The number of subgenres of scary movies seems limitless by now. But at their core, scary movies are typically a mix of a basic story involving a family or a town and an element of the supernatural. Obviously, this is overly simplified, but few films have ever walked the line between these two so skillfully and memorably as Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining."
Psychology is the greatest tool a horror film has at its disposal. Freddy Krueger migh haunt your dreams if you see him at age six in your basement all alone, but once you grow up a bit you realize odds are you aren't going to run into Freddy at your local Burger King, at least not before his proto-Hot Topic look became so influential in the '90s.
But the nihilistic killer in "Se7en" - he looked kind of like that dude on your late-night bus a few weeks ago. Horror films moved beyond their inherent novelty when they explored the plausible demons within ourselves as opposed to the fleeting thrills of largely implausible vampires, leprechauns and zombies. This isn't to say there should be no place for these creatures in the horror genre. There certainly is. The exploration of the supernatural and the super-human in these films has always been a fascinating element of horror that has given us many of the lasting individual images we have used to define the genre as a whole.
But Jack Nicholson's crazed mug coming through the crack in a bathroom doorway in "The Shining" proves we don't need the supernatural to create those transcendent images.
"The Shining" starts out simply enough. Jack Torrance (Nicholson) takes a job as caretaker at the Overlook Hotel (a hotel that becomes entirely isolated from civilization when it freezes over each winter) and moves in with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny. Kubrick initially portrays the Torrances as your typical nuclear family. We then quickly learn that Danny is troubled by visions of his imaginary friend Tony, and Jack is a recovering alcoholic who stopped drinking after an episode of physical abuse toward Danny. We also discover the old caretaker was driven to kill his family during the isolation of the winter months.
In these subplots we essentially have the basis of three concepts that have by now become horror clichés. We have an oversized version of the haunted house story. We have the exploration of inner demons (i.e., alcoholism) that ruin a perceived normal happy family. And we have a character (Danny in this case) who holds a key to the supernatural world. While all the characters have interactions with the ghosts of the Overlook (some of whom are arguably Jack's own demons portrayed through the use of mirrors), Danny is used as our visual key to this world.
But the thing that keeps these storylines grounded is Nicholson's portrayal of Jack Torrance, as well as the devolution of his marriage with Wendy. While his performance here might get slightly overlooked in retrospect due to his storied career that has largely banked on playing crazy, Jack makes you believe Stephen King wrote this character with him in mind. He blurs the lines of sanity in a way few other actors in history could pull off. And while he had already brilliantly portrayed McMurphy in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," it was by no means his calling card.
The initial apathy Wendy exemplifies toward the family's everyday life makes her inevitable horror at the hell their lives soon devolve into all the more gripping. Initially, it seems her marriage has simply hit a point of stagnancy in which her and Jack's interaction feels stilted and forced. But with each uncovered demon and each new day at the Overlook comes more tension and enough unease to wake even Wendy from her sleepwalk through life. The marriage also becomes a literal representation of Jack's mind as it spirals out of control through the course of the film.
The film famously ends with a still-frame photograph of Jack in the hotel dated long before the family moved in, smiling with a roomful of guests. This provides a largely ambiguous ending to a film that had up until that point given the audience a great deal of closure in its choices. It is an ambiguity that works within the context of the film. It doesn't force you to call into question any of the events you just saw or the fate of any of the characters. However, it allows you to interpret the film and its characters on a wholly different level, distinguishing it from a thriller that taught us what "redrum" is spelled backwards to a film that transcended its genre simply by using all the tools within it well enough to be different.