[Written by Nafisa Shamim]
Dedicated surfers of online memes might recognise one of the most iconic scenes of this film, whether or not they have ever watched the movie- the disturbing, maniacally grinning shot of Jack Nicholson peering through a crack he has broken through a door with an axe.
The accompanying dialogue, a loud, rowdy, unnervingly cheerful, “Here’s Johnnie!” has also gone on to become one of the legendary one-liners in Hollywood’s book of memorable lines.
Interestingly enough, such a line was never mentioned in Stephen King’s namesake novel, on which the film is based.
And that is not the only element, ad-libbed by Nicholson, that Stanley Kubrick, the mastermind behind this psychological thriller that till date ranks high in horror-movie lists worldwide, introduced to the screenplay. Perhaps the best way of approaching The Shining lies in treating the novel and the film as two completely different, separate entities. It’s almost as though Kubrick took the same ingredients King had used for his tale- but whipped up a different dish.
The premise of both remains the same: a recovering drunk with anger-management issues becomes caretaker of a remote hotel with a legacy of bad luck and tragedy, and is quickly cut off from the rest of the world by the brutal winter of Colorado. Cooped together with his wife (Shelly Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd), the tale explores the disintegration of Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, as he struggles with his demons in isolation from the rest of the world, while his son, Danny, exhibits an uncanny sixth sense that the Overlook’s chef calls a “shining”, and becomes increasingly distressed by the horrific visions that haunt him long before they take up abode at the hotel.
Perhaps there is some justice in King’s dislike for the film adaptation- he had described it as a fancy car without an engine. And yet, while the novel allows the reader to follow Jack Torrance’s slow decline into madness, and trace his wife’s struggle with the love for her husband and fear for their son and what being marooned from the rest of the world is doing to them, there is no denying that The Shining is a cinematic masterpiece, a study in innovative film making at a time when half the special effects used in today’s horror movies had not even been thought of. Each of the sequences bears an undercurrent of tension, of nervous crackling energy as Danny turns around seemingly endless corridors on his tricycle- as we wait with baited breath for an indefinite something to happen.
This film is the proud predecessor of the continuous shots that trail a character up and down passageways, so effectively used in the Insidious franchise and recently in The Conjuring, building up suspense with each step forward, each corner turned- but it’s not all as obvious as that. There are so many sleights of hand, that all add to the overwhelming atmosphere this movie contains in droves- a shot taken from an unusually low angle, so walls of normal height suddenly seem to loom above and box in on you, or a well-placed pause that sends an unexpected chill down your spine, or an eerie soundtrack that’s like a gramophone constantly playing faintly somewhere in the background. Heck, even the carpet’s pattern put me on edge.
Having watched my fair share of horror movies, I won’t waste a minute before commending The Shining as the godfather of them all. Kubrick plays so ingeniously with sounds, with spaces, with silences, that even without any computer-generated graphics or jump-scares or over-the-top blood and gore, he terrified me more than I have been terrified in a long, long time. His take on King’s story was not so much supernatural as psychological- and perhaps that was why it was so unsettling to watch. It’s easy enough to ascribe something scary to a ghost and leave it up to that. But when one begins to pause and question the role of the mind and its pitfalls as they traverse through this film on tenterhooks- now that’s terrifying.