The Shining (1980)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) gets an interview at the Overlook Hotel for the open caretaker position. The job starts before the start of winter and lasts till May which is perfect for Jack because he feels isolation is what he needs in order to organize ideas for his upcoming novel. Although the manager of the hotel, Mr. Ullman (Barry Nelson), admits that being a caretaker is not physically demanding, from running the boiler to turning on the heater in select areas of the building, it can be quite a challenge psychologically. Mr. Ullman confirms that in the winter of 1970, the seclusion has gotten so bad that the caretaker at the time murdered his wife and two daughters with an ax. Jack laughs with assurance, claiming that nothing like that will happen during his watch.
Directed with great eye and execution by Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” has made a permanent imprint on my subconscious and imagination that just about every year, I find myself dreaming about it. It is foreboding and beautiful from the moment it begins with an aerial view of Jack’s car running toward the hotel, accompanied by hair-raising gothic horror music, until the final shot showing a curious picture from July 4, 1921.
The picture starts to gain momentum when Jack and his family are given a tour of the hotel. The lobby is gorgeous, boasting framed photos of important visitors as well as American-Indian designs on carpets and wall tapestries, the kitchen is enormous with numerous metallic utensils and equipment, the freezer is meat galore, and the storage room is teeming with sweet goodies. But the Overlook Hotel’s beauty is clearly meant to attract visitors from all over the world. And just like all places, it has a history. This one happens to sit on an Indian burial ground and Danny (Danny Lloyd), Jack’s young son, can feel that this place, despite its beauty, offers something rotten and awful.
Particularly memorable is a critical scene between Danny and the hotel’s head cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), because it showcases the director’s characteristic laser focus on what needs to be delivered and how to go about it. Although the conversation is constantly evolving, from Danny’s imaginary friend named Tony to what might be hiding in room 237, its crux is what having the “shine” means.
The casting of Crothers is genius because he commands a voice that oozes wisdom seemingly without effort, the kind of voice that children would be attuned to listen to and really hear what needs to be said. We are the children in this story not only because of the mystery and hidden horrors it offers but also in terms of the hotel’s space and structure. Kubrick places us into this specific place and we are in the middle of it, marveling at its enormity.
Shelley Duvall, playing Jack’s terrified wife, gets unfair criticism for being too dramatic that she becomes ineffective in the role. I am often at a loss when such a critique comes up because I cannot imagine anyone else playing Wendy Torrance. I believed Duvall as a character who is fragile, weak, and easily bullied by her husband. Scenes where Wendy is required to go toe-to-toe against her increasingly erratic—and psychotic—husband offer wonderful entertainment. There is humor, horror, and grandiosity in both performances. Without Duvall’s constant hyperventilation, while looking incredibly pale as if she were in a permanent state of shock, Nicholson’s performance would not have had an effective sounding board. Take away one and the other loses resonance.
“The Shining” offers an ascending sentiment of dread—one scene literally taking place on a staircase as Jack announces that he plans to bash his wife’s head in. To discuss its technical brilliance, especially with its utilization of the Steadicam during the hallway sequences, is beyond the scope of this review.
But I will a point of saying this: The picture is the antithesis of so-called mind-boggling movies that “require” to be seen several times for audiences to fully understand and appreciate its mysteries. It can be seen only once and although it will leave the viewer with questions, the viewer is likely to be satisfied. In my case, however, I make sure to revisit the picture annually to relish the consummate filmmaking.