The Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies is open all summer, but between the months of October and May it closes because it is unreachable due to the snow. This means that a caretaker has to be found for that period and Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), an ex-teacher, now a struggling writer, believes he is the man for the job. As his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) wait at home, Danny's imaginary friend Tony warns Wendy about the unspecified danger they may face by spending winter at the hotel, but regardless, Jack accepts the post. There's just one thing that is worth knowing: a few years back, one of the caretakers went crazy due to the isolation and slaughtered his family with an axe. It couldn't happen again, could it?
Scripted by Diane Johnson and the director Stanley Kubrick, The Shining was based upon the bestselling horror novel by Stephen King, and when King saw the result, he was not impressed. A tale of "cabin fever" where the recovered alcoholic father is driven mad by his situation and mysterious, supernatural forces in King's tale, Kubrick's version combined with Nicholson's overacting make it clear early on that Jack Torrance is unbalanced even before he reaches the hotel. Whether you accept this depends not so much on how scared you are by the premise, but more on what kind of sense of humour you have, because the film, unlike the book, works just as well as a black comedy as a chiller.
The Overlook is obviously a bad place, supposedly built over an ancient Indian burial ground as the manager says, but already Danny is having shocking visions of it, with gallons of blood pouring from the elevator doors, or creepy twin girls blankly staring at him. When they arrive to stay at the building, they meet Dick Hallorann (a gently charming Scatman Crothers), the cook who gives Wendy the tour of the kitchens and storeroom, but also asks Danny if he would like some ice cream - without speaking. Halloran has what he calls the "shining", a psychic power which Danny also shares, but he reassures the boy that any apparitions are harmless. As long as he doesn't venture into Room 237, he should be fine.
Cleverly, not everything is explained about the Overlook. We work out early on that the two girls who want Danny to "Come play with us for ever and ever and ever..." are the ghosts of the murderous caretaker's twins, but much is left as an enigma. It's not long before both Jack and Danny are seeing things, but what are we to make of the woman in Room 237, who presumably attacks Danny and horrifies Jack? We never find out who she is. This meeting is a turning point for Jack, as up until then he has been moving between embracing his new surroundings with whatever evil lurks there and sheer terror, as when he dreams about killing his wife and son. From then on he knows his place.
The film plays with past present and future superbly, with Danny seeing events to come in his visions, and Jack interacting with the ghosts. Lloyd the barman (Joe Turkel) smiles sinisterly as he takes his order and makes cryptic comments such as "Your money's no good here" as Jack paranormally falls off the wagon. Then there's the butler, Grady (Philip Stone) who politely invites Jack to "correct" his family just as he has done, in one of many slyly funny scenes. As any fan of Nicholson will know, he's terrific at losing his temper onscreen, and the more Jack is wound up by his wife and son, the greater the opportunities for the perfectly cast star to blow up and threaten them. And all through the film a relentless heartbeat and off-kilter music from Bela Bartok and Wendy Carlos, among others, play on Jack's frayed nerves.
Although a long film, especially for its genre, it never drags due to the obvious precision of the technique - every part of it is assembled with the attention to detail of a Swiss watchmaker. The tone expertly moves between the unsettling and the hilarious as the shook up Wendy struggles to contain her husband's madness, nowhere more so than the most famous sequence as Jack vents his frustrations with an axe, accompanied by paradoxically appropriate/inappropriate references to prime time TV and fairy tales. The Overlook is a time trap, where it makes sense that Jack has always been mad, Wendy always scared, and Danny always the possessor of powers that alarmingly fit right in there. It's up to Wendy and Danny, with the help of a suspicious Hallorann, to break the cycle. An absolute joy from start to finish for those with a taste for the sardonic side of the macabre, The Shining is one of the best horrors of its time.
American director famous for his technical skills and endless film shoots, who made some of modern cinema's greatest pictures. New York-born Kubrick began shooting documentaries in the early 50s, leading to his first directing jobs on the moody noir thrillers Killer's Kiss and The Killing. The powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory followed, leading star Kirk Douglas to summon Kubrick to direct the troubled Spartacus in 1960.
Lolita was a brave if not entirely successful attempt to film Nabokov's novel, but Kubrick's next three films were all masterpieces. 1964's Dr Strangelove was a brilliant, pitch black war comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey set new standards in special effects, while A Clockwork Orange was a hugely controversial, shocking satire that the director withdrew from UK distribution soon after its release. Kubrick, now relocated to England and refusing to travel elsewhere, struggled to top this trio, and the on-set demands on his cast and crew had become infamous.
Barry Lyndon was a beautiful but slow-paced period piece, The Shining a scary Stephen King adaptation that was nevertheless disowned by the author. 1987's Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket showed that Kubrick had lost none of his power to shock, and if the posthumously released Eyes Wide Shut was a little anti-climatic, it still capped a remarkable career.