The Shining (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

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The Shining is so famous, so analyzed, so iconographic that it’s hard to have an original opinion about it.  I assume I like it, because I do, but is that belief really my own or did I know I had to like it going in?

This is a chilling horror film, but it lacks the conventional scares of more well-known and more modern horror movies.  If anything Stanley Kubrick took a different approach to the film’s aesthetic.  You still get the familiarly eerie music, but instead of cutting in rhythm with this music, the jarring sound might play within a single shot.  When we cut suddenly to a horrifying image (like the murdered twin girls) there is no accompanying sound effect.  It’s almost like we are screaming in space with no one to hear us.

It feels almost like this scene from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with the same low rumble.

There’s a restraint to The Shining.  Kubrick might be considered one of the best filmmakers of all time, and I think this film works because he knows the audience will be in the palm of his hand.

There are too many things to talk about with this film to know where to start, but what interests me most is the extensive use of the steadicam.  Kubrick enlisted the inventor of the steadicam, Garrett Brown, to work on this film, and this shooting style allows the camera to penetrate the space in which the characters wander the Overlook Hotel.

The hotel is a set, to be sure, but it is constructed in a way to be filmed from all angles at any time.  When we watch Danny bike around the lobby, the camera shoots 360 degrees in a single shot.  There is no cutting and resetting in these moments, and it allows a certain fluidity to the story and the world.  The Overlook Hotel feels alive, which is good, because it is alive.

I’m sure you know the story.  Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) live by themselves in the large Overlook Hotel, taking care of it while it is closed for the winter.  Jack is an aspiring writer and disgraced teacher with a troubled past that includes alcoholism and the dislocation of his son’s arm in a fit of rage.  During the course of his stay, the hotel will possess Jack and convince him to murder his family.  They call it restlessness.

The plot is thin, and so too is Jack’s descent into madness.  The first forty minutes of the film are quite tame, introducing us to the hotel, the characters and the troubled history of an old caretaker named Grady who murdered his wife and two daughters with an axe.

Jack is a happy enough family man, determined to get some work done, but before we know it he shows signs of his old self, the one that turned to the bottle and abused his son.  Not long after his short fuse turns into something else, and he becomes much more sinister.  What’s fascinating is that we never really see this turn.  There is no inciting incident, and by the end we are given reason to believe that there is no real ‘end’ to the story.

There is a severely blurred line between Jack Torrance and the Overlook Hotel.  He is deeply connected to the place, talking to its ghosts and willingly doing its bidding.  He communes with the spirits, and the famous final shot of the film shows a photograph from the roaring 20s in which Torrance himself is front and center.  The point may be unclear, but I took it to mean that he’s always been there, and his soul is… well, I don’t know.  We never really know Jack Torrance before he becomes a demonic monster limping through the halls with an axe.  It doesn’t really matter who he is.

So Jack breaks down until the ghosts tell him to kill his family because Danny has reached out for help.  He does so through telekinesis referred to as “the shining,” an ability he shares with the hotel’s cook, Hallorann (Scatman Crothers).  When Hallorann shows up Jack is quick to kill him with an axe.  There is a long build up to his arrival, but Kubrick dashes our expectations by eliminating the only possible lifeline Wendy and Danny have.

I read Stephen King’s novel on which this is based, and from what I can remember Hallorann survives the story.  It’s one of several differences between this and the novel.  Jack is made more sinister in the film while his character, loosely based on King himself, is portrayed as weak rather than evil.  In the book the hotel reaches in and corrupts his soul while in the film this is less clear.  Because of Jack’s quick descent into this kind of evil, it stands to reason that he had this nugget of rot within him to begin with.

The film is purposefully ambiguous, and we don’t get the same kind of resolution offered by the novel.  King’s story has a clear start and end.  The characters arrive at the Hotel, and then Torrance experiences one last moment of lucidity in which he destroys himself and the hotel to save his family.  The film has none of that.

The Shining feels like an experience more than a story.  The lack of a start and end, the steadicam which pushes through the story world, the constant, unanswered mystery, etc.  It all helps us experience this world like a ride.  When it ends you might just want to go on the ride all over again.

I think this makes The Shining immensely rewatchable.  So little is answered, and because of how meticulously it is put together you feel like there are clues hidden everywhere.  It’s partially why this film has lived on in the way it has, with endless speculation about the world, about Kubrick’s own feelings about the source material as well as about Kubrick’s theorized involvement in faking the moon landing.

Take a look at this segment from the documentary Room 237 to get an idea of what I’m talking about…

So The Shining clearly has some kind of intense appeal.  It doesn’t have the same superficial charms and scares of many horror movies, but I think that this is more like a sunburn where a more forgetful horror movie is like burning yourself with a match.

Up Next: Me & Earl & the Dying Girl (script only), Krampus (2015), Split (2016)

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