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Weekly Classics: The Shining

April 07, 2012


The Shining is one of those films that really took the horror art-form to the next level. In this movie, the element of fear permeates past just plot and characters. From the sets to the sound-design and the score, everything is designed to set the senses on edge.

The Shining was directed by Stanley Kubrick, and bears the unmistakable stamp of his style. It is based on a horror novel of the same name written by Stephen King in 1977, and was Kubrick’s first big release. It stars Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall (as his wife) and Danny Lloyd (as their son).

Even though it was made in 1980, The Shining still delivers that unshakeable, “creepy” vibe three decades later, and this is the sign of a great horror movie.

The fact it is great, however, is no secret. The Shining is rated as one of the best horror movies ever made. It is ranked third on IMDB’s horror list, and Martin Scorsese ranked it as one of the 11 scariest horror movies of all time.

The movie begins with Jack Torrance (Nicholson) giving a job interview. Jack is a recovering alcoholic and a writer. He has recently sobered up, but has lost his job as a teacher due to his drinking, which had gotten so bad that it had led to him assaulting a student and on another occasion, even his own son.

The interview that Jack is taking is for a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, which is an isolated old building in the Colorado Rockies. He decides to take the job because he wants a change in environment, which can help him get a fresh start, reconnect with his family, and work on his writing.

The hotel is built on an old Indian burial-ground and is completely snowed-in during the wintertime. The manager warns Jack that a previous caretaker had gotten cabin fever and ended up killing his family and himself, but Jack is dismissive about this information and doesn’t let it effect his decision to stay there for the coming months.

Jack’s son Danny is an unusual child – he seems to have some sort of extra-sensory perception, and an ‘imaginary friend’ he calls ‘Tony’ who he represents with his index finger. When he ‘talks’ to him, he uses a low and croaky voice to simulate Tony’s replies.

Danny has had a terrifying premonition about the hotel; and surely enough, when they are touring the hotel before their stay, the in-house chef (Scatman Crothers) explains to Danny that the hotel itself has a "shine" to it along with many memories, not all of which are good. He tells Danny to stay out of Room 237.

Once the family is alone in the Hotel for a month, things start getting strange. Jack’s writing is frustrating him and he is getting more and more stressed and on-edge, while Danny is getting more strange visions associated with Room 237. As the plot unfolds, we witness horror overtake the family, and a strange series of events starts to unfold between these three characters stuck in the isolated Overlook Hotel.

At first glance, the film is a “haunted house” or a “ghost” story, but most critics would dismiss such a simple categorisation. The reason for this is that none of the events in the film are defined or resolved, and the viewer is left to choose between them. The point-of-view also shifts between the three principle characters in the movie, and the sanity of each could be questioned easily, leading to many different interpretations of the film’s events depending on who you think has not lost their mind. Roger Ebert writes in his own analysis of the film that: “The movie is not about ghosts but about madness and the energies it sets loose in an isolated situation primed to magnify them.”

As usual Kubrick paid inordinate attention to detail while making this film. His notorious perfectionism would often leave his cast and crew feeling worn and harassed; Actress Shelley Duvall, became so overwhelmed by the stress of her role that she became physically ill for months and claims that at one point her hair began to fall out. Jack Nicholson too, was so frustrated with the ever-changing script that said he would just throw away the copies given to him, knowing that it was just going to be changed anyway. The film also set the record for the most number of takes on a single shot.

The unique feel of the movie, however, justifies Kubrick’s obsessive attitude. The elevator scene (from the trailer above) is a testament to this chilling result. The shot - which is now one-of-many iconic horror-movie moments that The Shining boasts - took nine days just to set up. Each time it was attempted, and the blood poured from the doors, Kubrick would say, "It doesn't look like blood." In the end, the shot took almost a whole year to get right.

The casting of Jack Nicholson seems to be perfect as a horror lead; but Stephen King wanted an actor whose descent into madness would be surprising for the audience. In the end however, Kubrick’s decision to stay with Nicholson proved quite successful, and his performance in this role is remembered and celebrated till today.

So to sum things up, The Shining was made by a highly celebrated director, contains great feats of visual film-making, boasts the acting genius of Jack Nicholson (in one of his most iconic roles), and is one of the most remembered horror films ever made. Needless to say, if you want to be scared, watch this movie and you will get what you bargained for.

View’s weekly classics archive here.

Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at You can view some of his photography here.

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