Among the large selection of horror films that I had on repeat growing up, there are a few that stand out. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) remains my favorite film of all time, and James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) is still required viewing each October. Stephen King adaptations were my bread and butter; both Christine and Pet Sematary were always stacked on top of my VCR/DVD player combo. Yet, there was one movie that has always thoroughly disturbed me, never losing its potency over the years, despite countless viewings. That movie is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
The Shining follows the Torrance family as the patriarch, Jack (Jack Nicholson), accepts a new job as the off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. Jack has a history of alcoholism and child abuse, but is now sober and eager to spend some solitude writing while away at the hotel. His wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), seems to be on board with the decision, but his son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), is skeptical, with his imaginary friend Tony warning him early on of the hotel’s dangers. While the family lives in complete isolation, the ghosts of the Overlook begin to push Jack to insanity, putting Wendy and Danny in danger.
Every friend or cousin that stayed overnight at my house was subjected to a viewing of The Shining on the VHS I picked up at a flea market for a few bucks. I traumatized my little sister by showing it to her when she was only eight — a decision made worse by the fact that I was fifteen at that time and probably knew better. Simply put, I was in love with this movie.
Part of the reason I was — and still am — in love with The Shining is the physical response it evokes from me. When the credits rolled on my first viewing, my entire body was trembling. Every one of my senses seemed to be heightened, and my heart felt as though it might burst at any second. A film had never sparked anything similar within me before The Shining, and only a few have since. So when I saw that the 4K remaster was playing at a local theater, you bet your ass I bought tickets immediately.
I am happy to write that The Shining still hasn’t lost its edge, despite nearing forty years of age. The film earns its reputation with a leading trio of knockout performances, its haunting use of music, and innovative camerawork and direction. Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist, and it shows in every frame onscreen. There are plenty of behind the scenes accounts which paint Kubrick in a not-so-favorable light, but the final product is undeniably well-crafted.
Kubrick’s use of Steadicam, by today’s standards, is fairly routine. However, in 1980, it was fairly new technology. The Steadicam has since been adopted by many films and filmmakers, but none have used it quite as effectively as Kubrick does here. The smooth camera movements and low angles place the audience firmly within the frame, as if they’re experiencing the Overlook Hotel’s horrors alongside the Torrance family.
The infamous scenes in which Danny rides his Big Wheel through the halls of the Overlook are brimming with tension. As an audience member, you are riding along with him on the back of his tricycle, hearing the changing sounds of the wheels as they move from carpet, to hard floors, back to carpet. You’re waiting anxiously for something to pop around a corner — and nothing ever does. At least, not in the traditional sense.
Kubrick’s film is a largely restrained one, with the exception of Jack Nicholson’s gonzo performance. It relies on atmosphere and mood rather than jump scares that many modern horror films utilize. Where most filmmakers these days would utilize a jump scare, Kubrick simply lets his unnerving visuals settle under the skin, leaving his scares frighteningly unresolved. The ghosts, boogey-men, and monsters don’t pop out at you. They simply exist, and that’s terrifying enough.
Then, of course, there’s Jack Nicholson’s bone-chilling performance as a father pushed into insanity. Stephen King, who famously dislikes Kubrick’s film, credits most of this to the character of Jack being insane from the start. While there may be a case for that — Nicholson is unnerving even in his first few moments of screen time — he does change throughout the film. In the beginning, there are glimpses of Jack wanting to do right by his family, despite his anger issues and general eerie aura.
That completely changes in the third act, in which the ghost of a former caretaker convinces Jack that his family needs “corrected” through deadly means. It’s here where Nicholson becomes unhinged in the type of performance that’s often imitated, but never duplicated. The physicality that Nicholson throws into the role is unmatched and exhausting to watch, and his maniacal grin is forever immortalized on the VHS case I picked up at the flea market fifteen years ago.
Nicholson is flanked by two more top-notch performances. Danny Lloyd gives one of horror’s best child performances, switching between adorable, vulnerable, and creepy as hell effortlessly. His croaking voice is goosebump-inducing, and his insistent chant of “Redrum!” is deservedly etched into this horror fan’s psyche. Meanwhile, Shelley Duvall gives a tormented performance full of tears and terror that rings unfortunately true, considering the conditions Kubrick put her through to extract the performance. She sells every bit of it, and it leaves one to wonder how much was performance and how much was her reality.
The fourth main character of The Shining is the music, curated by Kubrick to include a collection of pre-recorded music as well as original pieces created for the film by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. It deepens the atmosphere further, and when it drops out of a scene, your heart drops with it. Silence is a weapon in the cold isolation of the Overlook, and the absence of music usually signals horrific things to come.
And the horrible things do come. Jack’s descent into madness is punctuated by graphic violence, and the sole murder in the entire film comes as an absolute shock, even after countless viewings. While there are plenty of ghosts and spirits to frighten you, Kubrick knows how to play his hand. The notion of being trapped alone with a loved one who suddenly wants to kill you with an axe is scarier than any spirit or ghost.
The ambiguity of The Shining and the striking imagery have caused many to go over the film with a fine-tooth comb, attempting to find hidden meanings in Kubrick’s work. I’ve never been particularly interested in any of the absurd conspiracy theories, most of which are outlined in the documentary Room 237. At the end of the day, The Shining is simply an excellent exercise in unsettling horror, one that has underlying themes and messages, but is certainly not wrapped up in conspiracy.
Stanley Kubrick is one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history; with The Shining, the evidence of this is ever present. It’s a film that burrows under my skin, chews on my nerves, works my heart like a sock puppet on cocaine, and beats my brain into a mushy pulp, effectively rendering me lifeless every single time I watch it. Even on a thirty-something viewing (that’s a modest estimate), I’m thinking about it days later. Try as they might — and they have tried — big studios just don’t produce movies like The Shining anymore.