Arguably the best horror film of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is one that most people have a personal history with; mine started with the trailer on tv circa 1980, when I was still at primary school. Images shocked; the camera roving down the crevices of a snowy maze, two identical twins in a hotel corridor, a madman swinging an axe, a tidal wave of blood haemorrhaging from a closed elevator shaft. These images chilled me; what was The Shining?
Fast forward to being 13 and seeing the film for the first time on VHS (for once, not a problem, since Kubrick was using Academy ratio and there was no need to ruin the image by pan-and-scan). The Shining exudes dread, and the best way to see it is through a child’s eyes; the long helicopter shots at the start suggest that we’re going a long way from civilisation; no police, priests or other goodies are coming to our rescue. We follow Jack (Jack Nicholson) and his wife (Shelley Duvall) and their kid to the foreboding Overlook hotel, where all kinds of ghosts from the past are lurking. The tension is palpable in every scene, and I remember distinctly the feeling of relief when the film was over and the test had been passed.
Like many of Kubrick’s films, The Shining defied definition; it’s like an ink-blot test, that can mean anything to anyone, as the Room 237 film documented. Moon landing apology, Native American Indian genocide, creative madness, ghost story; even Stephen King wasn’t sure what Kubrick had done to his book. But so many conspiracy theories have been offered about the sub-text of The Shining, while ignoring the main text; if you take a look at Kubrick’s original trailer, it clearly and deliberately draws parallels between the rampages of most recent and previous care-takers, and confuses the audience as to whether we are looking at the past or the present. The suggestion is that Jack, however much he tries to resist, can’t stop repeating the past, and that theme is thoroughly explored through the idea of bad fatherhood here; the final, haunting, timeless image is very much on message with this interpretation.
The way The Shining shows the past overlap the present makes it an unnerving, essential film, and one that’s still frightening today. The performances work, and iconic scenes engage without ever pinning down a specific meaning, and that mystery is a key part of the irresistible power of the film. Even if you don’t care for horror films, The Shining is one of the great cinematic spell-binders that’s somehow more than the sum of the various memorable parts. Like Eyes Wide Shut, it’s the product of a master at the top of his game, and leaves the viewer scrabbling to defuse its power via explanation. As we ride our big-wheeled trike through the carpeted corridors of 2020, The Shining is the last thing you’d want to see waiting for you as you round the corner; to increase our feelings of loneliness, isolation and impending madness in these pandemic times, both the BBC iPlayer and Amazon Prime are hosting this film for free in the UK at Halloween, saving you the need to leave your house to be utterly terrified.