Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has been hired as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel during its offseason. He, his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), will be the only people living (or should I say the only living people) in the massive and spacious hotel-with-a-past when it becomes snowbound over the winter. Jack, who fancies himself a writer, is looking forward to the solitude; it will give him time to focus on several projects he's been planning.
However, as the days pass, Jack grows restless, agitated and morose. Danny starts to have strange, horrific visions, and Wendy is ready to pack it in and go home.
Horror versus terror
By today's standards, Stanley Kubrick's take on the Stephen King novel, "The Shining," is less a horror story and more of an exercise in terror. From the opening sequence, with the ominous music and the sweeping panoramic shots of the mountains (shot with a type of fish-eye lens that distorts the edges of the frame), a mood of portent has been set.
Kubrick continues that sweeping movement inside the hotel as the camera follows the characters through the large rooms and long corridors. Holding onto long, uninterrupted shots stirs up a sense of anticipation, as if something is about to happen at any moment, just around the next corner, or just past the next doorway. Kubrick will often tease our expectation, stretching it to the breaking point until--finally--nothing happens. There's a moment when the score starts to build, and as it becomes more and more shrill you can feel yourself leaning toward the screen, and when the music hits a crescendo the film cuts to a simple title card: "Tuesday."
The buildup of tension is gradual. Instead of yanking the rug out from under you, Kubrick slides it out inch by infinitesimal inch (with the possible exception of the elevator door becoming a flood gate for blood). There is no accumulation of carnage where, for example, the heroine stumbles upon one dead body after another. Nor does Kubrick choose to linger over the carnage. In one scene Danny comes upon a vision of two girls in a hallway. Suddenly the vision changes to the same two girls, dismembered, blood splattered everywhere. That shot comes and goes so quickly it seems to register only subliminally.
The Kubrick legacy
Kubrick's foray into horror succeeds on some levels and fails on others. Because he was not interested in sticking to one type of story (like Alfred Hitchcock and suspense, for example), he never gave himself the opportunity to try different approaches within any one genre. His goal was pure cinema, plain and simple.
Kubrick was an experimenter and an innovator. His output was small and for that reason expectations were always high. Many would not allow him the digressions and failings every artist must endure in order to grow and mature. And while all his ideas didn't pay off, there's always something compelling that will keep you watching.
A word about Jack
There is something delightful and offbeat about Jack Nicholson's portrayal of a man losing his grip on reality. Little touches like the wagging tongue and his "Here's Johnny!" lend a subversive edge to his performance.