An essay by: Witney Seibold
Every time I sit down to watch Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film “The Shining,” I think I’m going to regret it. I have seen this film numerous times in various conditions over the last decade, and I am very familiar with the images, the dialogue, the musical stings, the scares… and when I go to see it again, I’m always afraid that my familiarity will rob from the experience. That I will become bored, begin reciting robotically along with the classic lines, and giggle when a startling moment is thrust upon me.
But it hasn’t happened. I haven’t regretted it. In fact, each time I see it, not only to I, once again, become caught up in the terror and immediacy of the film, but begin to understand it a little more. The last time I viewed this film was recently on the big screen at a midnight show. The print was beautiful, and the sound… oh, the sound… the sound was so clear that I had noticed things I had never heard before. More on that later.
Stanley Kubrick is, undoubtedly, one of the best filmmakers that has ever lived. He has an almost natural knack for where to put the camera. Every shot is so carefully composed (he reportedly would shoot scenes literally almost 100 times. A scene in “The Shining was reportedly shot in 127 takes), and looks so deliberate, that a new kind of beauty emerges. A beauty that falls somewhere between minimalism and neo-realism. Many critics of Kubrick have noted that his film don’t necessarily involve us emotionally with the characters; we feel no empathy toward them; the films feel sterile and cold. This is a fair argument, especially when dealing with highly emotional subjects (like in his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” a film about sex and infidelity). I feel, though, that Kubrick is keeping us at arm’s distance for a purpose: to show us the pain that can result when we’re not truly close, and perhaps that being close to and truly understanding another human being is not possible.
But onto “The Shining.”
I think the brilliance of “The Shining” lies in its ability to take familiar subject matter and make it fresh and frightening again. Anyone who has listened to a campfire story knows about the themes in “The Shining:” the haunted place, the possessed man, the ghosts, the memories. We know it. The idea behind a haunted house is an intriguing one: that an event can occur that somehow marks a place, that leaves a footprint behind, that leaves some of the intense anger/sadness/violence hanging in the air. New people enter haunted place and are bombarded by the ghosts of the place and havoc ensues. The problem with this idea is that it has become too familiar to be scary. We know what’s going to happen in these stories.
“The Shining,” though, with its uniqueness, with its craft, with its performances and sounds and beauty, has shaped the haunted place into a real, living breathing area for us to inhabit once again.
The Overlook Hotel is one of the most real spaces in film. Many films are content to put characters in a certain setting, and have them move around in it. “The Shining” givens us the setting as such a vast, open space, it begins to become a character in itself. The film was shot in an aspect ratio if 1.33:1 (which, for the layman. is a square screen, as opposed to the usual rectangular screen most films these days are shot in. Usually in 1.85:1, or 2.35:1.), and that square frame prowls slowly through the long hallways of the huge and impressive building of the Overlook. It’s as if the square hallways are the field of vision of the Overlook itself. We’re scanning inside. We are seeing the characters through the eyes of the … presence … within the Overlook. The Overlook becomes a character in the film. And what we begin to experience, through Jack, through Danny, through Tony, are the memories, the Shine, of the Overlook.
The interiors were all shot on soundstages in London, but the huge building was The Timberline Lodge in Oregon (A cute bit of trivia: the management requested that the room number to house the eerie old woman be change from the original 217 to the nonexistent 237 in fear that no one would stay in that room ever again).
There are essentially five main characters in this film:
First, there’s Wendy (played in a pale and frail manner by Shelley Duvall. Poor Wendy is given little to do in this story. She is the skittish and doting wife and mother. She seems to serve little function other than to wring her hands, give us back story, and, later, scream a lot. If we are to look at this film, though as a character study of the Overlook, then she serves a more vital function: she is The Other. She is the element that simply does not fit in with the mind of the Overlook. Jack may be the tool, the manipulated, the oddly connected. But Jack cannot fulfill his “task,” so to speak, until she is dead. Duvall’s performance is wispy and weak, and that’s just the way she should be.
She also, in an odd way, provides an important piece of reality to the story: she gives the audience something to relate to. All the other characters seem to be caught up in the ghosts. She’s the only one who reacts pretty much the way we would. Scared, confused, outside, and wanting to do nothing but escape.
Second, there’s Jack Torrance. Jack Nicholson had already established himself as a powerful character actor at this point in his career. He had starred in films such as “Easy Rider,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” (for which he won an Oscar), “Five Easy Pieces,” “Chinatown,” and quite a few others. So his maniacal turn in this film was not s impressive as a character flip. By the time I had seen “The Shining” for the first time, I was already familiar with Jack Nicholson in roles like The Joker and a werewolf in “Wolf.” He didn’t frighten me as a general rule anymore. What he did do, though is for an entire generation, define the maniac. Other killers were either cartoony demons (like Freddy Kreuger) or shrieking scenery-chewers (any “thriller” made since this film). Jack started them all with his turn in “The Shining.” Certainly not the first maniac on film, but one of the best.
Jack Torrance’s connection to the Overlook is a matter of great discussion. There are ghosts there, yes. There are the ghosts of the pervious caretaker and the daughters he murdered lurking about. There are balls and bartenders and odd dancing noises emanating from the vary walls. And they need Jack to join them. What is special about Jack? Well, we’re given a sort of enigmatic hint at the very end when, in the film’s last shot, we zoom very slowly toward a photograph on the mansion’s wall. We see that it’s a New Year’s ball from 1921. Jack is there in the photograph…
Was he there in 1921? Did his death transport him back in time?
No. Nothing so banal. (and this brings me to the third character, the hotel itself) The Overlook never forgets. It is a place of memory. The Overlook only knows what happened within its walls. Good and bad. It remembers parties just as well as murders and its all the same to It. Jack enters the place and says he feels he’s been there before. He has, in a way. He has stepped into the memory of another being. Memory, you see, has no linear time the way we tend to visualize it in our waking hours. Memory is bits and pieces of different events, often mixed up. When we human remember something, we often remember a few images, perhaps a sound or smell, and an overwhelming feeling of the event. Try to imagine your last birthday. You’ll have to fish through chronology, most like, to find it. Now remember the last time you went to a really goo concert. One will spring right to mind, as the feeling comes before the event.
The Overlook is a dusty hollow place full of old events. Images spring out at us. Was there ever a point in the places history when there actually was an elevator full of blood? Probably not, but there was violence here. There was death. The blood is a glimpse of the Overlook’s subconscious.
So we see parties, as the Overlook remembers the good times. We see dismembered little girls, as the horror of the event left its stain.
There are two rather odd events in this film which took me a long time to decipher, but, if one bears in mind the point of view of the Overlook, then they start to make more sense: the first is the nude woman in room 237. Jack goes to investigate the room, and finds a skinny woman in a bath. She rises, nude, out of the tub, and kisses Jack. Jack looks in the mirror, and finds that the woman is no longer young and thin, but has transformed into an old woman, rotten and dead. The woman laughs. What the heck just happened?
If the Overlook never forgets, then it is remembering this old woman. A woman who probably dies in her tub years ago, still haunting that place (and I hate to use the word “haunting, as it begins to invoke the cheesy over-familiar story again, and denies “The Shining” its freshness and terror, but I can think of no better word.) At fist, Jack sees his image of Woman. Nude, young, sexy, alluring. This is what women are to Jack (he’s something of a misogynist; he, at one point, refers to Wendy as “the old sperm bank”). After touching the woman, kissing her, he gets a more clean image of what the hotel sees, a clearer vision of the truth. A dead woman who dies in her tub, and was not discovered there for a long time…
The other odd event, and this one two-second shot has generated much controversy where these things are discussed, is the shot of the man in the dog suit and the man in the tuxedo seen through a doorway by Wendy during the film’s final breakdown. This seems to me to be a memory of a party, a costume ball, and two men who had snuck off to a room together to mess around. Wendy doesn’t know this, and it’s not readily apparent to us, so all we get is a feeling of fear and disorientation. Kubrick is brilliant in the way he played the actual image, the memory, and the audience reaction together so thoroughly.
Why does the Overlook need Jack to kill? One would think if, having the strong connection to the place (he announced that he had been there before, as I have said, he also is repeating a situation already lived out at the Overlook by the previous caretaker Mr. Grady) that he would simply be “absorbed” into it after having been there a while. No. The Overlook can’t just take him. Memory. Memory. It knows that caretakers kill. It’s what they do. Jack is half-in-and-half-out of the Overlook’s thoughts, so he absorbs the death of the place, the madness, the violence, it slowly, day by day seeps into him. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy… He needs to get caught up in the party/joy/celebration/death/violence/madness/horror, and fall into his rightful place in the Overlook’s mind.
The Overlook is not a malevolent place. It does not actively seek death like a stalker or a killer. All it does is remember, touch, and hope for more parties. The people only get snippets of these memories, and, because of the violence, are driven mad by them.
Haunted house pictures, indeed all stories of the dead, are stories of memory. We remember the dead one way, and tend to deify and exalt them. But how do we dead with bad people who have died? We know nothing of death. It is, to employ an overused quote, the undiscovered country from whose born no traveler returns. So we can only exalt the dead, as they have no chance to protect or defend themselves. And that bad man? Exalt him, just to be sure. And if he can hear you? If he’s upset? If you’re wrong? Then he haunts you. The dead are defined by how we remember them. The places of death are marked by memory of violent events.
“The Shining” then, is one of the best stories of the dead. It points out the very nature of death, in a way. A mystery which we embellish with memory. And it does so by throwing our fears of it right at us.
The fourth character is Danny. Danny is the innocent. Danny is the key. He knows what’s going on, in a way, although he, like Jack, has only seen glimpses of what’s happening in the Overlook. He is also an outsider, one that must be destroyed, but, thanks to his “gift,” his Shine, he wades partly into the Overlook’s Shine. Danny Lloyd was chosen to play Danny for his ability to concentrate and hold still for long periods, despite his age (6). He does an uncanny thing: he remains in character the whole time, but never lets us think he’s endowed with life experience (as many child characters, especially in films like this, tend to do). He is still a little boy.
The fifth character must be brought up immediately, though. Tony. Tony is the one who knows what’s going on at all times. Tony reads thoughts and has visions, then passes them to Danny. Tony is the small glimmering positive memory amidst the Overlook’s complex maze of excess and death. Tony chants “redrum,” and tries to give subtle warning about the Overlook. Tony can sense the death. Tony wants to survive, and wants people to live. That Tony is an imaginary figure, and, it can be argued, may be a part of Danny’s own mind, takes the sensational edge off of it. Making him less of a hackneyed spirit guide or guardian angel, and more just another element of the physics of the Overlook; another presence that is simply looking out for itself.
Tony knows murder will be there, but can only chant it backwards. He sees some of the things the Overlook sees (the girls in the hallway… “Come play with us, Danny.”) but can offer no solution or counterforce. All Tony can do is transport images to Danny, the poor innocent conduit, and the key to undoing the current terror.
I didn’t mention Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) as a main character, and that may seem unfair. He does, after all, give us the title of the film, and a word, albeit a vague one, for what is happening in this place (some place Shine and some don’t), and gives a short speech for what can possibly be going here. He, however, like Wendy, is an outsider. He may have The Shining. He may know what happened there. He may have all the answers, but his presence in the Overlook is an alien one. Jack has no need for him. Indeed, the poor man gets an axe buried in his chest during the film’s climax, making it a tragic waste, and a kickoff for the violent behavior. He is not involved in these people’s lives in the least. He just wants to keep the Overlook at bay, something he cannot do. In a way, and not to discount Crothers’ strong performance and wonderful presence in the film, he embodies weakness and helplessness. He knows what’s happening, he knows it can be stopped somehow, and he is powerless to do anything. He tries his hardest, frantically driving through the snow all night, frantically calling, but, ultimately is merely killed. Sad. Sad.
A note on the sound: On home video, even with a nice sound system, this film is not going to be quite the same as a theatrical experience. Sure, we get the low rumbles of cellos, and the creaking and groans of the hallways. We get the half-heard chattering of ghostly parties oozing through the walls… but we get next to nothing when compared to the sound of a theater. A preliminary look at this film would have one guessing it’s mostly silent, but in a theater, the sounds do not stop. The groans and whispers are nonstop. The slight music becomes a subtle, cold, and chilling score. The square-framed prowling matched with this ever-constant groaning, whispering and singing really, really start unnerving us. We are within the mind of some other force, and it’s not in any of the characters. We see this whole story almost entirely from the oddly twisted undeveloped mind of the Overlook.
The violence is necessary. It’s poart of this places mind. If the violence were shied away from, like in, say a Hitchcock film, we would not be dwelling in the same place. The tension would not have been as great. The pure raw power of the images would have been neutered. Violence can be unpleasant. Sometimes we need it.
“The Shining” is unique. It stands apart. It seems, in my mind, risen above most horror films in its craft, its story, its execution. It is higher up in the pantheon of horror. It is contemplative, creepy, intelligent, unpandering (too many horror films use violence as a gratuity; something cartoony to be exploited and mocked – see the upcoming essay on “Dead Alive” for more of this – and forget the utter brutality of some violence), and one of the most frightening films ever made. And it never loses power. I may dread starting it up, but by the time Jack shouts “Here’s Johnny!” through the busted door, I’m terrified all over again, and caught up, like the character, in the mind of the Overlook. See the film. See it again. Feel its power. Be scared.
Appreciate its brilliance.