What Went Right With… The Shining?

A review of The Shining (1980)

The Shining is a classic movie regardless of the genre it falls into. The film which is based on the Stephen King book of the same name, is usually described as a horror, sometimes as a horror-drama, but there’s also some thriller elements in there too. Stanley Kubrick directed this horror-drama-thriller and also co-wrote it with Diane Johnson. The film is famous for deviating from King’s novel, so much so that he “hated” it when it was first released (he later learned to appreciate the movie). Maybe I’m biased because I’ve never read the book, but for me, as a stand-alone film, I always thought The Shining was a classic. The decaying old woman in room 237 used to freak me out as a kid and watching this movie late at night was a pleasure despite the fearful mood that accompanied it (especially at the age of 7 or 8).

The film stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, a writer who is offered a care-taking job at a seasonally closed hotel called the Overlook. The Overlook Hotel is located on a mountain in the Colorado Rockies isolated from the world during the frosty months. Jack’s wife Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall) and his son Danny (played by Danny Lloyd) accompany him to his new job and the trio live in the empty hotel during the winter as Jack writes a book amongst the peace and seclusion. Of course there is no peace, there is no rest, and there is no solitude. The hotel has had a horrific past; the previous caretaker Charles Grady suffered from “cabin fever”, a claustrophobic reaction whereby someone loses their sanity due to being confined with a small group of people or disconnected from the greater population. Grady butchered his two daughters and his wife, and he then committed suicide but this story doesn’t deter Jack from taking the job. So is the hotel haunted and will a similar tragedy befall the Torrances? Woooo….

The Shining was filmed at EMI Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire and Kubrick used several stages to create the interior of the hotel and the life-size reconstruction of the exterior was the biggest ever built there. It’s strange, I always thought the interiors were filmed in The Stanley Hotel, and I always assumed that was the reason some of the hallways looked “haunted”. If the movie was all shot at Elstree, then either their studios have a ghostly feeling to them or Stanley Kubrick is a true master of creating atmosphere.

Speaking of atmosphere, the score which features Hector Berlioz’ “Dream Of A Witches Sabbath” from Symphonie Fantastique is so powerful and eerie that it adds to the mood that’s created (during the opening and throughout the movie). As the camera smoothly glides over lakes and mountains during the opening credits, coupled with the haunting music, this makes for an utterly memorable opening that sticks in your mind for the rest of your life (a night-time version of that scene appears in Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, due to be released soon).

The score here is simply dazzling. Along with the heartbeat-like sound during the shining visions (specifically the room 237 mirror reveal) the domineering score is part of the reason this film is so effective. The music is very much part of the movie’s classic status just like 2001: A Space Odyssey. And whilst on the topic of moods and classic scenes, the original 1980 trailer for The Shining conjures up such a feeling of dread that contemporary trailer editors need to take note…

The movie also stars Scatman Crothers as head chef Dick Hallorann who recognises that Danny Torrance has some psychic abilities. Danny can communicate with people using telepathy and his imaginary friend “Tony” gives him some kind of remote viewing power (he “tells him things”) and this is used to great effect when Danny/Tony says the classic line “Redrum”. Danny sees apparitions of the murdered Grady sisters as he rides around the hotel on his trike. The Steadicam is used brilliantly during these scenes, calmly gliding over the carpet and around corners until the twins suddenly appear, standing still with Kubrick cutting intermittently to their blood-splattered corpses. This is undoubtedly a classic scene. The Shining contains so many memorable moments that almost the entire film has been endlessly referenced and parodied including “The Shinning” in the “Treehouse Of Horror V” episode of The Simpsons and Smif-N-Wessun’s album Dah Shinin’ and the accompanying music video for “Wontime” (the “Here’s Johnny!” scene was even parodied in an advert for Premier Inn). The best pop culture reference for me, was in Ready Player One where the amazing digital reconstruction of the Overlook formed the standout scene in the film.

The Steadicam shots coupled with wide-angle lens tracking people and objects makes the film flow so well, particularly during the tour of the hotel and the maze chase, giving the viewer a kinetic, P.O.V. feel. The scene where Jack stares at the model of the maze after which there’s a slow zoom into the actual garden can easily be achieved with a drone-mounted camera these days, but back in the late seventies or early eighties, it was an impressively steady crane shot (I assume).

In terms of acting, Jack Nicholson plays the part of Jack Torrance with such vibrancy; he convincingly portrays someone who has problems with alcohol, someone who’s physically abused his son, as well as someone suffering from mental illness. Even though you find yourself laughing at some of the scenes where Jack speaks down to or threatens Wendy (“I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in. I’m gonna bash ’em right the fuck in!”) he manages to simultaneously be menacing and comedic which adds to the idea of cabin fever. Of course the concept of an alcoholic writer is autobiographical for Stephen King who always injects something of himself into his stories (which a lot of the time feature a writer in the lead: Misery, Stand By Me, The Dark Half, It etc.).

The film deviated from the book in lots of ways, and like I said, although I’ve never read it, the differences have been documented by so many people that they now form part of the myth and legend of the movie. Even conspiracy researchers have offered their two-penneth given that Stanley Kubrick is said to have allegedly helped with the moon landing hoax by utilising his front-projection technique from 2001: A Space Odyssey in the NASA moon landing footage. According to some conspiracy theorists, The Shining is a confession. So is this a coded film that includes hidden messages hinting at Kubrick’s involvement with the fake moon landings?

Some people say that this film includes commentary about the Native American genocide and/or the Holocaust. There are a few Native American tapestries on the lobby walls and an image of an Indian Brave on some cans in the store room (and the plot that The Overlook was built on an “Indian burial ground”) but I don’t see how that’s a comment about American history. For whatever reason (and we’ll never really know since Kubrick has since passed away – incidentally another conspiracy involving his film Eyes Wide Shut) this film contains multiple differences when compared to the Stephen King novel which is surely for a particular reason? It’s no secret that Stanley Kubrick was an obsessive director. There’s many scenes where Danny looks knackered, probably due to Kubrick insisting on 80-odd takes for certain shots. This meticulous way of making a film was surely so there’d be no mistake? Kubrick wanted each and every scene to convey something, but what?

Some small changes include a mallet being switched to an axe in the movie version and Wendy not having blonde hair as she did in the book. The supernatural elements have also been lessened. Yes there’s ghosts and spirits in the film (the daughters of Charles Grady are depicted as creepy, ghostly twins) but some of the spooky characters might be mental illness (especially the bartender and butler). Stuart Ullman’s character (the hotel manager) refers to the Grady girls as “8 and 10” which seems to be bleed-through from the book (although they’re 6 and 8 in there). In this film they’re depicted as twins, so is this a rare mistake for Kubrick? Or are twins representative of NASA’s Project Gemini programme and the dialogue is purposely contradictory so you’d notice the discrepancy? There’s also the reduction of domestic violence (Jack beating Wendy with a mallet breaking her arm and leg). There’s also the “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typewriter twist, the “here’s Johnny!” line, the hedge maze, the blood gushing from the elevator, and Jack’s death in the snow-covered maze: all these elements aren’t in the book but they each make for iconic scenes which anyone will recall if they’re asked about The Shining.

There’s also the crashed car in the scene where Hallorann drives back to help the Torrances (a red Volkswagen Beetle which Stephen King apparently used to drive) something that people say implies Kubrick killing King’s version of the story. The room number in one of the key scenes isn’t room 217 as in the book but instead 237, which is said to be a reference to the average distance to the moon (237,000 miles). There’s lots of possible hidden messages here. Jay Weidner made two documentaries called Kubrick’s Odyssey I & II which outline all the conspiracy theories and the alleged admittance of Stanley’s NASA hoaxing (Danny’s Apollo 11 jumper is one of them). Jay was also involved in the documentary Room 237 which includes some more interpretations of the movie. Not all of these ideas are conclusive (for instance the supposed similarities between the aerial view of Kennedy Space Center and the pattern of the carpet isn’t exactly the same in my opinion – a hexagon versus an octagon) but they are interesting and more convincing than the supposed Native American symbolism.

Comparison of the carpet pattern in The Shining and Kennedy Space Center

The carpet pattern in The Shining (left) The Kennedy Space Center (centre) and the Apollo 11 jumper on Danny Torrance (right)

The ending with Jack Torrance in the black and white photograph as the song “Midnight, The Stars And You” plays, is something that could be tied-in to this conspiracy legend. Is there photographic evidence of Kubrick “on set” with NASA employees on July 4th floating around somewhere? I have no idea what the year 1921 is in reference to but it’s an interesting choice of song… cough, cough.

The only aspect of the film I didn’t like when I first watched it (and which still niggles me to this day) is how can an apparition or a schizo-personality unlock an industrial freezer? Jack would have surely died in there? And why the hell is Wendy doing most of the care-taking? She’s seen checking the boilers in one scene whereas Jack is more of a layabout (sleeping and “writing”) and yet he’s the fucker getting paid.

On the run-up to Doctor Sleep‘s release, The Shining has been playing at select cinemas recently and I have to say that the 4K transfer looks pretty good on the big screen (not as impressive as the 4k re-issue of Terminator 2: Judgment Day but worth the ticket price). The 4K Blu-ray has also been recently released which is great if you have a 4K TV. Speaking of releases, for years we in the UK had to put up with a shorter edit (119 minutes) whenever the film was released in each format. My family always imported the US version of the VHS, DVD, and later Blu-ray because the extended cut (144 minutes) is the superior version. I always think of the extended cut as the director’s cut but apparently Stanley considered both to be “Director’s Cuts”. Interestingly, the film was originally 146 minutes long with additional scenes at the end set in a hospital where Wendy is told that Jack’s body can’t be located. However three days after the film’s initial release, these two minutes were ordered to be cut from the film and the projectionists had to send the footage back to the studio. It was erroneously reported that the latest release would be the complete 146 minute version but unfortunately that was not the case.

It’s staggering to think back to all the bad reviews this film received when it was first released. Variety magazine wrote “Kubrick has teamed with jumpy Jack Nicholson to destroy all that was so terrifying about Stephen King’s bestseller” and there were many more negative reviews which slated the film calling it “slow paced” and even a “disappointment”. It’s a strange critique to call The Shining “slow”. The slow pace builds mood, how else are you going to show a slow descent into madness? The film was even nominated for two Razzie Awards including Worst Director – for fuck’s sake!

As the mainstream media do with most classic pieces of art, there have been numerous reappraisals over the years that followed. There’s been so much critical re-evaluation that the film is now considered a classic (because most critics are blinkered, sheep-like imbeciles) and The Shining is now over-intellectualised and over-interpreted by film study students and twatty journos (as well as conspiracy theorists). This is very similar to what’s happening with Joker (also a definite classic) – as I write this retrospective review, it is rated 68% in Rotten Tomatoes whereas Terminator: Dark Fate (a travesty of a film) holds 67%! When mainstream critics gather together, they overrate all the trash and underrate all the classics. The original reviews for The Shining are proof that most film journalists know bugger-all about movies. Hopefully the sequel Doctor Sleep (also based on a book by Stephen King) won’t be a disappointment but you shouldn’t rely on sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic to tell you if it’s worth watching. They’ll only tell you the truth decades later.

Overlooked Hotel.

Writing: 8/10

Directing: 9/10

Acting: 7/10

Score: 10/10

Overall: 10/10

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