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Cult films to see before you die: The Shining

BY James Oliver

28th Oct 2019 Film & TV

Cult films to see before you die: The Shining

We take a closer look at one of the most beloved horror films of all time... 

Next to the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, where The Shining unfolds, there is a labyrinth. It's a hedge maze, one that, we may presume, provides hours of fun for the guests during the summer months.

This hedge maze is not to be found in Stephen King's original novel, from which director Stanley Kubrick derived for this film. Instead, there are topiary animals, which become animated and menace the characters. It's a grand conceit but one far beyond the special effects at Kubrick's disposal when he worked on the film in the late 1970s.

That's why he and his co-writer Diane Johnson dreamed up the maze. But this maze functions as more than a replacement: it acts as a symbol of the film, which is itself a labyrinth. Unlike most mazes, there are many ways through, but there are wrong turnings and occasional dead ends along the way. So beware—it's only too easy to get lost inside, sometimes for longer than you planned.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves, aren't we? As already mentioned, The Shining comes from a novel by Stephen King, the third he published. Stanley Kubrick decided it would be his next project; having dabbled in war films (Paths of Glory), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey), ancient world epics (Spartacus) and crime (The Killing), he fancied trying his hand at a horror movie, even if the result would prove as atypical of its genre as his other movies were of those.

"A former stills photographer, Kubrick always knew how to make a film look good and The Shining is one of his great achievements"

Although American, Kubrick was based in the UK and famously he didn't like to travel. Instead, he decided that the Overlook would be built in Pinewood studios. This is more impressive than it seems— one of the undeniable strengths of the film is its sense of place; it says much about Kubrick's achievements—not to mention those of his cameraman John Alcott and production designer Roy Walker—that the film is so evocative, despite being filmed some 5000 miles away from where it is set.

Indeed, it's worth dwelling on the tremendous craft of the film. A former stills photographer, Kubrick always knew how to make a film look good and The Shining is one of his great achievements. While most haunted house movies emphasise shadows, the sets here are well-lit and all the more disturbing for it, stressing the emptiness of the hotel and how alone the characters are.

Kubrick recruited Jack Nicholson to play his main character, a troubled would-be writer called Jack Torrence. Shelley Duval would play Jack's wife Wendy and young Danny Lloyd was cast as their son, also Danny. Their characters are spending the winter at the Overlook where Jack has got a job as caretaker, looking after the old place during the closed season, making sure nothing goes wrong. Unfortunately quite a lot goes wrong. The hotel, you see, is haunted.


Danny has a gift, a sort of telepathy that another character describes as “shining”. This allows him to see—or subjects him to—the spectres that lurk in the hotel, echoes of previous horrors. Jack sees them too, only he is drawn to these phantoms. Never the most stable of chaps, the ghosts turn Jack against his family.

That much is clear, but the plot is one if the few things about The Shining that everyone can agree on. Beyond that, we're in to the labyrinth. Some people walk straight ahead. For them, it's just a ghost story, with jump shocks and frightening music. They take their path and get through quickly.

Others take rather longer, especially if they're visiting the film again—for this is a maze that only gets harder when you've been through it before. It becomes more obvious, for instance, that Jack is a recovering alcoholic with a history of abusive behaviour, driven by his failings as a man and as a writer. Could it be we're in the land of metaphor, with the ghosts representing Jack's demons, demons he is passing along to his son?


Then there's the nature of the building. We are told, very deliberately, that the Overlook was built on an Indian burial ground and this has lead some people in very interesting directions—perhaps the Overlook stands for America itself, built on indigenous lands, haunted by a never ending cycle of violence.

But the maze has more paths yet. What about that cryptic photograph at the end? And what's with the bear suit, eh? No one's adequately explained THAT. Nor the tsunami of blood coming out of the elevator. Nor, come to think of it it, why Wendy starts to “shine” at the end.

Such mysteries run through The Shining. Enough, in fact, to have provoked a documentary—called Room 237, named for the Overlook's spookiest hotel room—all about the various fan theories. These are rather more—er—creative than most cinematic criticism tends to be but Room 237 does illustrate how people—at least some people—get obsessed by The Shining.

Stephen King is not one of those people, though. The author has always disparaged Kubrick's take, to the point that he produced his own, more faithful, TV miniseries (complete with topiary terrors). Unfortunately everyone compared it unfavourably to the film.

"It's an unenviable task following up a Kubrick film"

Undeterred, he wrote a sequel to his novel. Doctor Sleep, it's called, about a grown-up Danny who still “shines”. It has nothing to do with Kubrick's film, but the soon-to-be-released film version can't be so dismissive: the filmmakers tell us it exists “in the same cinematic universe” as The Shining.

As the makers of 2010: The Year We Make Contact will tell you, it's an unenviable task following up a Kubrick film, even when it's based on a sequel by the original author. We can hope Doctor Sleep is a good film but it's a safe bet that it won't inspire such passion as The Shining.

But the maze is still there. The maze will always be there. Taking new visitors and getting them lost within.


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