Filmsite Movie Review
The Shining (1980)
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Background

The Shining (1980) is creative director Stanley Kubrick's intense, epic, gothic horror film and haunted house masterpiece - a beautiful, stylish work that distanced itself from the blood-letting and gore of most modern films in the horror genre. (The film waits until its climax to provide the typical catharctic bloody violence of most traditional horror films - and with restraint - only one murder!)

The film's source material from science-fiction/horror author Stephen King's 1977 best-selling novel (his third novel under his own name) by the same name, bears little resemblance to Kubrick's creation. A four and one-half hour long, made-for-TV mini-series titled Stephen King's The Shining (1997), (with Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay), due to King's dissatisfaction, was a more literal rendering of the original source material, and included a famous topiary-animal attack scene. More recently, a documentary titled Room 237 (2012) speculated that Kubrick's film was possibly a veiled and hidden film about the Holocaust, and/or about the genocide of Native Americans. It also made the outlandish claim that Kubrick may have directed the 'fake footage' of the Apollo moon landings (a favorite theory of conspiracy believers).

With American co-screenwriter Diane Johnson, Kubrick moved from the conventions of traditional horror film thrillers, displacing them with his own, much more subtle, rich, symbolic motifs. [The title of the film was inspired by the refrain in the Plastic Ono Band's song by John Lennon, "Instant Karma," from the chorus: "We all shine on."]

As in many of his films, director Kubrick explores the dimensions of the genre to create the ultimate horror film of a man going mad due to many factors (including alcohol abuse), aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson), while serving as an off-season caretaker of an isolated, snowbound resort (the Overlook) with his family: wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). They soon become affected by a "psychic photograph" of a bloody series of historic murders committed there. The film's title refers to the extra-sensory, paranormal psychic abilities possessed by the Overlook Hotel's head cook Halloran (Scatman Crothers) and the young boy.

Kubrick deliberately reduced the pace of the narrative and expanded the rather simple plot of a domestic tragedy to over two hours in length, created lush images within the ornate interior of the main set, added a disturbing synthesized soundtrack (selecting musical works from Bela Bartok, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki), used a Steadicam in groundbreaking fashion, filmed most of the gothic horror in broad daylight or brightly-lit scenes, and built an unforgettable, mounting sensation of terror, ghosts, and the paranormal. The principal, ghostly character in the film is the classic haunted house - a huge, isolated Colorado mountain resort hotel, the Overlook. [Trivia: The winding pattern of the carpet fabric decorating the house of the evil Sid in Toy Story (1995) was the same as that in the Overlook Hotel. See below for more about The Overlook.]

The Story

The film opens without narration or commentary featuring only Wendy Carlos' funereal-sounding synthesized adaptation of the "Dies Irae" (Day of Wrath) theme from the fifth movement (Dream of a Witches' Sabbath) of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. [Note: The music is similar to Ernest Gold's adaptation of the classic work for the similar B-horror flick The Screaming Skull (1958) - two years later, Gold won the Best Score Academy Award for Exodus (1960).] Stunning scenic views of the Colorado Rockies are presented with magnificent aerial photography - the camera flies in close to the surface of an immense lake in the lap of snow-covered mountains, with beautiful reflective (or mirroring) qualities. [Note: Mirroring and double images are rampant in the film: Danny/Tony, the sane vs. insane Jack, Jack/Grady, the two girls in the corridor, the woman/hag in Room 237, etc.] After flying by a small sliver of an island (with a few trees) in the lake's center, the shot dissolves from the lake to a God's-eye, aerial view of a two-lane mountainous road far below, winding through sun-drenched tall pines in the early morning.

The shifting camera views pick up a tiny yellow Volkswagen far below the sole car on the unpopulated strip of road penetrating into the paradisical wilderness in early winter. In more views, it moves across the face of the mountainside from lower right to upper left of the frame as the credits begin to roll, and the camera catches up with the car. [Note: these views are similar to future maze tracking shots, and to the interior of the hotel in the film - a vast series of labyrinthine hallways, doorways and corridors, with a winding red/black/orange carpet design.] As the terrain gets steeper, the valley drops off to the left where the car disappears into a dark tunnel. [On the soundtrack, one can faintly detect the sound of a boy's tricycle going over the rug-covered hardwood floor of a hotel - a foreshadowing of what's to come.] When the vehicle reaches the summit in the magnificent, but isolated mountain region - there is a beautiful, snow-covered crest that dwarfs a vast, sprawling hotel below it. The screen frame goes black.

[The Timberline Hotel, a ski resort in Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon provided the exterior for The Overlook. The interiors of the hotel were all created from scratch inside of Elstree Studios located outside of London - they do not actually exist. The outdoor hedge maze was also constructed there. Stephen King wrote half of his novel in Room 217 - changed to 237 in the film - of The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, a similar-looking hotel].

White text on black sub-titles punctuate the film throughout with either short descriptions of the scene or with arbitrary references to time. From start to finish, the film's titles compress space and time, moving from the wide expanse of mountains to the hotel, and then from months and days to hours:

The Interview

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson in his first major role since One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)) strolls into the palatial lobby of the Overlook, inquiring to see General Manager Mr. Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) for his appointment - he has driven three and a half hours distance from his home.

In the kitchen/dinette of the Torrances' home in Boulder, Colorado [where they have lived only about three months after relocating from Vermont where Jack was a school teacher], seven year-old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) eats a lunch of white-bread and milk with his passive, skinny, black-haired mother "Wendy" Winifred (Shelley Duvall), who is reading The Catcher in the Rye.

[There's a very subtle connection signaled here: the main protagonist in J.D. Salinger's novel Holden Caulfield, is an alienated and haunted teen, similar to Jack Torrance as an adult. Both experience sleep deprivation and dementia as a result. Another interpretation is that the front and back covers of the book, red with gold lettering, are similar mirror-images of each other, foreshadowing other mirrorings to occur later in the film: "redrum" --> "murder", and the alliterative "goldroom" --> "Gold Room"]

Danny: Do you really want to go and live in that hotel for the winter?
Wendy: Sure I do. It'll be lots of fun.
Danny: Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, there's hardly anybody to play with around here.
Wendy: Yeah, I know. It always takes a little time to make new friends.
Danny: Yeah, I guess so.
Wendy: What about Tony? He's lookin' forward to the hotel, I bet.
Danny: (He uses his index finger as a bobbing, wiggling puppet-figure to act and speak in a roughened, croaking voice like Tony - a fantasy character of his imagination.) No he isn't, Mrs. Torrance.
Wendy: Now come on, Tony, don't be silly.
Danny (as Tony): I don't want to go there, Mrs. Torrance.
Wendy: Well, how come you don't want to go?
Danny (as Tony): I just don't.
Wendy: Well, let's just wait and see. We're all going to have a real good time.

In the hotel office, Ullman announces that former school-teacher, aspiring novelist Jack (and his family) will be caretaker(s) of the hotel during the upcoming winter: "Jack is, uh, going to take care of the Overlook for us this winter." His former wage-earning job as a teacher ended in failure. [In the novel, Jack was dismissed from his teaching job after assaulting a pupil.] According to Jack, it made ends meet but got in the way of his writing:

Ullman: Jack is a school teacher...
Jack: Uh, formerly a school-teacher...I'm a writer. Umm, teaching's been more or less a way of making ends meet...I'm lookin' for a change.

General Manager Ullman explains that the regular season runs from "May 15 to October 30th and then we close down completely until the following May" - a period of six months when the deserted, off-season, snow-bound hotel is closed and inaccessible during the brutal, terrifying winter weather. Mild-mannered, congenial Jack has already been recommended and hired through the Denver office, so Ullman dispenses with typical interview questions and describes the job's essential requirement - to keep the cruel, winter "elements" (both physical and psychological) at bay with maintenance and repair of the building.

He cautions Jack about the possible deleterious effects of being isolated for many months and losing all touch with civilization. Unperturbed by the idea of retreating into a secluded world, Jack accepts the job and plans to take advantage of the undemanding work schedule to do some concentrated writing, and he predicts that his family will feel the same ("they'll love it"):

Ullman: When the place was built in 1907, there was very little interest in winter sports. And this site was chosen for its seclusion and scenic beauty.
Jack: Well, it's certainly got plenty of that, ha, ha.
Ullman: ...The winters can be fantastically cruel. And the basic idea is to cope with the very costly damage and depreciation which can occur. And this consists mainly of running the boiler, heating different parts of the hotel on a daily, rotating basis, repair damage as it occurs, and doing repairs so that the elements can't get a foothold.
Jack: Well, that sounds fine to me.
Ullman: Physically, it's not a very demanding job. The only thing that can get a bit trying up here during the winter is, uh, a tremendous sense of isolation.
Jack: Well, that just happens to be exactly what I'm looking for. I'm outlining a new writing project and, uh, five months of peace is just what I want.
Ullman: That's very good Jack, because, uh, for some people, solitude and isolation can, of itself become a problem.
Jack: Not for me.
Ullman: How about your wife and son? How do you think they'll take to it?
Jack: They'll love it.

Without wanting to sound "melodramatic" because "it's something that's been known to give a few people second thoughts about the job," Ullman sheepishly and truthfully reveals the hotel's disturbing, murderous, misogynistic history - a real-life horror movie recipe about a previous care-taker who was affected by the isolation and loneliness of the bleak hotel. The former care-taker murdered his family and then committed suicide:

Ullman: I don't suppose they, uh, told you anything in Denver about the tragedy we had up here during the winter of 1970.
Jack: I don't believe they did.
Ullman: Well, uh, my predecessor in this job, hired a man named Charles Grady as the winter caretaker. And he came up here with his wife and two little girls, I think about eight and ten. And he had a good employment record, good references, and from what I've been told, I mean he seemed like a completely normal individual. But at some point during the winter, he must have suffered some kind of a complete mental breakdown. He ran amuck, and uh, killed his family with an axe. Stacked 'em neatly in one of the rooms of the West Wing, and uh, then he, uh, he put, uh, both barrels of a shotgun in his mouth. Police, uh, they thought that was what the old-timers used to call cabin-fever. Kind of claustrophobic reaction which can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time.
Jack: Well, that is, uh, quite a story.
Ullman: Yeah it is. Oh, it's still hard for me to believe it actually happened here. But it did, and uh, I think you can appreciate why I wanted to tell you about it.
Jack: I certainly can, and uh, I also understand why your people in Denver left it for you to tell me.
Ullman: Well, obviously, some people can be put off by the idea of staying alone in a place where something like that actually happened.

In the first of many eloquent smiles during his deferential interview, an unruffled Jack arches his sharply-angled eyebrows and assures Ullman that he won't follow in the footsteps of the previous winter caretaker who murdered his family on the premises. He also supposes that his wife will be fascinated by the hotel's horrific history:

Well, you can rest assured, Mr. Ullman, that's not gonna happen with me. And, uh, as far as my wife is concerned, uh, I'm sure she'll be absolutely fascinated when I tell her about it. She's a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict. [A reference to the author of the film source, Stephen King!]

The next scene is in the Torrance home's bathroom [strikingly similar in composition and appearance to the hotel's Room 237 bathroom where Jack has a traumatic vision later in the film]. In front of the bathroom mirror as he brushes his teeth, hyper-intuitive Danny is already receiving clairvoyant, visionary messages (his gift of "shining") from his make-believe playmate "Tony." He is told that his father has been offered the hotel job. Danny foresees the future with his psychic, paranormal powers, accurately predicting that Wendy will receive a phone call from Jack about the job.

At first, Tony resists but then delivers a terrifying, bloody, psychic vision of the past [is the vision real or only illusion?] - a warning about the hotel. Danny is connected to a view of the hotel's murderous forces and senses something evil about their family's future home even before they arrive. Torrential waves of deep-red blood silently splash from the double-doors of an elevator in the hotel lobby, decorated art-deco style. Blood squeezes out of the firmly-shut red elevator doors and fills the lobby. Two of the Overlook's time-warped occupants - a pair of young, mannequin-like twin girls (Lisa and Louise Burns), each wearing a blue party dress [are they the previous caretaker Grady's two murdered daughters?], holding hands in a flower-wallpapered hallway, and staring grimly at the camera, appear in a cut-in for an instant between the engulfing waves of spilling blood. [It is later learned that the hotel was built upon American Indian burial grounds - does the blood also symbolize the spilling of native-American blood?] Danny's horrified face reacts with mouth gaping open.

As Danny is treated by a female Doctor (Anne Jackson), Tony is described as "a little boy that lives in my mouth" and as "his imaginary friend." While trying to diagnose the not-uncommon "episode," although there is "nothing physically wrong with Danny" and he has no serious malady, the soft-spoken doctor describes that the reaction was brought on "by emotional factors - and they rarely occur again. They're more akin to auto-hypnosis, a kind of self-induced trance." According to quiet-spoken Wendy, there is a history of violence in their family [parallel to the history of violence at the hotel.] Danny started talking to "Tony" around the time he was put into nursery school when they lived in Vermont. The visions and psychic powers developed as a reaction of the boy's fervent imagination to his school and to his then-alcoholic father's abuse and mistreatment - Danny's shoulder was dislocated in a serious injury during his father's drunken rage, according to a jittery, rationalizing, naive, ultra-tolerant Wendy. [These allusions to Jack's background of alcoholism and violence play a larger role later in the film]:

It was just one of those things, you know. Purely an accident. My husband had, uh, been drinking, and he came home about three hours late. So he wasn't exactly in the greatest mood that night. And, well, Danny had scattered some of his school papers all over the room, and my husband grabbed his arm and pulled him away from them. It's-it's just the sort of thing you do a hundred times with a child, you know, in the park or in the streets. But on this particular occasion, my husband just used too much strength and he injured Danny's arm. (she gives a nervous laugh) Anyway, something good did come out of it all, because he said: 'Wendy, I'm never gonna touch another drop. And if I do, you can leave me.' And he didn't, and he hasn't had any alcohol in, uh, five months.

Closing Day

More aerial photography follows the family's car on its serpentine way to the hotel for the winter - the second drive up to The Overlook. During the drive, Wendy and Jack (who is already appearing slightly metamorphisized and faintly scowling), discuss the historic Donner Party accident - a trapped and doomed group of early pioneers who became snowbound and cannibalistic - a foreshadowing of their own impending doom. Jack's face gradually forms a lurid smile as he speaks, with apparent pleasure, of the legendary settlers. Danny assures his mother that the ugly incident in American history won't upset him, because the mass medium of television has already informed him about it:

Wendy: Hey! Wasn't it around here that the Donner Party got snowbound?
Jack: I think that was farther west in the Sierras.
Wendy: Oh.
Danny: What was the Donner Party?
Jack: They were a party of settlers in covered-wagon times. They got snowbound one winter in the mountains. They had to resort to cannibalism in order to stay alive.
Danny: You mean they ate each other up?
Jack: They had to, in order to survive.
Wendy: Jack...
Danny: Don't worry, Mom. I know all about cannibalism. I saw it on TV. [There are many future references in the film to TV, such as the obvious quotes: "Here's Johnny!" and "Honey, I'm home!"]
Jack: See, it's OK. He saw it on the television.

During a tour of the luxurious and beautiful hotel in a tracking shot that follows Ullman, Jack, and Wendy, they pass numerous workmen closing up the facility for the winter. In the richly-furnished hotel's Colorado Lounge - [Note: it was modeled after the lounge in the Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite National Park], which has incongruously had a long "illustrious" history of violent crime as well as being an entertainment mecca and quasi-history book [of man's inhumanity to man], the family learns about the furnishings based upon American Indian motifs and patterns, and the kinds of people who partied there in the past:

Wendy: Are all these Indian designs authentic?
Ullman: Yeah I believe, the basics. Mainly on Navajo and, uh, Apache motifs.
Wendy: Oh, well they're really gorgeous. As a matter of fact, this is probably the most gorgeous hotel I've ever seen.
Ullman: Oh, this old place has had an illustrious past. In its hey-day, it was one of the stopping places for the jetset, even before anybody knew what a jetset was. Yet four presidents have stayed here. Lots of movie stars.
Wendy: Royalty?
Ullman: All the best people.

In the game room where Danny amuses himself by throwing darts, he has another flash of a premonition - the two, blue party-dressed young girls make another visitation. They stand and watch him, and then turn away. Ullman shows the Torrances the staff quarters: "The place is very nicely self-contained, easy to keep...Yes, very cozy for a family." Jack comments: "Well, it's very, uh, homey."

Outdoors, they are walked around the carefully-sculpted hedges that compose the Overlook Hedge Maze - "it's quite an attraction around here. The walls are thirteen feet high and the hedges about as old as the hotel itself. It's a lot of fun, but I wouldn't want to go in there unless I had an hour to spare to find my way out." They also learn about the Overlook's history [a significant name - the hotel overlook-ed the heritage it was built upon], one that was imbued with violence, death, and ethnic vengeance. The hotel's construction was linked to Indian death and extinction:

Construction started in 1907. It was finished in 1909. The site is supposed to be located on an Indian burial ground and I believe they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building it.

They are walked by the large tread-wheeled, bright red Sno-Trac: "The Sno-Cat operates very much like a car and it won't take you very long to get the hang of it." As the Torrances are taken back inside into the giant Gold Room ballroom, Ullman describes the space which will soon be empty and devoid of any social influences:

Ullman: We can accommodate up to three hundred people here very comfortably.
Wendy: Boy, I'll betcha we could really have a good party in this room, huh hun?
Ullman: I'm afraid you're not gonna do too well here, unless you brought your own supplies. We always remove all the booze from the premises when we shut down. That reduces the insurance we normally have to carry.
Jack: We don't drink.
Ullman: Well then, you're in luck.


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