We follow the point of view of Danny Torrance, the only son of Jack (Jack Nicholson) and Wendy (Shelley Duvall), who have agreed to take on caretaker duties at the grandiose and isolated Overlook Hotel. Danny is exploring the hotel’s maze-like corridors on his red trike when he encounters young twin girls who invite him to “come play” – surely a welcome sight to a boy who’s so far endured the winter with only his increasingly unhinged father and terrified mother for company. Except there's a deadpan ghoulishness to the way the line is delivered.
As in much of the film, Kubrick employs a steadicam to keep the audience guessing about what lurks around the corner, steadily building suspense with an eerie soundtrack. The gruesome fate of the twins is revealed with artfully staged quick cuts, which subverts tropes familiar to audiences at the time – shaky hand-held cameras, multiple gory murder scenes and special effects – from horror staples of the 1970s like Halloween, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. In this film, the hotel is home to an invisible, malevolent force that is transmuted through a father figure and is sensed by Danny through some preternatural power he possesses. When he takes comfort in talking to Tony (the man who... lives in his finger?) at the end of the scene: “it’s just like pictures in a book Danny, it isn’t real,” it’s a sentiment perhaps quietly echoed by the audience who are subjecting themselves to the thrilling horror of the images on screen.
The Shining wasn't a particular critical or commercial success at the time of its release, but is now recognised as a classic by contemporary critics and audiences who continue to be fascinated by its cultural legacy. There aren’t many films that have inspired such a trove of analysis, with the deep readings of the apparent symbolic meaning of elements of the film notably explored in the 2012 documentary Room 237.
The film lives on through cultural references such as the iconic homage of ‘The Shinning’ segment in The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror Episode V. The scene in which an axe wielding Nicholson chops his way into the bathroom where Wendy is hiding (voted the scariest movie scene of all time) is referenced in that episode and also notably in the hardcore track ‘Here’s Johnny’ by Dutch group Hocus Pocus, which sampled Nicholson’s ad-lib in the scene and inexplicably spent 6 weeks at #1 on the Australian music charts in the mid-90s. The scene in which Danny encounters the twins has also become a perennial Halloween favourite and features at a drive-in theatre during a scene in Twister.
This endless analysis speaks to Kubrick’s reputation as an intense and fastidious filmmaker, qualities seen to be necessary to create enduring works of art such as this. In a rare occasion of transparency, Kubrick allowed his daughter Vivian to shoot behind the scenes footage for a BBC, which exists as an essential supplementary text that gives us a fascinating insight into the director’s process and the complexity of the shoot.