‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…’
Filmmaking was a different beast in 1980. By all accounts, Kubrick put his actors through hell whilst filming his horror classic The Shining. Shelley Duvall claimed that her mental health deteriorated on set, partly because of the strain of playing a character that caused art to imitate life and partly because of Kubrick’s demanding directorial technique. Scatman Crothers broke down in tears after Kubrick demanded 60 takes of a wordless scene in which the camera simply pushes in on Crothers’ character Dick Hallorann lying on his bed. Whilst I’m certainly not condoning these practices and there is a strong argument that The Shining would have been a masterpiece without Kubrick’s monomanical attention to detail, there is no denying that the final product is a masterpiece…
After leaving his teaching job (in the book it is revealed he was sacked due to assaulting a student), Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as the winter character at the imposing Overlook Hotel. He brings with him his loving but fragile wife Wendy (Duvall) and his troubled son Danny (Danny Lloyd).
The Shining is over thirty years old and it is still absolutely terrifying. Of that, there can be no doubt. A lot of it is subtle. The increasingly confusing title cards. Barely noticeable visual cues (for example, the infamous room 237 is the only room with a double door marking it out as something sinister and foreshadowing the duality of both the beautiful woman in the bathtub and her rotting counterpart and also serving as a reference to the Grady twins). Wendy Carlos’ score is perhaps the most menacing ever put to film. Kubrick’s tour-de-force is still utterly chilling.
In terms of acting, whilst Kubrick coaxes incredible performances from all of his central cast, it is Nicholson who really cements the film’s iconic reputation. This is not only the best leading performance in any horror film, it’s also the best of Nicholson’s career. In his hands, Torrance is a monster. A snarling beast whose barely contained rage always simmers and bubbles under the surface of his strained interactions with his wife, his child and the various ghosts of the Overlook Hotel. And what ghosts! The exchange between Torrance and Lloyd the bartender or with Grady the murderous former caretaker are some of the most compelling scenes in horror history. I could watch Jack Torrance play amongst ghosts for hours and the moments we do get in the notorious Gold Room are over all too quickly.
For a film to truly be perfect, it must be timeless. The Shining hasn’t aged a day. There isn’t a single moment in this film that doesn’t retain its raw power. It’s worth noting that Kubrick is responsible for the greatest sci-fi film of all time (2001: A Space Odyssey), one of the greatest satires (Dr. Strangelove), one of the greatest war films (Full Metal Jacket) and one of the greatest… whatever Eyes Wide Shut is, and yet, The Shining threatens to outshine all of them. A mammoth achievement from arguably the greatest director of all time.