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Haunted by unspoken grievances and abuse - The Shining in context

Monday 23 January 2023, by Robin W. Mac

The Shining was shown at The Garden Cinema as part of their Jack Nicholson season. The film was followed by an in-depth discussion with Professor Roger Luckhurst, writer of The Shining: BFI Film Classics and hosted by Mydy’s Abla Kandalaft. The discussion was recorded as part of the Garden Cinema Film Talk podcast and can be found HERE.

The Shining, based on the titular Stephen King novel, is now considered one of the greatest
horror films ever made. Opening in 1980 to mixed reviews, director Stanley Kubrick bizarrely ‘won’ a Razzie for Worst Director. The Shining is a psychological horror film, which was in sharp contrast to the popular serial killer franchises of the 1980s, but one that subsequently (in combination with films such as Rosemary’s Baby) has had a huge influence on the genre.

You will often spot homages to the film, particularly the aerial shot of Jack Torrance (Jack
Nicholson) driving to the Overlook Hotel, seen most recently in post-horrors Get Out and
Midsommar. And let’s not forget the infamous “Here’s Johnny” line by an axe-wielding
Nicholson. If you have watched any modern horror film you can guarantee The Shining, with its slow burn of dread and unease, will be a reference.

As mentioned, the horror of The Shining stems from psychological terrors. The abusive
father and husband Jack slowly unravels in the empty hotel, terrorising his wife Wendy
(Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), who has premonitions of violence. All while
in reality Stanley Kubrick was bullying and taunting lead actress Duvall into a genuinely
frenzied performance; Duvall later described Kubrick as directing her with “force and cruelty”.

We learn half-way through the film that Jack is only five months sober, has attacked his son
when drunk and now alone in the hotel may have relapsed, or at least wants to. The
Torrances are metaphorically haunted by unspoken grievances and abuse, trapped together
alone in a giant hotel (built on the site of a genocide no less) they may or may not be sharing
with ghosts. Populated by unreliable narrators - the alcoholic Jack, Danny who sees disturbing visions, as well as the suggestion in the original cut that Wendy was also hallucinating in the finale. It is ambiguous as to whether the hotel is haunted by the sins of the past or its troubled caretakers. A common thread in Stephen King’s work are forces of evil that come from external sources and the evil from within - Kubrick’s The Shining is a balancing act between the two.

Similarly to the maze Danny and Wendy struggle to navigate, the film is a labyrinthine journey into madness and mystery; is the Overlook hotel haunted, is there such a thing as “Shining” or is this all in everyone’s head? And what really happened in Room 237? Kubrick is the ultimate cinematic gaslighter - to cast and crew as well - and never fully reveals, in both the original US theatrical version and shorter Director’s cut, if the hotel is haunted or that the Torrance’s are having one of the worst cases of cabin fever ever. Like the Donner Party mentioned early in the film by Wendy, the family struggles to survive when snowbound inside a gigantic empty hotel, although fortunately they have enough food to “never have the same menu twice”. After Covid lockdowns the thought of being cooped indoors with just your family for company makes the film more terrifying than ever.

”He put people through absolutely grim endurance tests." Roger shares with us gossip and tales from behind the scenes, tells us about the film’s negative reception at the time and the differences with the novel and gives us some context to understand its place as part of the horror repertoire.

Any message or comments?


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