The Shining review: A labyrinthine masterpiece
James R | On 03, Jun 2020
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd
“You are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know sir. I’ve always been here.” That’s the bartender of the Overlook Hotel talking to Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. The film, which whisks us away to the remote Colorado establishment, is an insidiously creepy tale that immerses us in its eerie location.
Atmosphere is an underrated quality in a horror film – something that trumps gore, plot or even character. The Shining’s remarkable achievement is the way it instils that eerie atmosphere from the moment we step into the Overlook, and never allows it to let up. It’s a carefully orchestrated wind-up box, one that tightens its coils for more than 2 hours before they finally snap. That’s partly thanks to the music, from Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, which seeps from scene to scene so there’s never any sense of events stopping or pausing for breath. It’s all the more affecting because nothing actually happens – it’s one long in-take of breath that keeps you baited and uncomfortable.
The cast, too, are superb, from Danny Lloyd as Jack Torrance’s son, who spends his days cycling through the Overlook’s never-ending carpeted corridors and finds himself able to see the ghouls that linger from its horrible past – the only other person with that ability is Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), the hotel cook who explains the titular gift to the boy. If Danny becomes our lens through which to see history, the future and the all-too-real present, Shelley Duvall as Jack’s increasingly worried wife is the contrasting lens of normality, which becomes increasingly at odds with the supernatural forces the camera, led by Danny’s curiosity, can’t help but unearth.
Between them both is Jack Nicholson, who nails Jack’s spiral into insanity with a mesmerising inevitability, as his wide eyes and broad grin move from mildly unsettling to downright unnatural – that Nicholson was comfortable enough to inhabit that mindset while improvising his now iconic “Here’s Johnny!” line during the final act is testament to how creepily convincing he is.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Kubrick himself, who brings together those elements with a precise knack for jangling your nerves. Every element of this haunting ideal is designed to spook, from the pioneering steadicam sequences that follow Danny’s tricycle low down against the floor to the bravura elevator sequence that lingers in the mind so vividly that The Simpsons recreated it years later. The hotel itself, meanwhile, is architecturally impossible, the largest set built at Estree studios crafted to be full of doors and windows that would have to go nowhere in a normal building – it’s no wonder that Kubrick’s deliberately unfaithful adaptation of Stephen King’s novel ensures that the building is still standing come the end credits. Like the frost-bitten finale surrounded by hedges, it’s a maze that deliberately traps its victims, the characters and audience included – a labyrinth of trauma and violence that doesn’t have a way out.