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If Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining isn’t the most referenced movie of the twentieth century, it certainly has to be somewhere in the top ten. Jack Nicholson’s Carson-quoting axe rampage, room 237, the twins, Red Rum, the typewriter reveal and many more indelible scenes and images have inspired countless parodies and imitations over the past four decades.
More than just a collection of individually memorable images though, The Shining endures as a masterclass in sustained tension. From the opening scene – in which a picturesque aerial shot of a family vehicle driving through the Rocky Mountains is accompanied by the unsettling rumble of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s intro theme – to the ambiguous final shot of Jack Torrance smiling in the 1921 party photo, the movie builds a sense of creeping dread that never lets up.
The movie is famously hated by writer Stephen King for the extent to which it deviates from his original novel. His complaints include Nicholson’s unsympathetic portrayal of Jack Torrance as a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic, and the characterisation of Shelley Duvall’s Wendy as weak and victimised. Given King acknowledges that his novel contains autobiographical elements, it’s easy to sympathise with his position – and yet on its own terms, Kubrick’s take on The Shining represents a fascinating portrait of a family in crisis.
Take Duvall’s much-criticised performance as Wendy Torrance. Far from a one-dimensional victim, Duvall’s raw, nervy performance challenges us to feel sympathy for a character who doesn’t easily fit into our assumptions of what a resourceful ‘final girl’ should look or behave like. In her first scene in the movie, she’s shown cooly rationalising the time her husband dislocated their son’s arm in a drunken rage to a visiting doctor. Once installed in the Overlook hotel, her relentless sunniness seems engineered to rub her husband – and the audience – the wrong way. But for the character – lonely, isolated and routinely abused and condescended to by the only other adult in the hotel, her denial reads as a well practiced survival technique as she desperately tries to hold her crumbling family together.
Kubrick famously pushed Duvall to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion to capture Wendy’s hysterical terror in the later scenes of the movie. These scenes may not be easy to watch, but there’s an emotional authenticity to them that’s rarely captured in a horror movie. Wendy has no clever quips or last-minute switch to cool, resourceful heroism. As she races through the hotel at the climax of the film, she is finally exposed to all of the horror to which she alone in the family has up until that point been sheltered – possibly reflecting the physical and emotional violence at the heart of her marriage to which she has either wilfully or subconsciously blinded herself. She’s no Laurie Strode or Sidney Prescott, equipped with a core of steel to fight back when the situation demands it. Horror movie convention leads us to expect such a fragile character to be destroyed – and yet she does survive.
As for Nicholson, his monstrous performance may have grated on King, but it’s hard to think of a more iconic horror movie villain. From his thousand-yard stare and unkept combover to his spitting, seething resentment of his wife, Nicholson embodies both the frustrated artist and menacing abuser with absolute conviction. He’s never an especially sympathetic character, but Nicholson and the script inject enough light and shade to prevent him from coming across as a one-dimensional monster either. In a career full of great performances, it might just be one of his best.
In this week’s episode of Beyond The Box Set, we take our usual deep dive into the movie, including some drinking game ideas, a discussion of job interview red flags (Extreme isolation? Check! Indian burial ground? Check! Previous employee went nuts and killed his entire family? We’ll take it!) and a look at Stephen King’s own literary The Shining sequel ‘Doctor Sleep’, which is genuinely about a psychic cat and strangely enough hasn’t yet been optioned for a movie…
After that, we dedicate the second half of our show to pitching our own ridiculous fantasy sequel ideas. This week’s suggestions include a Black Mirror-inspired reality TV remake, a sitcom set in an off-season haunted hotel and a crossover with a controversial recent failed franchise reboot…
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If you have any thoughts on The Shining – or our sequel ideas – that you’d like to share with us, we’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment in the box below or get in touch via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr or Google+ and we’ll almost definitely get right back to you.