A tricycle careering through eerily carpeted hotel corridors, a pair of creepy young girls in pale blue dresses, RedRum, Here‘s Johnny. Given my memory, seeing the Shining again for the first time in decades should be like watching it for the very first time. But so many snippets have eased their way into popular culture that you find yourself swimming in a familiar stream and waiting for the Big Scenes to happen.
On the outside chance that you need to know what happens, Jack Torrance has a winter job looking after a closed hotel in Colorado. Ostensibly he needs to make sure the heating continues to work, but he‘s mainly there to work on his Great Unfinished Novel. As isolation kicks in, and the words don‘t flow, Jack becomes increasingly irritable.
Jack‘s brought his wife and moppet son with him. The moppet, Danny, has an imaginary friend, Tony. Tony manifests himself as Danny‘s crooked finger. Danny also has “the Shining”, an ability to predict the future, or remember past events that he never personally experienced. Which is a problem, as Jack’s immediately predecessor murdered his wife and daughters in room 237 before shooting himself.
Danny becomes increasingly preoccupied with room 237, while Jack finds his own way of going off the rails. He enters the bar which has been closed for the Winter, to be greeted first by a waiter serving bourbon, then a dancefloor full of guests and a waiter who looks suspiciously like his murderous predecessor. Until now, he has slightly overreacted when his wife disturbed his (lack of) flow when writing his novel. Now things start to get serious.
One of the ways in which The Shining shows its class is in how, with the minimum of fuss, it shows how other films get it wrong. There is an intrinsic problem for films about the supernatural. They either set up a whole new set of rules so that literally anything is possible and no dramatic tension is possible (Christopher Nolan, you are a multiple offender here). Or everything flows perfectly logically until suddenly something happens that just makes no sense at all.
By introducing Danny’s experience of The Shining very early on, the film is able to provide a consistent logic, which just deviates in some ways from the world as we experience it. Yes, much of the film takes place in the addled imagination of Jack (and of Danny). But they are but mad North-North-West, when the wind is Southerly, they can tell a hawk from a handsaw. The film maintains its own logic – we can always make sense of what is happening, which means we feel its tension.
And boy does it deliver some jump shocks, even when you know exactly what is going to happen. Time and again, you are fully involved in the action, when something springs up to take you off your guard. I’m not a great fan of horror films, but if you want to see some horror, you’d do much worse than starting here.
Is the film perfect? No, and there are a couple of things that I could have done without. First, there is one unnecessary use of the N word, which really does nothing to move the plot forward. And at some points I felt the soundtrack somewhat intrusive. Look, I know a scene is tense without having it shouted at me by a swirling string section and beating kettle drums.
Also Shelley Duvall’s part as Jack’s wife is so underwritten that I can’t even remember her name. She is mainly there to look helpless while Jack limps through the corridors dragging an axe. But these are minor quibbles at a truly fine piece of cinema, celebrating its 40th anniversary. The only real signs of ageing are an overreliance on a manual typewriter and a lack of mobile communications.
Having said all this, its maybe not the best movie for a first date, nor as the first film you should watch post-lockdown.