So much has been written about The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, that trying to add to the oeuvre can turn one into a very dull boy. Still, whether the film is actually a thickly veiled exploration of the Native American genocide, the Holocaust or the faked moon landings, we can never overlook that Jack Torrance’s assault on a bathroom door ranks as its most iconic moment.
Kubrick geeks (Kubr-eeks?) across the globe know, of course, that Jack Nicholson improvised the line that made this scene so famous, nicking the introduction from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Even more famous in Kubrick lore is that the director, having lived in England for some time, had no idea what Nicholson was referencing, but decided to keep the take anyway, perhaps seeing the ghost of future ‘Best Film Quotes of All Time’ lists materialising in front of his manic eyes.
With the incongruity of the television reference, the scene is one of the most unsettling in the film, and was even found in a study by Play.com in 2013 to increase the heart rate by 28.2%. Certainly, it is the juxtaposition between Jack’s actions and his words that cement the scene in the subconscious: before shredding the bathroom door, Jack gleefully orders his wife to ‘come out, come out’, and eventually imagines himself as the Big Bad Wolf, huffing and puffing so as to intimidate the Little Pigs, Wendy and Danny.
Jack’s return to childish games and nursery rhymes are prefigured by Kubrick through Torrance’s petulant lassitude, where hours of work at the typewriter have concluded in the repeated phrase ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’. It is as if the boredom of the Overlook Hotel has infantilised Jack, turning him not only to attempted redrum but also to a kind of loony playfulness. It’s mightily disquieting that the most memorable feature of Nicholson’s face in this scene is not his lank hair or bulging eyeballs, but his perfect smile, which seems at once ready to gnash and giggle.
Jack’s game-playing therefore presents his desire to kill his family as merely ‘something to do’, that will free him from both the ghosts of the hotel and his writer’s block. It is even possible to see Jack’s famous Carson reference not only as a threatening taunt, but also as a yearning for the mindless activity that he has left behind. Indeed, it seems no accident that in The Simpsons parody of the film, ‘The Shinning’, Homer’s gurning rage subsides when he has access to a portable TV.
Becoming a snarling lupine can be no easy feat, and anyone who has watched Nicholson prepping for a take will note his jumping, jittering and muttering, as he tries to muster a genuine hatred for his pale, screeching wife. It is surprising that whiny Wendy takes a slash at Jack’s hand, and also serves as an important reminder of Jack’s fragility. He may act the wolf, and later in the maze, the Minotaur, but he is only the caretaker: a man and not a beast, who will ultimately be outwitted by a child in a final game of hide and seek.
The Shining is released as part of Warner Brothers’ Iconic Moments Collection on September 5th.