It’s a strange feeling to watch such a well-known and highly regarded film as The Shining for the first time, especially when so many images and phrases (or rough approximations thereof) have found their way into a variety of works by pop culture magpies in the years since it was released. How many times have I heard the ‘Heeeeere’s Johnny!’ line before actually witnessing the entire scene from the movie that made it famous in the first place, for example? I dread to think, but it has been presumably stripped of most of its original power. And how many times have horror film makers incorporated their own versions of the Arbus-esque Grady twins (Lisa Burns and Louise Burns), the ghostly apparitions that wander the corridors of the isolated Overlook Hotel? Way too many, so much so that I found them disturbing, but surely not as disturbing as I would have done had I watched Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s book 34 years ago, before it’s images and phrases found their way into comedy shows like Spaced and The Simpsons. The Shining is not just a scary movie, and it is not just an excellent adaptation of a Stephen King novel; today a great deal of its most striking elements are part of the fabric of the entertainment world, absorbed more specifically into the lexicon of horror.
I can only imagine the reaction in cinemas when The Shining first hit the silver screen (actually a lot of critics panned it and audiences were widely-reported to be non-plussed, although how that kind of wide-reporting can in any way be accurate is beyond my comprehension). The film continues to intrigue and baffle first-time viewers like myself today, but at least a great many thoughts have been collected into books and essays, meaning those of us confused at the end of the movie can easily swot up on the various theories that have sprung up in the interim. Entire websites and even documentary films attempt to make sense of The Shining or focus on specific parts of Kubrick’s work. It’s not hard to see why it has inspired such heavy analysis or why it has influenced a great many other directors.
Parts of The Shining remain incredibly scary even by today’s more extreme, finely-honed standards. It relies not on shocks – though there are some that will make you shiver and shake – and instead on a creeping sense of terror that Kubrick begins to build from the very first scene, in which Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is seen driving toward the Overlook Hotel from above, passing through the spectacular landscape of the Glacier National Park in Montana (though the story is supposedly set in Colorado). The score here – Dies Irae by Hector Berlioz – ominously sets the tone for what will follow.
Lest anyone forget, Torrance is being interviewed for a caretaker job at the massive Overlook, a short-term job that will see him work at the hotel during the winter season, when it is closed. Jack is a teacher and a writer, and believes the isolation and quiet afforded by the location will help him concentrate on his latest manuscript. After succeeding in the interview, he is joined by his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their young psychic son Danny (Danny Lloyd), who has had a premonition about the dangers apparently contained within the hotel.
Danny shares a psychic link with the hotel’s chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who explains before leaving that some people have an ability ‘to shine’ – a term used by Dick’s grandmother, who also had the same power. Danny has visions in the hotel that relate to a murder in the past, in which a previous caretaker named Charles Grady went insane during the winter months and ended up killing himself and his family.
Gradually Danny begins to explore the labyrinthine hotel and the maze outside. The winter snow falls heavily, cutting off the family’s communication with the outside world. Meanwhile both Jack and Danny have premonitions inside the hotel of a variety of ghostly figures, and Jack slowly descends into madness as time passes, Kubrick moving the narrative forward in time by months, weeks, days, and finally hours.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film – which admittedly took me completely by surprise despite the fact I should have expected it from this director – was the impressive sound design. Kubrick’s use of incidental sounds and music is integral, and he seemingly places as much emphasis on these elements as he does on the visual side. The aforementioned Dies Irae and Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste feature prominently, as do striking works by György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki, and original music composed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. Witness this scene, for example, in which Danny and Wendy explore the maze outside while Jack looks at a replica indoors. As Brendan Finan writes here: ‘The level of synchronicity between these difficult pieces and the action on screen was unprecedented in its time, and has not been matched since. Scenes develop and increase in tension as the tension in the music builds, and moods change exactly as the mood of the music changes. Even climax points and sudden outbursts in the film are matched precisely by the score. Couple this with the fact that for the most part the scores were untouched, and we have scenes that the music seems to have been written for, or music that the scenes were built around.’
There are many scenes in which the music builds as though something terrible is about to be revealed, but we don’t always get the payoff at the end, leaving the viewer confused and in a perpetual state of fear. Rather than playing with the viewer’s emotions, though, Kubrick is possibly indicating that all of the scenes lead, in some way, toward some final horror, and all of the scenes in this film should therefore be scary – not simply those that feature ghosts.
One of the film’s more celebrated moments features Danny as he cycles round the vast hotel on his trike, filmed with the newly-developed Steadicam. The sound design here is jolting, especially as the noise of the trike on the wooden floor contrasts with the relative quiet as the child scoots around on bits of carpet. As corner after corner is turned we keep expecting to see something terrible, and the noise often makes us feel that will be the case. Eventually, of course, we do see something terrible.
Danny’s travels around the hotel turn the Overlook into a maze itself, and they echo his journey around the real maze outside with his mother while also foreshadowing the later chase in the snow at the end of the film. Indeed the interior is every bit as disorientating as the maze, and the set at Elstree was – at the time – the largest ever built. Kubrick deliberately adds to this confusion with continuity errors (although ‘errors’ is perhaps the wrong word): certain doors seem to lead to nowhere, windows appear where they shouldn’t, and the paths to some corridors and rooms (particularly the entrance to the Gold Room) appear to be different as the film progresses. Fixtures and fittings also disappear at random; if we can’t rely on the layout of a building to stay the same, what on earth can we rely on?
Kubrick’s intention to turn the hotel interior into a maze is also revealed by the meticulously-chosen patterned wallpaper and carpet that is used to decorate the building, as well as his decision to film the corridors ‘straight-on’ in order to emphasize the symmetric architecture. (The confusing nature of the building is also alluded to be Hallorann as he shows the new tenants around.) He also does this with some of the more cavernous rooms, such as the giant hallway Jack bemusingly adopts as his writing studio. The aim of the maze is to get to the centre, and yet inside the hotel the centre could arguably any number of places: is it Room 237, with its strong evil force? Or is it the Gold Room, which takes on more and more significance as the story progresses? Or could it be the giant room Jack uses as an office? That, after all, is the room that seems to be most linked to the madness he apparently develops.
Jack’s alteration within the hotel is fascinating to watch, although it is signposted from the earliest moments of the film. He is initially cold to both his wife and son before they even arrive at the hotel, and it is telling that the first time we see this family Jack is alone while Danny and Wendy are together at home in the kitchen; the division is already present before they move in to the Overlook. Jack’s descent into madness happens over the course of a winter, but the jumps in time get progressively shorter as mentioned above, distorting the process somewhat; it seems sudden when that is not necessarily the case.
Are the events in Room 237 a metaphor for Jack’s failed marriage and his attitude to his wife? Jack’s state of mind is highlighted by the presence of a multitude of mirrors in key scenes, and these have led to many calling into question whether there actually are any ghosts in the hotel or whether it’s all in Jack’s head. However that theory doesn’t explain the apparitions of the hotel’s previous residents as seen by Danny or, later on, Wendy.
Ah yes, the theories. Perhaps the most interesting of these – and then one which I believe – is that the film is an allegory of the genocide of Native Americans. Writing in an essay entitled Kubrick’s ‘Shining’ Secret: Film’s Hidden Horror Is The Murder Of The Indian, ABC reporter and critic Bill Blakemore argues that there are overt and subtle references to this throughout the film, and given Kubrick’s meticulous attention to detail it’s actually unlikely that the appearance of Indian motifs are coincidental. (I watched a great documentary on Kubrick on TV last year, but the name of it unfortunately escapes me now. It was fascinating to see in this film just how particular the man was: in his own storeroom at home he required that only one type of archiving box was acceptable due to its perfect design. Apparently the lid sat on the box ‘just right’.) Hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) explains to Wendy that the hotel was built on an ancient Native American burial ground, which could explain the river of blood that Danny sees flowing from behind the elevator in his visions. Slightly tenuously, Blakemore also pointed out that a Native American figure appears on the label of a can of Calumet baking soda (a calumet being a type of peace pipe) in the hotel’s storeroom, and that a relevant wall painting can be seen in the hotel lobby. Then there’s the not-inconsiderable matter of a white man running around with an axe…
The other main theories are just as interesting; one posits that the film is about the Minotaur in his labyrinth, another that the film is really about the Holocaust, with references throughout to the number 42, which represents the year of the Final Solution. Another theory suggests that it’s about the belief that the Apollo 11 moon landings were staged and that Kubrick was involved: Danny wears an Apollo 11 sweater, the room 237 supposedly corresponds to the fact that the moon is 237,000 miles from Earth, Tang cans (created for astronauts) are seen in the pantry and the carpet pattern reflects the same launch pad the rocket used.
Perhaps Kubrick’s take on The Shining is about all of these things, and perhaps it is about none of them. It is, however, a deliriously creepy ghost story, and there are so many unnerving touches throughout the film it’s not hard to see why Martin Scorsese called it one of the scariest ever made. The twins, the conversation with butler Charles Grady, Danny’s strange possession by Tony, the photograph of Jack in 1921, the stack of ‘All work and no play…’ papers, the truly horrible events in room 237 (the one part of the film where my wife had to stop watching and ask me to explain what was happening on screen) – there are certainly enough moments in the Overlook to give you nightmares or simply to temporarily freak you out. Yet there are other less-well known scenes that I found equally disturbing. One of my favourite moments in the movie is when Jack (Torrance or Nicholson, works both ways) stares directly into the camera for the briefest of moments while angrily exiting his room. I had to rewind a couple of times to check I wasn’t seeing things. Really odd.
Yet this is no ordinary ghost story. Kubrick’s focus on mise-en-scène and matching sonic elements lifts The Shining above and beyond most contemporary horrors, and it is truly a work of art. Nicholson is, of course, completely over the top, but the part requires him to be. Duvall – who clashed with Kubrick during filming – has been criticized for her hysterical screaming, and while it does begin to grate a little the question ‘well, how should someone react to being chased around a ghostly hotel by their own insane, axe-wielding husband?’ is pertinent. What kind of horror film doesn’t have a shit load of screaming, anyway?
The Shining is so good I feel a quite considerable sense of guilt at not having seen it until now.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers
Running Time: 119 minutes (European cut)