Not all of Stanley Kubrick’s films are as bad as A Clockwork Orange (1971), or as taboo as Lolita (1962). The majority of them are, though, twisted. Even in movies as seemingly innocuous as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), there are moments that make you question the director’s sanity, such as when the artificial intelligence HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) murders the crew of Discovery One. It is always the same with Kubrick. Arguably his most famous movie, The Shining (1980), is no different. I recall my mother talking reverently about this movie, which made me want to watch it from a young age. I will hand it to her, it sure is creepy. It is also quite long, punctuated with flashes and moments of images that any rational person might wish they had never seen. I will credit Kubrick for taking the story elements and masterfully using them to produce a classic. It is just unfortunate that our society seems to have an appetite for this stuff.
The main character of The Shining is Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), who is a recovering alcoholic in search of a job. He needs one, too, because he has a family for which to provide. He interviews to be the winter caretaker of an elegant summer resort in the Rocky Mountains called the Overlook Hotel. The hotel manager that hires him, Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), warns Jack that his family will be snowed in for months, and relates a story about a previous person in the same position who went crazy and murdered his family with an axe. Jack dismisses these tales in taking the job, seeing it as an opportunity to jump start his career as a writer. In pitching the idea to his family, he must overcome some of his wife Wendy’s (Shelley Duvall) misgivings, particularly as they relate to their son Danny “Doc” (Danny Lloyd) and the difficulties between father and child. Nonetheless, they proceed to the hotel, where they are greeted by Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), the hotel’s head chef. Though he gives the Torrance family their final instructions, it is Danny in which Dick is most interested. The cook recognizes the psychic and telepathic abilities of the boy, which we know from already seeing Danny have a vision of one of the hotel’s elevators gushing with blood. It is an ability that Dick refers to as the title of the film, and he explains to Danny how the hotel has a strange effect on people. In particular, he warns the boy against going into room 237. With that, Dick leaves and the family settles into their seasonal duties. As time goes along, it is Jack that becomes increasingly impacted by the isolation, and he begins to see things that are not there, though they appear real. These are triggered by especially intense events, such as when he and Wendy fight about Danny. At one point, Jack has a nightmare in which he chops up Danny with an axe. This frightens Wendy, and it gives rise to suspicions on her part towards her husband. These seem to be confirmed when Danny appears disheveled and, after hearing Jack scream from another part of the hotel, she believes that Jack has hurt his son. Jack now wants to drink, and the hotel seems to provide with an illusion of a 1920s bar, whose bartender Lloyd (Joe Turkel) is ready to serve its sole thirsty patron. Later on, Wendy convinces Jack to check on room 237, by which Danny had been found in a frightened state. When Jack does, he has another vision, this time of a naked woman, who alternately appears as a rotting corpse, with which he makes love. When he goes back their suite, he reports that there is nothing wrong, and blames Wendy for everything that has gone wrong in his life. This includes his lack of ability to write anything so far that winter. Meanwhile, Danny continues to have his own difficulties with the hotel, including seeing twin girls (perhaps the most famous scene in the movie), and noticing “REDRUM” scrawled in places. You will note what that spells when put in the proper order. The divide between Jack and Wendy continues to widen, and Jack is egged on by the butler at the bar, Delbert Grady (Philip Stone), who believes there is only one way of dealing with an unruly family. While these events are building to a crescendo, Dick, who had by hearing Danny’s psychic cries, decides to go back to the Overlook to try and help. Unfortunately, his protracted journey terminates just as Jack is going on his murderous rampage, complete with axe, and gets a blow directly to his noggin. Jack then turns his bloody intentions on his family, and there is the next iconic scene when Jack breaks down the door to the bathroom where his family is hiding. He looks through the door and maniacally says, “Here’s Johnny!” Danny and Wendy escape through the window, and head for the bush maze adjacent the resort. There, they lose the addled Jack, who eventually freezes to death. We close with a picture of the hotel in the 1920s, and what appears to be a young Jack, making it seem like he had always been a part of the building.
The Shining is a classic bit of cinema, but it is also horror, and thus needs to be viewed with a wary eye. It also deals with the subject of telepathy, which is one not typically seen in films of this ilk. Given that most of the rest of the subject matter here is objectionable in some form from a Catholic perspective, talking about telepathy in this manner is as good as any on which to linger. It is an ability that one can attribute to God Himself, certainly because He does know your thoughts. It goes deeper than that, however. In movies like this one, a telepath can usually only hear the thoughts of another person. God, on the other hand, knows the content of your heart. In the homily at daily Mass today, I was reminded of a wise old saying about how the longest journey we will ever know is the distance between the head and the heart. It is in our heats that we are truly known, and where God knows us, too. This may seem like grasping at straws, and perhaps it is to a certain degree, but Jack is a man who clearly does not know himself. Yet, there is something about the hotel that brings out the worst in him. This is the horror aspect of the film. There are forces in this world that can reveal a darker, uglier side of us that we would rather not encounter. The enemy tempts us with a number of things that, as Dick reminds Danny, are not real. This is what helps the boy deal with what he sees, which in part is aided by his gift. Unfortunately, Jack cannot do the same.
I suppose I could mention that The Shining is the forerunner to the more recent Doctor Sleep (2019), which focuses on a grown-up Danny. He eventually returns to the Overlook, and all heck breaks loose. I would prefer a lot less of this kind of heck. There is only one reason to watch The Shining, no matter what my mom thinks of it, and it is because it is a classic bit of cinema. If this does nothing for you, then I would avoid it. As I said at the beginning, there is a lot in it that I would rather not see.