Yesterday I watched The Shining for maybe the 20th time in my life. The first time I saw it, I was in middle school, and I was completely mortified when Jack investigated room 247. Twenty years later, I’m still tempted to close my eyes during that scene. (Okay, fine, sometimes I’m not just “tempted.” Sometimes I do close my eyes during that scene). I watched with a pen and notepad in my hand. I was determined to figure out what it was I liked so much about this movie. Four and a half notebook pages later, I have a conglomeration of messily scribbled answers. Suffice it to say, not all of those answers are below. Here are 10 reasons why The Shining is a phenomenal film. Stay tuned for another installment of this project:
10.) Jack Torrance’s Backstory: Every good horror movie character has to have a backstory, and Jack’s dark past contributes to his increasingly more disturbing presence throughout the film. He is never a particularly likable character, even before he’s completely insane. We know he came home drunk one night and pulled Danny’s arm out of the socket trying to move him away from a stack of papers. He promised Wendy that he’d stop drinking after that. Very little in the way of warmth emanates from this character, well before the hotel possesses his mind. And he’s a more delicious character for that reason; he’s never a stand-up guy. His odious past makes him an ominous presence in The Shining.
9.) It created “The Shinning”: Only a movie as good as The Shining could have contributed to a Simpson’s Tree House of Horror episode as good as “The Shinning,” during which Homer proclaims: “No T.V. and no beer makes Homer…something, something,” and Marge interjects, “Go crazy?” Homer then yells, “Don’t mind if I do,” and makes a serious of ludicrous sounds before demanding that Marge give him the bat. This episode is hilarious, if only because Homer is the antithesis of Jack Torrance, and this masterful half hour (perhaps less) wouldn’t exist without The Shining.
8.) It creates an excellent mood of isolation: The Shining opens with foreboding music as a car drives up the Rocky Mountains. My dad always told me the song was “The Funeral March of the Marionettes” though some online research lead me to sites that claim it’s called “The Rocky Mountains.” The viewer gets a shot of the trees, the winding road, and hears the odious song. Even as the Torrance’s drive up to the Overlook Hotel together, they hardly speak to one another. Jack seems mildly interested, at best, in anything Wendy has to say (which is pretty much always the case with him). The hotel is enormous and empty throughout the film, and every sound is intentional.
7.) The intentional sounds: Since we’re talking about sounds, let’s isolate a few canonical ones from The Shining. First, there’s the echoing boom of the ball hitting the side of a wall as Jack throws it instead of working. The sound disrupts the solitude of the hotel. And Danny’s tricycle emits the nice, rhythmic noise of wheels moving, a noise that usually portends that something unnerving is about to happen (hotel room doors opening, little girls lingering at the end of a hallway, and so forth). And then, there’s the sound of Jack’s typewriter. Click, click click, click click. It’s even easier to appreciate the sound of Jack’s typewriter once we find out what he’s spent so much time typing.
6.) The Twins: Two little girls stand, at the end of the hall, in the distance, uttering, “Come play with us, Danny. Come play. Forever, and ever, and ever.” Horror movies love to tap into the “creepy kids” phenomena. In fact, it’s interesting that these are the only Grady ghosts Danny sees; he manages to avoid mom and dad, and it’s interesting to imagine what they would look like if he were to see them.
5.) Dick Halloran: Dick Halloran (played by Scatman Crothers) is just a downright cool guy. He knows how to relate to Danny, a young boy with a rare gift, and he races from the sunny comfort of Miami, FL to the Overlook Hotel in the dead of a Colorado winter to help Danny’s family. He tries his best to dissuade Danny from entering room 247, although Danny’s curiosity trumps Dick’s assertion that, “There ain’t nothin’ in there” but that Danny should “stay out.” Oh, and Dick has a collection of paintings featuring nude woman with plush afros on the wall of his Miami apartment. Clearly, this guy knows how to party.
4.) Shelly Duvall’s performance: I know people call Jamie Lee Curtis the “Scream Queen,” but let’s not overlook how remarkably brilliant Shelly Duvall is as Wendy Torrance. She plays “corny, upbeat, and mildly annoying” well in the beginning of the movie. Her exchanges with Jack are hilarious; he mechanically responds to her enthusiastic ramblings. But her character is fantastically smart and capable of defending herself and her son, and as Jack is breaking into the bathroom with an axe, her screams are bone chilling.
3.) The Hedge Maze: I haven’t read Stephen King’s The Shining in a long time, but as I recall, the hedge animals play a larger role in the book. The movie The Shining is, of course, centered around a hedge maze, which adds a special degree of terror to the movie’s conclusion, when Jack and Danny essentially show down in the hedge maze. Really, the prospect of running through a hedge maze at all is scary, let alone when you’re being chased by an ax-wielding murderer. And what about those scenes in the movie where Jack is standing above the replica of the hedge maze, looking at Wendy and Danny’s bodies run through the replica, just as their bodies are running through the actual hedge maze at that moment? Little does he know, he looks into the source of his own ultimate demise.
2.) Jack’s Hubris: The delightful thing about Jack is that he’s flying way too close to the sun — moving to Colorado after being sober five months to isolate himself in a hotel and write, after nearly breaking his son’s arm – but he’s so sure he has a good idea. Even after hearing of the Grady murders, he reassures Ullman that the isolation will do him good, and that Wendy will love the murder story because she’s a “confirmed ghost story & horror film addict.” One will note, however, that so far as we know in the movie, he never does tell Wendy about the Grady murders. But she probably has a pretty good idea that something’s wrong with the hotel relatively early on, like maybe when Jack tells her to “get the fuck out” of his writing room when she offers to make him a sandwich. That seems unpleasant even for him.
1.) The Typewriter Scene: This might be the best scene in the film. I will argue again that I think Jack Torrance is pretty much a jerk, so he plays a jerk that gets even meaner when he starts becoming possessed by the hotel. Wendy has been visibly taken aback by his behaviors on more than one occasion. Alone, in that cavernous room, she thumbs through his manuscript, only to read “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” typed in various formations on thick stacks of papers. That is the moment when she knows how warped Jack has become. This scene marks the moment of disillusionment, when Wendy realizes she faces a much more formidable foe than she realized. This part of the movie is pivotal. We move from slow, disturbing tension to rapid, consequential action in this part of the film. (And The Simpson’s version of this scene, when Marge reads Homer’s two typed words, “feelin’ fine” is pretty entertaining, too).