There are a few reliable concepts that can drive a great horror movie. Any kind of ghost story, for example, but particularly haunted houses, which invariably trade both on our fear of the undead as well as that sneaking suspicion we get when we feel we are somehow trespassing on land defiled by our very presence. Then there is the descent into madness, a concept that captures our fear not just of losing our own mind, but that we would never even know it was happening until it was too late. And then there is dangerous isolation, the trapping of oneself with a malevolent adversary in a setting where running away really is not an option. Any one of these is enough to give you the jitters when expertly employed. But in Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining, they all come together into one of the finest horror stories ever told on screen. It’s hard to believe that this movie didn’t receive universal acclaim when it first came out, and even harder to believe that Kubrick did this one because he felt he was in need of a mainstream Hollywood hit to get the cred he needed to greenlight more experimental projects. If a movie like The Shining is what you get when serious film auters decide to go Hollywood for a project, then here’s to more auters going Hollywood every once in a while.
The story involves Jack Torrance, a failed writer and recovering alcoholic, as he takes his wife Wendy and his son Danny along for a winter caretaker job at the Overlook Hotel, a swanky mountaintop resort in Colorado. For the Torrances, the idea of spending a few months by themselves in a roomy retreat is an appealing tonic, as they are clearly still recovering from the aftermath of Jack’s violent behavior when not sober. But the Overlook isn’t as comfortable as it might appear; a previous caretaker went mad one winter and killed his family with an axe, and one can’t help but notice that the place was built atop an ancient Native American burial ground. Young Danny, who has psychic powers he does not yet fully understand, has horrible premonitions of the hotel, and shortly after arrival, begins to see unsettling and sinister images seemingly conjured from the Overlook’s past. Meanwhile, Jack’s own brittle psyche begins to crack under the strain of the hotel’s own ghostly presence. It all comes together in an episode of domestic violence unlike any other, one that captures multiple forms of terror as Jack pursues his wife and son, intent on making them all just another one of the hotel’s tragic memories.
This movie really benefits from Kubrick’s maniacal attention to tone, detail and slow-burn pacing as he sets the stakes of the story before really pushing the characters into the unchartered territory of the supernatural, ESP, and homicidal mania. There are sequences of young Danny riding his Big Wheel around the hotel, letting us hear the sound of the wheels on carpet and hard surface, that are Kubrick’s way of letting us know just how alone Danny really is in this haunted place. There are moments when Wendy’s painfully concise radio conversations and fruitless efforts to connect with her husband show us how alone she is, too. And then there are the moments when we see Jack struggling to write a novel we all know will never be finished, heeding the voice in his head that tells him to keep at it…until that voice starts telling him how much happier he’d be if only his family was out of the way. As these new voices isolate Jack from the man he wants to be, we see how alone he is, too.
All this isolation breeds a terrible vulnerability, exemplified by the hotel itself. Socked in by winter snowfall, for all its creature comforts and extensive provisions, the place becomes the emotional equivalent of an outpost in Antarctica, feeling more than a little bit like a gilded prison. And when the dread of the place manifests itself full-force, it results in iconic moments such as young Danny shouting REDRUM while in a psychic fugue state, or Jack pressing his face against the hole he just chopped through a door to announce himself, or the first time Danny meets the long-dead Grady daughters, or when we see what lurks in Room 237. The scariest of movies need no jump scares, and The Shining proves it.
But perhaps the scariest moment of all is when Wendy—having begun to suspect her husband’s crumbling sanity as well as her son’s increasingly strange behavior—reads Jack’s towering manuscript and sees that it is merely page after page of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Jack isn’t just losing it; he’s been long gone and Wendy didn’t realize it. When Jack comes for her and Danny with a fireman’s axe shortly afterward, she knows she can’t fight him off, but she also knows that the only thing that kept her alive so far was dumb luck. Had she never broken her husband’s rule to not look at his manuscript, she would never have gotten the warning she needed that her blood was about soak the hallways, too. All of us have had a close call of some kind of another. When we think back about it, and consider just how close we came to true tragedy, we get that shiver of dread that lets us know how close we came. And then we wonder, what if that isn’t just that one moment? What if we’re that close to a horrifying end every moment? How true that is may depend on how willing we are to see how much writing on the wall surrounds us. REDRUM is written everywhere. It’s just that we rarely understand what those warnings mean until it is too late.