NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.
Barry Lyndon was one of Stanley Kubrick’s proudest accomplishments, yet the film failed to take off at the box office. Deeply disappointed, Kubrick resolved to take on a film that would be both artistically fulfilling and a surefire hit. Part of Kubrick’s inspiration for his next project came from the wave of great horror movies in the 70s and late 60s- he was reportedly a fan of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, and he loved David Lynch’s Eraserhead so much that he would show it on set of his new film to let the cast know just what kind of a feeling he wanted to evoke. Part of it no doubt came from the popularity of author Stephen King, whose Carrie and Salem’s Lot had already been memorably adapted by Brian De Palma and Tobe Hooper, respectively. But anyone expecting a straight horror movie had a big surprise coming to them.
Few horror movies have provoked as much debate and analysis as Kubrick’s The Shining. Indeed, the level of scrutiny, obsession, and argument inspired by the film almost rivals that of 2001. The film is famous for a number of reasons- its nightmarish, bleak tone, now one of the most mimicked of all horror movies; its deviation from King’s original novel, about which the author was none too pleased; the level at which Kubrick terrorized the cast, particularly Shelly Duvall, in order to get appropriately terrified performances from them. But more than anything else, this open-ended, highly ambiguous film has inspired more far-out interpretations than just about any other film ever made.
It can’t just be a formal exercise in terror- “it’s an overarching metaphor for the Holocaust”. “No, it’s a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans”. “You’re both wrong, it’s a coded confession that Stanley Kubrick helped fake the Apollo 11 moon landing” (this one is particularly crazy to me). In the recent documentary Room 237, a number of people floated around their theories about the film. I haven’t seen that film yet (it hits theatres stateside later this month), but from looking into the interviewees background, it seems clear that much of their interpretation comes from their own background- the Holocaust interpreter is an author on several Holocaust-themed books, for example. The Shining has increasingly become the supreme example for how a viewer might take a film, find a detail that strikes them, and build a case for a subtext that the filmmaker might never have thought of. I have my own scene or two that I’ve latched onto and built a case on, which has spurred me to rewatch the film more than any other Kubrick movie. The Shining is more than just a candidate for the scariest movie ever made (it’s certainly my pick): it’s the great cinematic Rorschach test.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a former teacher, recovering alcoholic, and aspiring writer looking for a job. He’s hired by Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) to watch after the Overlook Hotel, an extravagant hotel located in the mountains of Colorado, during the winter off-season. The hotel has a bad history- most notably a previous caretaker who murdered his family and committed suicide- but history couldn’t possibly repeat itself, right? Right. Jack brings up his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd), and prepares for a long winter of solitude.
Before he leaves, chef Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) makes a connection with Danny. Both Halloran and Danny have a special psychic ability- called “shining” by Halloran- that allows them to see signs of what has happened in the past, or of what might happen in the future. Danny knows there’s something terribly wrong with the hotel, and he’s frequently visited by specters of the past. Jack, meanwhile, grows increasingly agitated towards Wendy, and slowly begins to go mad.
As with most Kubrick films, The Shining can be broken down into a handful of non-submersible units:
1. The Interviews- Jack has an interview with Stuart Ullmann, who informs him of the hotel’s tragic past. Unperturbed, he gets the job. Danny, meanwhile, has a visit from the doctor after he passes out following a vision of horrible things at the hotel. Wendy informs the doctor of a past incident involving a drunken Jack injuring Danny.
2. Closing Day- Jack, Wendy, and Danny arrive at the Overlook, where Danny sees the first signs of something wrong. Danny meets Halloran, who sees that Danny shares the ability to shine. Danny asks Halloran about what’s behind the terrifying “Room 237”, only to receive a terse “stay out”.
3. Family Trouble- Danny sees more signs of terrible things around, and he can only convince himself that they’re “not real” for so long. Jack grows increasingly verbally abusive towards Wendy and creepy in general. When Danny shows up with bruises on his neck, Wendy accuses an innocent Jack.
4. Jack’s Seduction- Jack starts complaining about Wendy to a series of ghosts (or is he just talking to himself?). He lies to Wendy about what he saw in Room 237 and grows verbally abusive when she suggests that they leave. The ghost of former caretaker Delbert Grady (Philip Stone) convinces him that something needs to be done to Wendy and Danny. Danny retreats to a near-catatonic state.
5. Going Mad/Halloran to the Rescue- Halloran cannot get in contact with the hotel, and so he races back to save Wendy and Danny. Wendy realizes that Jack has gone completely mad. She confronts him and locks him in a food storage area, only for Grady to let Jack out.
6. Redrum- Danny snaps out of his trance just as Jack attacks once again. Halloran arrives and is killed by Jack. Wendy’s eyes are opened up to the horrors of the hotel. Danny and Wendy escape, Jack is consumed by the hotel.
The Shining is notable first and foremost as an exercise in style. Other than 2001, this is the height of Kubrick’s formal brilliance. The film shows the perfection of the methodical, hypnotic Kubrick style, which hums forward only to be broken up by startling, arrhythmic jolts of terror. From the eerie opening helicopter shots, we’re in nightmare land. A large part of the terror comes from the soundtrack- Kubrick was a master of using music to inform his filmmaking, and The Shining ranks among his best work in this regard. Kubrick opens with an electronic reworking of “Dies Irae” arranged Wendy Carlos, which has a spooky, funereal mood to it not helped by some sort of strange wailing that sounds somewhat like what would happen if ghosts were caught on recording. He’s further aided by classical compositions- a creepy Bela Bartok piece plays in a few key early scenes, particularly one where a seemingly mad Jack Nicholson has Danny Lloyd on by his side and he looks like he might do something terrible to him at any moment. The sound of Gyorgi Ligeti’s unsettling Lontano piece amps up the creepiness in a number of other early scenes, most notably the first time Jack gives the famed Kubrick Glare.
But the real terror comes with the works of Krzysztof Penderecki, whose music would send a chill down the spine of the devil. Those looking for ammunition on the “it’s a metaphor for the Holocaust” argument could look to Kubrick’s use of Penderecki, whose work was largely inspired by the horrors of the Holocaust. But one doesn’t need that information to be disturbed by wailing, percussive plucking, and clanging that come with Penderecki’s work. Simply put, Penderecki is the sound of someone going mad, the sound of a terrified person’s brain melting, the sound of the world coming crashing down, and when Kubrick uses a zoom in on whatever horror Wendy sees late in the film, it certainly isn’t made any more comforting by the sound of this.
Kubrick’s use of the Steadicam in this film is legendary at this point- it wasn’t the first use of the invention (Bound for Glory, Rocky, and Marathon Man beat it by four years), but with the possible exception of the Copacabana shot in Goodfellas, it’s hard to imagine a more essential use. The long Steadicam shots behind Danny Lloyd are perfection put on film- where most horror films hide terror in the shadows, Kubrick shows everything around Danny as he races through the hallways on a big wheel, ready to find terror at any turn. There are three notable cases of this, the first a simple race around in a circle on the ground floor, the second taking a turn around a more bizarre loop on the second floor as Danny rides past a thankfully locked Room 237.
Kubrick builds a great sense of nail-biting tension with these scenes, and it pays off in a third Steadicam shot behind Danny where attentive viewers should notice something wrong right away- not only is Penderecki playing on the soundtrack (always a cause for alarm), but the camera is further behind Danny, making him seem less safe…and, more to the point, he starts on the ground floor only for the film to cut to him on the second floor, at which point he runs into the terrifying twin girls. At this point, Kubrick’s sense of editing takes over for the cinematography as Penderecki informs the cuts that seem to bring the girls closer and closer to Danny as we get brief flashes of the girls dead, chopped up by an ax.
That break in continuity regarding the first to second floor is one of Kubrick’s many manipulations- everything in The Shining seems just a bit off, always disorienting. Kubrick had mastered the art of using editing to put pauses in conversations in previous films, and his use of that technique here is deeply unnerving, as if every response has an ulterior motive behind it. And then there’s a scene in a bathroom between Kubrick and Grady’s ghost where Kubrick breaks the 360 degrees rule as a way of disorienting us.
But Kubrick’s most notable manipulation has to do with the hotel itself. Many viewers have tried to map out the hotel, only to come to a big “WTF?!”: the layout of the place makes absolutely no sense. Ullmann’s office has a window despite being in what should be the middle of the hotel. The second floor layout seems to defy the design put forth by the first floor. The vastness of the hotel’s interior doesn’t seem like it would fit in any of the exterior shots. Kubrick picked the hedge maze mostly because he felt special effects weren’t up to date to bring the hedge animals in King’s novel to life, but it’s a superior alternative and a grand metaphor for both the hotel and the film itself: it’s a maze, something terrifying, bewildering, and easy to get lost in.
Kubrick employs plenty of his other trademark techniques, including his ability to show strange, terrifying images without initially explaining them (see: creepy twin girls, screaming Danny, gallons of blood pouring out of an elevator), but he deserves credit for forgoing his penchant for pushing (read: damn near torturing) actors for his handling of Danny Lloyd. Kubrick is often made out to be a bit of an alien with little sympathy for humans, but that’s a broad overgeneralization at best and a complete misrepresentation at worst. Kubrick was particularly fond of children, and he made it his mission not to traumatize young Lloyd with what’s a profoundly disturbing film. Indeed, Lloyd (who would only shoot a few more films before quitting acting and growing up to be a teacher) had no idea he had starred in a horror movie at all: Kubrick would essentially tell Lloyd to make a series of faces (happy, sad, scared) and pick the take that suited the film. It’s an astonishing way to direct a child, made more impressive by how terrific Lloyd is in the film. He avoids the overwhelming preciousness of most child actors while still remaining essentially likable, and the looks of horror on his face make him look like he’s just seen the devil himself.
King, and a number of others, were notably unhappy with the casting of Shelly Duvall as Wendy. The Wendy of King’s novel is a blonde former cheerleader who seems less exposed to the horrors of the world, a description that doesn’t fit Duvall at all. Nicholson himself wanted Jessica Lange (who he was sleeping with at the time), but Kubrick insisted on Duvall. I’d argue that Kubrick made not only the right decision, but the only possible good one. Duvall’s hysteria late in the film (motivated in part by Kubrick pushing her to the brink) is certainly big, but it fits the tone of the film perfectly. More to the point: the film needs someone one can believe would stay with someone as verbally abusive and dominating as Jack Torrance, and Duvall fits the bill perfectly. Her early conversation with Danny’s doctor screams of a woman who deep down knows things are not OK with Jack but can’t help but hope that she’s wrong- she loves him too much, and she thinks he just might have managed to change.
King’s complaints about Duvall pale in comparison to his objections over Nicholson, whose gives the most deranged performance of his career, not to mention debatably the most deranged in all of Kubrick’s filmography (saying something, considering the competition). King wanted someone more normal-looking like Jon Voight to make the arc of Jack’s descent greater- Nicholson is crazy right from the beginning. But Kubrick’s adaptation is a liberal one, and he uses the novel and the novel’s conception of Jack as a skeleton more than anything else. Again, the film needs someone this suitably over-the-top for the insanity to register, not to mention for the moments of dark comedy to hit (any of his interactions with the ghosts: priceless). Furthermore, Kubrick is making a movie where there’s something clearly very wrong from the beginning, and while Jack is initially charming to a large degree (he is Jack Nicholson), there’s already a sense that something is amiss, and that’s the point. We know Nicholson is going to go batshit, and it’s a case of watching Wendy and Danny slowly realize the truth about him as we squirm in our seats.
There’s something else, and here’s where I stress the theme that I latched onto in my history with the film: King was also upset that Kubrick didn’t stress the novel’s themes of the dangers of alcoholism enough. All due respect to King, of whom I’m a fan, but I’m not even sure how he could have missed it. Kubrick’s recurring theme of repression comes through here in large part from Jack’s repression of his own alcoholic tendencies- he starts to go more and more off the wall as he’s exposed to more drinks from the ghosts, which tempt him at every turn. Without getting too much into personal history, I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, where alcoholism is all too common (though, in the case of my loved ones, thankfully conquerable). Nicholson’s snaps, barks, and outsized gestures are familiar to the point where my first viewing of the film had me physically shaking. His blaming of all of his problems on his wife and child? Definitely the sign of an alcoholic. His “when I’m in here I’m working, that means don’t come in” speech to Wendy? Filled with signs of a man battling serious demons. Do I sound like I’m stretching it? Listen to the tapes of a drunken Mel Gibson screaming threats at his ex-girlfriend and tell me they don’t sound like Jack.
Jack’s not the only one repressing something, of course: Danny notably started talking to his imaginary friend Tony after Jack dislocated his shoulder while trying to pull Danny away from his work- drunk, of course. Wendy tells the doctor this story while insisting that Jack is five months sober, and we don’t see the full sign of his fury (Kubrick wisely eschews flashback), giving us a distant rumbling of trouble coming. The rest of the film features Wendy trying to ignore the mounting horrors of the hotel- she realizes that Jack is insane in the “All Work and No Play” scene (my personal vote for the scariest scene in movie history) and that he’s been insane the whole time. But is that just as much a sign that she’s been denying the whole time that she’s stuck with an abusive, deranged, borderline crazy drunk. And the way Danny processes his problems through an imaginary friend seems like a way for him to reconcile the fact that his dad isn’t such a great guy after all.
I’m not saying that this is the defining theme of the film, as The Shining is too ambiguous (some would say nebulous) to really be about just one thing. I don’t want to be the guy who insists that is has to be about this one thing because (insert strange, minute, overanalyzed detail here) like the commentators of Room 237. I also recognize that much of this is deeply personal, and I don’t want to confuse that for being a universal reading for what’s a deliberately ambiguous film, as I’ve met way too many of those types (see: person who spent way too much time arguing with me on Twitter that a film as open-ended as Repulsion was about sexual abuse and rape and that I couldn’t see it because I had no experience and didn’t understand how sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress worked). I also don’t want to ignore the various creepy things that have just as much to do with the supernatural as any of the “real” things that happen in the film (Danny’s visions, the creepy/hilarious Phillip Stone and Joe Turkel as Jack’s ghostly companions, that WTF shot of a dog blowing a nicely-dressed man). The Shining’s brilliance is Kubrick’s mix of formal dexterity and deliberate ambiguity. We have to fill in the blanks.
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