From the moment the sombre strains of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s interpretation of Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” reach audiences’ ears, accompanying the swooping tracking shots charting a car’s progression through the rocky Colorado mountains, the sinister nature of Stanley Kubrick’s feature adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining is apparent. In the space of mere minutes as scrolling text announces the key cast and crew over the extended introductory segment, this suspenseful sequence teems with morose momentum, signalling the film’s forceful thrust on stylistic and narrative levels.
The opening also enunciates the feature’s contrasting themes, for despite the forever moving nature of the characters and camera, The Shining ponders seclusion, isolation and the associated breakdown in communication. As the happy family of protagonists relocate to their temporary new home and then circle its labyrinthine hallways, their motions prove futile; instead, with each passing moment, they grow detached from each other, as well as cut off from the outside world.
Their journey from eager explorers of their sprawling surroundings to fearful hostages of a haunted house is simple but not straightforward, with the ghost story that underscored King’s novel given symbolic rather than literal treatment in Kubrick and co-scribe Diane Johnson’s elucidation. After taking a job as the Overlook Hotel’s winter caretaker, aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson, Chinatown) repositions his complacent wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall, Popeye) and six year-old son Danny (Danny Lloyd, in his only feature role) within its walls, the three comprising its only inhabitants during its lengthy off-season.
At first, the trio embrace their intriguing environment, overflowing with enthusiasm as kindly manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson, Airport) and caring head cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers, The Fortune) take them on a tour. A warning passed on by the former during Jack’s interview – advising of unseemly events that befell a previous caretaker, his wife and young daughters after the onset of cabin fever – seems far from their minds, as the restorative possibilities of their adventurous sojourn are welcomed. However, Hallorann’s unexpected connection with Danny provides a glimpse of the supernatural shocks that await. With both the old man and the boy possessing a telepathic gift the chef calls “the shining”, they discuss Danny’s disturbing visions of the hotel thus far (elevators of blood, and terrifying, identically-attired girls included), the fearsome potential of the place, and what to do if things go wrong.
As with the preceding sequences, their initial investigation of the site proves telling, as conversations and altercations foreshadow events to come. Upon entering the vast kitchen, Wendy comments that “the whole place seems like a maze”; in expanding upon the hotel’s history, Jack is informed it was built on an Indian burial ground; and during their chat over ice-cream, Danny asks Hallorann about Room 237. Each element – the intricately tangled grounds, the paranormal past and the scary suite – offers insights into the spooky story that follows. Even their separation during this formative stage, drifting through interior and exterior spaces as individuals instead of as a family, sets the scene for the distance that will permeate their relationships.
A month passes, and, surprisingly, normality still reigns. Wendy cooks and cares for the facilities, Jack spends hours in front of his typewriter, and Danny traverses the halls on his tricycle. Alas, the air of comfort is nothing more than the calm before the storm, as a series of incremental instances sees the situation change. As each member of the Torrance family comes under the spell of the hotel, sudden shifts in mood and startling visualisations of frightening figures included, they soon fall victim to Jack’s maniacal, murderous rampage.
Kubrick utilises a host of stunning set-pieces and sequences to convey the slow descent into madness that overcomes the family, each adding to the atmosphere of unease. Danny’s rhythmic ritual of cycling through the catacomb-like corridors and his weaving, wandering excursions into the hedge maze outside his front door provide two such instances; Wendy’s immersion in the immense galley, and Jack’s insistence of turning his cavernous writing area into a space of solitude akin to a cathedral for his sanity offer additional examples. The hotel’s ghostly Gold Room, at first a bar and ballroom empty of activity, only to afford Jack an otherworldly escape from his familial tension through bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel, Blade Runner) and waiter – and previous winter attendant – Grady (Philip Stone, Barry Lyndon), is another such instance. And of course, the shadowy Room 237 can’t be forgotten, with its claustrophobic confines sparking cognisance of the surrounding craziness in all three Torrances.
In the immediate aftermath as well as the three decades since Kubrick’s feature first graced cinema screens, much has been made of its meaning. Interpretations abound, some recalling the ghost story leanings of King’s source material, others more closing probing the director’s psychological horror translation. Tales of the arduous shooting process added to the film’s legend, just as the author’s pronounced dissatisfaction with the end product and countless academic articles dissecting spatial and temporal implausabilities and continuity errors prolonged its presence in public consciousness. However, regardless of the insistent conversations that still circle the feature to this day, The Shining has endured in popularity for one main reason: the film’s unwavering ability to unnerve and unsettle those watching.