The Shining

The Shining (1980) Director: Stanley Kubrick

“Here’s Johnny!”


Notably entirely different from Stephen King’s original novel of the same name (1977), a fact which greatly irked the author, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the great genre-defining cinematic achievements of modern horror. Kubrick entirely disregarded King’s screenplay, which Kubrick called “weak” and as a result King has despised the movie. King was frustrated and disappointed with the choice of Jack Nicholson as the lead role, as well as the narrative decision to minimize Jack’s alcoholism (a personal demon of Stephen King’s while he was writing the novel). Nevertheless, The Shining explores classic horror tropes, without exploiting them, and it delivers a dizzying and shocking production filled with winding hallways, disorienting hedge mazes, elevators filled with blood, ever-present ghosts, and a dark supernatural past that seems to inevitably bubble up from the ground itself. It was intended to be Kubrick’s follow-up to his unsuccessful film, Barry Lyndon in 1975.

The title was originally inspired by a song on John Lennon’s “Instant Karma”, in which he sings: “we all shine on.” It is a reference to the extra-sensory abilities of the hotel’s head cook, Dick Hallorann, and Jack’s son, Danny. They both have an ability to communicate telepathically and witness strange visions. The film is a disorienting trip into the isolated Colorado wilderness, with allusions to the Donner party, as we are introduced to a remote hotel built upon an Indian burial ground. Jack Torrance and his family, Wendy and young Danny, travel from the east coast (where Jack was a teacher and a writer) and they arrive at this seemingly idyllic Colorado ski resort for part of the year as caretakers while the roads remain blocked by snow.

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The plot is simple, yet the film lasts over two hours. It offers a slow paced buildup of tension as the family descends into chaos. In the film, the frozen, echoing silence of the Overlook Hotel plays just as much a role as the characters. It serves as a canvass wherein Jack views America as essentially clean, familiar, uninhabited, and most importantly, devoid of the crimes of history. (Note: the winding carpets in the film were inspired by Native American motifs and were later used as the carpets for the evil child named Sid in Toy Story). As the film progresses, Jack slowly becomes compelled by vague demons that haunt the hotel who urge him to kill his whole family. In the end, he chases Danny through the hotel’s gigantic hedge maze and winds up freezing in the snow while Danny and Wendy escape. The film closes with a peculiar photo from the 1920s which clearly shows Jack as a waiter at the hotel (the date is actually July 4, 1921). Apparently, he has always lived at the hotel, as have the other spirits who dwell within.

“All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

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The Shining is that wonderful movie which comes along once a decade or so and wholly reinvigorates a genre. As such, it has spawned numerous fan theories. Some suggest that the premise of the film is a metaphor for the holocaust or the genocide of Native Americans, another regards that the infamous Room 237 as a reference to the distance from the earth to the moon, further confirming the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked and filmed in Hollywood by Stanley Kubrick (part of this theory points out that he had a somewhat cozy relationship with NASA while filming 2001: A Space Odyssey). Other theories suggest the film is a mirror for Western imperialism as well as the dangers of alcoholism. Kubrick’s longtime assistant has dismissed some of these theories but they are nevertheless intriguing.

In an unusual move, Kubrick insisted on shooting the entire film in chronological order, and it was shot in various places between England and Oregon (further disappointing Stephen King for neglecting the original locations). The long filming process was exhausting for the actors, and they grew extremely frustrated with constant script revisions and long working hours. On top of this, Kubrick was known to treat his actors terribly, especially Shelley Duvall, who suffered a nervous breakdown on set (as captured by Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian Kubrick, in her short documentary, The Making of the Shining). Despite these facts, The Shining is an excellent film, avoiding the pitfalls and clichés of standard horror movies. The true horror in The Shining lies in its ability to expose the particular fears and moral failings of each character. In total isolation, at the mercy of nature, as well as mysterious and unpredictable supernatural forces, each character experiences the fear of our unintentionally calloused natural world as well as a new intentionally harmful supernatural world –Jack is revealed to be a weak-willed man, a killer overcome by an addictive personality. He is a lower class man, a former teacher who views this trip as a step toward becoming a successful writer, yet he remains a gruff, working-class, recovering alcoholic who bears all the accompanying resentments (he fears the uncleanliness of the hotel by using the N-Word and sighing over his own presumed “White Man’s Burden”). Wendy plays a predictably innocent and subordinate housewife, a docile woman who is routinely verbally abused and gaslit by her chaotic husband, yet she manages to discover her own strength as time passes. We in the audience are left to wonder if Danny will be overcome by the spirits haunting the hotel and turn evil. As with many mysteries in the film, the story ends with a door being left slightly ajar, with certain questions remaining unanswered. The effect leaves us feeling entirely unsettled.

Not unlike the trauma of Jack’s one-time abuse of his son Danny (he once got drunk and accidentally dislocated his son’s shoulder), the sins of yesteryear do not simply disappear. All throughout the film are reminders of Native Americans, from the burial ground to the carpets, they are the people who once dwelled all across this land, but not one single Native American appears in the film. Their ghostly presence is a reminder of Jack’s colonial arrogance, or what he calls his “White Man’s Burden.” His quest for complete purity leads him to fear all “outsiders” who are brought to the hotel. He fears them as a threat, hence the kindly African American cook, Dick Hallorann, a fellow working-class stiff, is stabbed in the back. Sadly, only Hallorann and Danny have “The Shining,” a secret power which allows them to remember the trauma of the past (“Some places are like people: some shine and some don’t”). As Danny makes clear, the meaning of “Redrum” can only be revealed in a mirror (it spells “murder” backwards). Similarly, Stanley Kubrick shows us a variety of mirrors placed throughout The Shining. In doing so, he holds a mirror to our own imperial project which reminds us that the atrocities of history still remain with us –after all, Jack is revealed to be just one among a crowd in the concluding photograph. In the words of Hallorann: “Well… you know Doc, when something happens it can leave a trace of itself behind. Say like… it’s when someone burns toast. When some things happen, it can leave other traces behind. Not things anyone can notice, but things that only people with shine can see. Just like they can see things that haven’t happened yet, sometimes they can see things that happened a long time ago. I think a lot of things happened in this particular hotel over the years… and not all of them was good.”

1 thought on “The Shining

  1. Considering how Kubrick made The Shining into the first epic horror film, it helped to open my eyes as a kid to how horror can be a seriously credible genre for the cinema. It influenced how maturely I could tolerate several horror films. Even slasher films. Thanks for your review. It’s always interesting to still learn more about all our favorite film and TV classics.

    Liked by 1 person

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