The horror of a broken mind is the central concept of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, his great 1980 horror masterpiece adapted from Stephen King’s novel. Jack Nicholson stars as Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and struggling writer who is hired to be the caretaker of the massive Overlook Hotel in Colorado. Accompanied by his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), Jack immediately appears to be under a spell. Danny’s only friend, a cook named Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), shares Danny’s gift of telepathy, an ability to “shine.” Hallorann senses immediately that something about Jack is off.
The setting has an otherworldly beauty, as the art direction and cinematography are so masterful, The Overlook has both an attractive sheen but also the feel of an empty prison. Kubrick’s film never explicitly tells us if the events we’re witnessing are supernatural occurrences or psychological hallucinations. Having seen the film multiple times, I’m still not sure. There is a great deal of mystery to many scenes but the film offers riches of subtext and interpretations to ponder. More importantly, it’s hugely entertaining, hypnotic and an intensely terrifying work of art. Kubrick’s film holds its secrets close to the vest but few films this influential are still so potent.
There’s a noteworthy sequence at the midpoint, where Wendy hears Jack murmuring loudly from a nightmare. She runs to him down vast hallways and the camera tracks with her; as she sprints down a seemingly endless series of turns and corners, the viewer feels trapped. Like a mouse in a maze or Wendy and her son in the hotel’s maze, the audience begins to share their sense of isolation. The Overlook Hotel is so grand and spacious but Kubrick strangely gives us the feel of claustrophobia. Once Wendy reaches Jack, he awakens from a horrible dream, which he describes in a tortured, regretful manner.
This scene may be key to Nicholson’s brilliantly stylized performance. From the first moment we meet Jack, he seems meek, holding back the figurative demons that have plagued him from alcoholism and physically harming his son. It appears The Overlook is possessing Jack since he first walked through the front door. Jack’s recollection of his nightmare to Wendy is a moment of clarity and empathy breaking through. Soon thereafter, his possession grows and he again seems to be wearing a mask of sanity. Nicholson ranges from understated, darkly comic to theatrically broad and it always works.
I spent my honeymoon at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park Colorado, the very hotel that inspired King to write The Shining. Today, it hosts an annual Mile High Horror Festival but when I was a guest in 2003, the place was already milking its genre lineage. They had a channel that showed both Kubrick’s 1980 movie and the 1997 TV mini-series of The Shining around the clock. They also had a “ghost tour” and guests could stay in the infamous room 217 (which is room #237 in Kubrick’s film). My wife likes to remind me of the time I went to get some ice in the hallway one afternoon and I saw two twin girls passing me by. They didn’t look like the Grady twins in Kubrick’s film but they had red hair, wore matching bathing suits with towels draped from their shoulders and held hands. I saw them and froze.
Seeing The Shining on the big screen is like seeing it again for the first time. There’s so much detail in every moment and such a thrilling rush to witness the gliding Steadicam cinematography and the force of its most legendary scenes. It demands a vast screen to experience the depth of its power.
The Shining plays at the Maui Mall Megaplex on Oct. 23 and Oct. 26 at 2pm and 7pm.