“The Shining” is a brilliant movie.
It’s extremely entertaining, technically innovative, loaded with symbolism and meaning, and more than all else… scary as hell.
The movie utilizes and borrows from an enormous number of horror scenarios. It prominently features the frightening elements inherent in abusive relationships, and works in the dangers of alcholism. Many horror films feature the descent into insanity, but none do it as well as it’s done here. The slasher film is represented, as a killer chases victims with a weapon. Clairvoyant and/or psyhcic phenomena. Racism. Sexual deviance. Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. The Faustian bargain.
But primarily, the shining is a ghost story. A haunted house on a grand scale. Terrifying things have occured at the Overlook over the years, and the horrors are permanently echoing through its enormous halls. Between the phantom, evil hotel staff, the twisted spirits having bizarre sexual encounters, the ghostly, rotting guests, the little girls chopped to pieces in the halls, and the elevators which pour rivers of blood… the Overlook hotel is a hell on earth, harboring deviants, victims, the wicked. A wide variety of frightening, ghostly apparitions and trapped spirits.
Into this maelstrom enter the Torrrances.
The Torrances are a troubled family from the outset. There’s a history of drinking issues, anger problems… and the boy has developed an “imaginary friend”. What his parents don’t realize is that his talking finger isn’t just the psychological offspring of trauma, but the result of burgeoning psychic power. Danny can… see things.
And what he sees ahead is nightmarish. The Overlook Hotel.
Jack Torrance, aspiring writer and former schoolteacher, has taken on a job for the winter as the caretaker of the enormous Overlook Hotel. He can move his family in and have all winter in solitude to write in peace. That’s the plan. And so, the three of them move in. Jack begins to write, Wendy feeds the family, and Danny makes new friends.
Well, you know, Doc, when something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind. Say like, if someone burns toast. Well, maybe things that happen leave other kinds of traces behind. Not things that anyone can notice, but things that people who “shine” can see. Just like they can see things that haven’t happened yet. Well, sometimes they can see things that happened a long time ago. I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years. And not all of ’em was good.
Of course not all of Danny’s new friends are as helpful and kind as Dick Hallorann. He’s haunted by the visions of the two Grady girls… young victims of their father’s homicidal mental breakdown. Danny is at risk just as they were. They want him to come and play.
Danny’s visions of what occurred, and what may occur, gradually overcome him. They eventually force him into temporarily catatonic states and the emergence of “Tony” as the sole vocal presence within. Frightened, confused, powerless… the young boy with the special gift is reduced to scrawling on a door in order to express himself.
It’s through Danny’s visions that we see the Overlook’s nature. But it’s through Jack’s change in demeanor that we witness its power.
This was a defining role for Jack Nicholson. It wasn’t a “star making turn”… Nicholson was already an enormous star with an Oscar and four other nominations to his credit. But I think that it was after this role that Nicholson got his onscreen reputation as a psycho. In spite of his prior efforts (including Randall McMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest”), I’ll always be convinced that “The Shining” is where he cemented his image as a psychopath that made him such a no-brainer for his future roles as the Devil and the Joker.
“The Shining” may not have been his greatest acting challenge, but Jack Torrence is undeniably one of his greatest characters, and it’s the perfect pairing of actor and material. Is there anyone you’d rather see fly off the deep end than Jack? It’s spellbinding watching him rant and rave at Shelly Duvall. It’s delightful watching him revel in his own delirium. He mugs and scowls… Stares. He acts a total loon at points, and at other points a focused, purposeful maniac.
No one could have played this role except Jack Nicholson. It is a role I would never recast. I can never imagine another actor doing it as well.
Just as I can’t imagine another actor in the lead role, I can’t imagine another director at the helm.
The craftsmanship of the film is impeccable. Stanley Kubrick didn’t become “Stanley Kubrick” by NOT being a genius. And in my opinion, “The Shining” is NOT one of his “lesser films”, but one of his best. In a genre not know for thematic and well produced films, Kubrick authored a masterpiece. Not only is it scary as hell from beginning to end and a thoroughly enjoyable film, but it’s technically innovative, and contains a wealth of themes to explore if one so chooses.
Reportedly he shot over 1.3 Million feet of film for this movie over 200 days of shooting. It also made the Guinness Book of World Records for Most takes on one scene. (125, Wendy climbing backwards up the stairs). Reportedly he worked and reworked the script so hard that Nicholson would throw away any revisions he was sent, knowing he would only be sent another. It’s been reported that Duvall’s hair began to fall out due to stress prior to the end of production.
The primary technical innovation of “The Shining” was the improvement and widespread utilization of the “Steadicam”. The Steadicam is a camera mount which steadies the camera for film which is shot whilst the camera itself is in motion. It was a new technology at the time, and “The Shining” was one of the first major motion pictures to utilize it extensively. Kubrick’s vision also forced innovation. For the scenes where the movie closely follows Danny on his tricycle, an inverted steadicam mount had to be developed.
Thus, in “The Shining”, Kubrik was able to present audiences with something they’d never seen before.
Kubrick uses every trick in the book to disturb and unsettle the viewer. Aside from the overt imagery – the bloodied corpses of the girls, the rotting old woman in the tub, the costumed sexual inference – he uses a variety of techniques to keep the viewer unsettled and confused.
Doors are opened with one hand, in one direction, but when the film cuts to the interior shot, things are mirror imaged. Jack takes a sheet of paper out of the typewriter and crumples it in anger, yet he resumes typing when she leaves without reinserting a new sheet. The typewriter changes color at points during the film. The hedge maze map is in one shot of the entrance, but not another. The butler’s name is given as Charles Grady and Delbert Grady at different points in the film.
These are not continuity errors.
They are intentional discontinuity.
There’s a great deal of debate over whether or not Kubrick should be credited with these incongruities. Detractors would say that such things happen all the time in film. Directors aren’t concerned with getting every single detail correct to the level where it will withstand analysis of the minutiae… But Kubrick – a legendary obsessive – would not have missed such details. especially not so many of them. No. I mean, in every film, you may get one or two anachronisms or editing glitches… two dots which don’t connect here or there. But not this many. And not in a Kubrick film.
Instead, I’m convinced that what he was doing was strewing subtle defects amongst the film’s imagery. You won’t even notice them. Consciously, at least. But at some level, your mind knows. “Hey, something’s not right here. That’s… wrong.” Kubrick is unsettling the audience by playing games with our heads.
It’s never more apparent then in the design of the hotel itself.
The theme of the labyrinth runs through the film like its lifeblood. From the opening helicopter shots winding mountain roads, to the actual labyrinth (the hedge maze), to the hotel itself. The hotel is a maze of hallways and doors, stairs and rooms. It’s a non-sequitur of a set design… The floor map of the hotel cannot be accurately recreated. Like an MC Escher painting, people have tried to map the twists and turns but come out in places where they shouldn’t. Hallways and doorways lead to nowhere and there are windows in places where the back of the room is shown to have a solid wall.
Check out this fascinating deconstruction of the Overlook’s floor plan.
Part of this is certainly incidental – there was a serious fire which destroyed a portion of the set during production. But it’s far more interesting to me that the meticulous Kubrick had the set intentionally designed to be subconsciously unsettling.
He also repetitiously uses wide angle lens shots that capture the enormity of the Overlook sets, in turn dwarfing the actors in scale. The people seem tiny. Lost in perspective… reinforcing the feeling and tone of the film.
It’s my belief that the Labyrinth theme is more than simply a way to further unsettle and frighten the viewer. Yes, being trapped and lost is very frightening. But it’s been my take for years that Jack Torrence’s bestial devolution is central to the film… more than just horrifying, it’s thematically important.
To me, Kubrick eschewed King’s exploration of alcoholism in favor of an examination of isolation. From the opening scene, from the job interview itself, Jack is being warned of the dangers of isolation, of cabin fever. Throughout the film, the enormous, echoing hotel and other labyrinthian elements reinforce the isolation. But it’s not the insanity inducing solitude I want to draw your attention to, but the absence of others. The lack of societal connections and constraints.
By isolating one man, Kubrick can illustrate the “nature of man” in a vacuum. And by slowly regressing Jack into a limping, bestial, axe carrying, murderous maze monster, I could never shake the image of the Minotaur. In Greek mythology, the Minotaur is a half man, half beast – an abomination resulting from a God’s curse. This is the picture of man’s nature that Kubrick paints for us, if you strip society from the equation. As much as we’d like to imagine ourselves as elevated beings – and perhaps our future IS to “shine” – we’re still, at our most basic, not far removed from beasts. Driven by desires, murderous.
And yet, in spite of our need for connections, the societal constructs we make are financial and functional as opposed to fulfilling. Jack has his wife and his child – his very special, gifted child – with him. He considers them distractions though, obsessing instead on his “responsibilities”, “accomplishments”, and “employers”. All work and no play makes Jack a crazy $&#%. Our evolution has off tracked… Instead of learning to shine, we’ve gotten lost in a maze, erecting walls and halls and rooms. Caretaking. We’ve always been the caretakers, because we’ve never risen above it. We’re not far removed from our bestial nature, and those amongst us who shine are still rare.
As long as we’re content to spill rivers of blood in order to build walls, we’ll always be the caretakers… and the true crime is that we could be so much more.
As always, interpretations will vary.
In a lesser filmmaker’s hands, none of this would be up for discussion. But this IS the work of the man who brought us “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It’s undeniable that Jack is under the pressures of responsibility and isolation, he is most certainly lost in a maze, and he responds with anger at the expense of a gifted child.
I typically close these with the accolades (if any) that the film has received. In this case, they’re not there. In fact, “The Shining” was nominated for two Razzies, Worst Actress and Worst Director. The film has made a few of AFI’s ancillary lists (29th on 100 Years… 100 Thrills, 25th on 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains , and 68 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes) but its absence on either version of the official 100 Movies list irritates me.
So instead, I’ll just say how much I love the film. I’m sure you’re well aware by now. But it’s worth saying… I’ve always been a huge fan of this movie, and this “assignment” has only deepened my appreciation of it. It features one of the greatest performances by one of the greatest movie stars ever. The image of Jack poking his head through the split door is as iconic as it gets. It’s an extraordinarily well made movie, and has a nearly inexhaustible supply of clues and hints and leads to analyze for meaning.
My time with it this month has led me to promote it to my favorite horror movie of all time (previously #2 to “The Exorcist”).
It is definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.