(Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
(essay by Robert)
A good way to describe the Shining is: Intoxicating and Addictive. Perhaps the most common reaction is to first walk away feeling very unclear. Watch it again and you are impressed but still scratching your head. The next viewing is even more intriguing but the ambivalence lingers. After a while and multiple sittings it becomes easy to come back to and so very satisfying. No question about it, this is what makes Kubrick’s film so absolutely fascinating and a masterpiece of horror. Its open-endedness and ambiguity succeed in intriguing again and again. A seemingly simple storyline- A man with higher ambitions moves his young family into an isolated resort (with a history) to become the caretaker during the offseason. What unfolds onscreen over the next 2+ hours (about a month in the story) however is anything but simple.
Kubrick begins to build and build almost immediately by slipping important pieces of information in his conversations and visual. The hotel manager (Barry Nelson) explains to Jack that the previous caretaker developed cabin fever and killed his family. Jack nods this off by stating that the isolation is exactly what he is looking for. We then learn that Jack and Wendy’s son is not exactly normal and that the family itself is hardly picture perfect. On the tour of the hotel we learn that “All the best people stay here” and get a further insight that it was built on a Native American burial ground and that attacks had to be fended off while the hotel was being built. Kubrick uses wonderful lighting and décor to build on the “life” of the hotel and Danny (Danny Lloyd) asks: “Is there something bad here?”…of course there is. All of these pieces, all of this information, is important and add on to Kubrick’s opus.
Stylistically, The Shining is an enormous film. Enormous in the sense that all every ingredient seems larger than life. From the vast mountainous setting at the immense Outlook Hotel to the explosive soundtrack and operatic acting, Kubrick assaults each of our senses throughout the film. The sound, which I believe is critical to the film, each and every ping, gong, and screech, creates unease as the strain piles up. The whiteout conditions outside complete the solitude and desperation of the characters. Visually Kubrick actually stops short of showing a great deal of living violence choosing instead to show quick shots of blood and carnage tied with deafening explosions of sound. Jack’s one murder victim is the only outsider that is able to penetrate his physical prison. This one death scene is an absolutely huge axe blow to the chest of chef (and fellow shiner) Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers). There is also of course the intermingling of the living characters and phantom. Most of these interaction are with Jack and Danny but Wendy also catches glimpses after her eyes become opened to the real world around her. These specters pop up throughout the film seemingly naturally to Jack to offer advise but they appear abruptly (and sometimes bizarrely) to taunt Wendy and Danny. This is one of the many representations of Jack’s ongoing dilemma and its impact on Wendy and Danny.
The film uses multiple other mechanisms to pile on tension throughout. We are dragged through Jack’s torment toward the inevitable madness waiting for him. From the early signs of hostility (see Jack’s sarcastic expression in the car as they are driving to the hotel) to the toxic words he spits at Wendy, Jack’s journey is the main on screen focus. Even his moments of vulnerability- for example after Wendy wakes him from his nightmare- all show the gradual unfolding of his thinning sanity. It is the young child though that acts as our true guide through the hotel and story. Of course his gift of the “shining” allows the foresight to know things are not quite right, he leads us to room 237, his shocked expressions pop onto the screen to let us know when something really bad is going to happen, it is even Danny that cleverly entices Jack to his frozen grave and the ultimate aloneness that he so covets.
There is also the ongoing sense of the lurking larger presence so effectively created by the steady-cam use. This is most easily noticed as we again follow Danny on his big wheel as well as the wide tracking shots from above the mountain. Also notice and the abrupt black screen timeline transitions (Interview, Monday, Thursday, etc.). These simple transitions wonderfully inch us closer and closer to the climax and edges of our seats. Consider also the beautiful hedge-maze lingering in the background the entire film and which serves as Jack’s final demise. What a perfect metaphor for Jack’s winding battle against himself. Jack looking over the model of the maze is one of the most interesting and symbolic shots of the film and a classic horror moment.
This and the many other “classic” on screen moments themselves make the film unforgettable. Perhaps the most memorable is Jack’s manic axe through the door followed by his taunting domestic exclamation. My favorite though is the unveiling that Jack’s great novel is nothing more that the psychotic repetition of that one perfect telling line: ”all work and no play make Jack a dull boy” This may act as the film’s turning point, when we know for certain that there is no turning back and that there is absolutely no way that a happy ending is in store for us. The wide shot of Jack “catching” Wendy is a perfect horror moment. You completely buy her fear and her scream when Jack asks her what she thinks.
Despite the hugeness of the film, the plethora of horror tools, and the legendary moments, The Shining is really a very human film. The striking dysfunction and hostility of the family is unmistakable. This is of course the backbone of the characters and it grows and builds throughout the film. Kubrick beautifully comments on the strain and pull of the domestic unit and the destruction of alcoholism. Reflecting on these core sentiments of the film are actually quite touching. In certain moments we almost feel badly for Jack under the burden of his own entrapment. His personal failures and the weight of his life passing him by drive him to lash out at those closest to him. His only true moments of pleasure seem to come from his fantasy moments with alcohol and his oh-so-willing embrace of the phantom bathtub woman. Most of his time though is repressed by his family, the pressures of his writing project and the “word” that he gave to his employers. It is interesting that throughout the film, we never really see Jack do any actual work on the hotel. Rather it is Wendy who picks up his slack representing Jack’s most obvious trait of unbridled and indissoluble selfishness. These very personal afflictions ring so true and are so recognizable. All the while, as Jack unravels, his wife and child walk on glass as they hope against hope. There is a moment in particular about mid-way through the film after both Danny and Jack have lost their respective grips, when you truly feel this. In this scene, as Danny is non-responsive to even his cartoons and Wendy is hopeless to reach him, her aloneness is most prominent and the torture of all their realities is undeniable.
The Shining is utterly complex and yet from another angle completely straightforward and engaging. Kubrick creates an impressive level of depth with a minimal cast and setting. In a way, The Shining can be thought of as an exploration of horror. Kubrick uses so many different aspects of the genre to build and build. The film still today has a feeling of ambiguity that cannot be pegged. Multiple viewings still leave you wondering what exactly did Kubrick mean? Why was Jack in the photo in the final shot? Were there really ghosts OR are the ghosts a mere figment of Jack’s torment? Notice the mirrors in each “ghost” scene. Was Danny’s “shining” truly a sixth sense or merely a child’s intuition of something wrong within his family? Like so many of Kubrick’s films, The Shining is timeless and seems to get better each time. This is one of those rare films that can truly intrigue both at the character and concept level while still managing to create those dark emotions in its audience. See my definition of horror and introductory comments regarding the genre. This is classic Kubrick and this is classic horror…what a combination!