There’s a deep, rich creepiness suffusing Stephen King’s The Shining that makes this miniseries the most frightening TV movie ever made. The tale of a family coming unglued over the course of a snowbound winter in a big old Colorado hotel takes shrewd advantage of its three-night, six-hour length. It unfolds slowly, seductively, drawing you into the haunted-house plight of Jack Torrance (Wings‘ Steven Weber), his wife, Wendy (Rebecca De Mornay), and their 7-year-old son, Danny (Courtland Mead).
The 1977 novel on which The Shining is based is widely considered to be, along with The Stand and a few short stories, King’s best-written work. And King himself has been vocal over the years about his dissatisfaction with director Stanley Kubrick’s hit 1980 feature film of The Shining, starring Jack (”Heeeere’s Johnny!”) Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. So the author flexed the muscle he has with ABC (his It, The Tommyknockers, The Stand, and The Langoliers have all been turned into high-rated TV flicks) to write the script and executive-produce himself; thus, what’s on the small screen is — by way of director Mick Garris — exactly the way King wants the story told.
The Shining is a canny variation on a ghost story combined with a cautionary tale about alcoholism that’s only become more timely since the novel was published. Jack, a struggling writer and really struggling 12-stepper, takes a winter job as caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. The place closes down in the winter, when roads become impassable; Jack figures he’ll get enough peace and quiet to write a play, while Wendy and Danny have fun rambling around the huge inn. Hah.
For Danny is capable of ”shining” — sensing telepathic thoughts in others and picking up the vibes of otherworldly beings — and he quickly realizes that the Overlook is packed to its rotting rafters with violent, evil spirits who like to fill bathtubs with blood and run a dance hall for the dead in the hotel ballroom (King himself plays the fanny-shaking bandleader). The only person Danny knows who shares this knowledge is the hotel’s cook, Halloran (Melvin Van Peebles), another shiner, who beats it down to Florida when the hotel closes for the season.
What gives this boo! stuff emotional resonance is the way King gives equal importance to Jack’s scary screwups as a husband and father. Rattled by the recovery process and middle-aged anxious about writing something important, he’s prone to temper tantrums that start to merge with worse, homicidal feelings as the hotel’s spirits begin to invade him. King has said recently, ”The Shining is about a haunted hotel, but it’s also a story about a haunted marriage.” In that sense, this Shining reaches out beyond just the horror crowd for its audience; no wonder ABC feels confident enough to schedule its final two hours against NBC’s Must See TV Thursday schedule.
It’s fashionable to take King’s side and put down the Kubrick movie — yes, it was a cold technician’s piece. But Mick Garris isn’t enough of a technician. His horror scenes don’t have the snap necessary to make them truly unsettling (Kubrick’s replacement for the book’s predatory topiary animals — a maze that turns into a no-exit nightmare — was scarier). But King and Garris’ Shining improves on Kubrick’s in its emotional depth and quality of performances. De Mornay pulls off the tricky role of Wendy, a loyal doormat who proves to be no pushover, and it’s a testament to Weber’s skill that Jack comes across as a sympathetic, even tragic, figure. As for young Mead, his Danny perfectly captures the mute terror of a child, for whom an angry parent can be as traumatizing as a house full of ghosts. B+