Stephen King was not happy with the changes that were made in the 1980 adaptation of his 1977 novel. But for many horror fans, Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, despite its differences from the book, is an unforgettable experience, full of iconic horror imagery, nerve-shattering sequences directed with Kubrick’s trademark glacial elan, and vivid, full throttle performances.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as caretaker for a magnificent but secluded mountaintop hotel, the Overlook, while it closes for the winter, hoping the peace and quiet will give him a chance to finish the book he’s writing.
With him are Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd).
One of the departing staff, Overlook cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), meets Danny and senses the boy has a psychic gift similar to his own, which Hallorann calls “the shining.” Hallorann warns Danny that, like burnt toast, bad things can leave traces behind, which Danny might experience due to his “shining” ability.
“I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years,” Halloran tells Danny. “And not all of ’em was good.”
Boy, is that an understatement.
As the family does its best to shore up the hotel against the winter elements, we sense Jack’s mental health slowly unraveling. Is it just the seclusion, or are the malign forces Hallorann hinted at preying upon Jack’s vulnerable mind?
Things go from bad to worse. Although the hotel’s meant to be empty, Danny claims he was attacked by a woman in Room 237. Jack investigates the room, has his own encounter with a beautiful naked woman who transforms into a decayed and cackling corpse, sending Jack running in terror. And yet Jack tells Wendy he saw nothing in the room.
In the visions the hotel presents to Danny, Kubrick provides startling displays of horror imagery, including an elevator overflowing with blood, and two little girls in dainty blue dresses with British accents that greet Danny in a hallway. “Come and play with us, Danny,” they call.
Problem being, these girls were murdered decades ago by their father, who like Jack was caretaker for the hotel. Danny, understandably, reacts in utter terror.
Jack, a recovering alcoholic, soon is drinking again, with the help of a ghostly ballroom complete with bar, and a bartender who helpfully tells him: “Your money’s no good here, Mr. Torrance.”
It seems the hotel covets Danny and his “shining” ability, and apparently the best way to bring Danny into the hotel’s decadent embrace is to drive Jack to kill him and Wendy.
More unforgettable sequences:
- Wendy makes a horrifying discovery that speaks to Jack’s state of mind when she takes a peek to find out how well his novel’s progressing.
- Wendy uses a baseball bat to defend herself against her increasingly abusive and unhinged husband.
- An axe-wielding Jack pursues Danny through the hotel’s snow-blanketed hedge maze, in an eerily beautiful night sequence.
Detractors of the film will point to Nicholson’s over-the-top performance, which seems to bring Jack to the edge of lunacy too quickly and easily. And like King, many complain that the film lacks true fidelity to the novel.
It’s not a perfect film, but it’s undoubtedly a brilliant one. It’s one I can’t pry myself away from if I catch it playing on TV, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
Like burnt toast, THE SHINING lingers.
- THE SHINING received mixed reviews on release, with various critics calling it “ponderous,” “overbearing” and “a crushing disappointment.” The film’s reputation improved gradually over the decades.
- ROOM 237 is a 2012 documentary that explores radical interpretations of the meaning of Kubrick’s film and purports to reveal its hidden messages.
- DOCTOR SLEEP, the film adaptation of King’s sequel to THE SHINING will be released in November 2019.