, and it’s only the subtext and acting that makes it creepy. Shelly Duval is great as Wendy. She’s the character that makes the most rational decisions in the film, but her good choices do nothing to benefit her. The way that she portrays Wendy’s uncertainty about Jack is probably the best part of her performance. Before Jack really snaps, there are scenes when Jack does or says things that come off a little dark, and Duval conveys her reactions to these actions with great subtlety. Danny Lloyd is actually pretty great as Danny too. Kubrick famously didn’t tell Lloyd that the movie he was shooting was a horror film, and Lloyd didn’t find out until several years later (after this film he shot one more movie and never worked in the industry again). For a child actor who wasn’t told what the film he was shooting was about, Lloyd gives a performance that fits perfectly for this movie.
I love “The Shining”. If it isn’t my favorite horror film it’s certainly in the top three. This is a movie that shows how great horror films could be, what the genre can do, when given to the right director. This movie is a masterpiece that still has the ability to scare viewers silly. If you haven’t seen it already, what are you doing here? Go watch “The Shining”!
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