31 DAYS OF HORROR #15: Richard Waters & Alison Scarff on THE SHINING (1980)

Director / Producer partners Richard Waters and Alison Scarff – whose latest Bring Out The Fear (2021) is currently tearing up the festival circuit – book a stay at The Overlook Hotel…

What is there left to say about Stanley Kubrick’s iconic adaptation of Stephen King’s masterpiece The Shining?  A film that is so entrenched in the public psyche that even if you’ve never seen it, you are all too familiar with the story and the famous visuals via pop culture osmosis (anyone who watches The Simpsons might not realise it, but they could probably tell the story beginning-to-end without much issue, except for maybe accidentally calling it “The Shinning”). But for a story so well trod, similar to films like Halloween and Psycho, it’s important to remember that they have achieved this place on the podium for a very good reason. If you watch The Shining today, it’s astounding how much of the foreboding atmosphere and nerve-rattling dread still holds up head and shoulders above its counterparts, both old and new.

The story of a writer (Jack Nicholson) who – taking his family with him as he acts as caretaker for an isolated hotel closed during the winter whilst working on his great novel – finds his sanity worn down by the malevolent forces contained in the building, trying to coax him to murder his loved ones. Metaphors for addiction and abuse in the family abound, coupled with an unsettling score that hops between a-tonal and swinging. It’s easy to see why this is considered a classic, and Kubrick’s typical attention to detail has had every element of it dissected from every which way, with documentaries like Room 237 or Rob Ager’s Collative Learning series presenting some of the best new readings on the film (a current favourite of ours being the idea that it’s actually Wendy who is crazy, and any instances of Jack snapping are her imagination).

Such a variety of different interpretations definitely lends to the ongoing legacy of The Shining, but also opens up so many of the reasons why it unsettles us the audience so much. Nothing is quite what it seems, and none of that is down to chance. Famously, the layout of the hotel, which almost goes to pains to have its geography presented on screen, makes absolutely no sense. Windows look onto gardens that should be hallways, doors to rooms exist where there is nothing but empty space behind them, and the infamous blood elevator seems to find itself located where it can capture the characters’ attention, instead of where any architect would choose. How can we feel safe when something so simple as one hallway leading to another is left unpredictable? It’s a method used in more recent films like Grave Encounters or Blair Witch to amazing effect, and to say it had an influence on the looping forest in our own film Bring Out The Fear would be an understatement.

The Shining doesn’t deal in jump scares, favouring psychological tension and the terror of the murderous turn of a family member. One of the strengths of the film (in a straightforward reading, at least) is that we are treated to multiple perspectives of the descent into bloodlust, placing the viewer on both sides of the victim/abuser role, and even if the eventual outcomes aren’t ones we agree with, we at least understand how the characters have come to them. The greatest strength in a horror film that doesn’t play for jump scares is when it allows the audience to embody the characters, to feel options have been exhausted and that the walls are all closing in on us as much as they are for those on screen.

For our money, The Shining also stands as a rare horror film that gets scarier the more times you watch it. Like peeling away the layers of an onion, details that seem minute signpost later events, and the film takes a different and more unsettling point of view knowing where the characters will end up. There are so many things to discover in here that it’s a pure treat even after multiple viewings, moreso when you are in the UK/Ireland and discover the US have a longer cut that includes a scene with skeleton guests in the hotel lobby!

It’s a cultural touchstone for good reason, and still a masterclass in execution for filmmakers to this day. Maybe not the most exciting addition to the Halloween watchlist at first sight, it’s important not to take for granted just how powerful The Shining is, and remember that not only does it truly deserve its place amongst other films this spooky season, but that even over 40 years later it stands as a testament to the true lasting power of a well executed horror.

Richard Waters & Alison Scarff

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