(The Hall of Fame is reserved for movies that have either shown up multiple times on Best Lists or are so beloved by the author for reasons other than being guilty pleasures. Hall of Fame movies are effectively retired from future Best Lists, making way for other lesser-known-but-still-good movies to take their place. The numbering strictly reflects the order in which the movies were retired and should not be seen as an indication of where the movie might rank in my “best of all time” rankings.)
There is always a slight sense of sadness when a well-renowned and ambitious director decides to step away from the ambitious work that got them there in order to take on some genre movie. This is especially true today when increasingly it seems every new director who shows some hint of promise is immediately whisked away to direct a major blockbuster franchise, depriving us of potentially a slew of new and original work. Fortunately in those moments of despair we get to look back at Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel The Shining as an example that great work can come from mere genre fare.
Of course, Kubrick’s approach to this genre film is extremely unique, creating a movie that on the surface seems deceptively simple, but with a depth and craft that inspires endless debate as to its ultimate meaning. Famously he took only the basics of Stephen King’s novel, much to King’s chagrin, and changed the essence of the story away from being about a haunted hotel that torments the caretaker and his family. Instead Kubrick makes the tale much less supernatural and more psychological instead.
But we are getting slightly ahead of ourselves. Before we get into horrors real or perceived we have to meet the principal players, whose initially questionable casting has aged much better with the passage of time. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson, at his most unhinged) is a hard-on-his-luck author who also happens to be a recovering alcoholic and, in his mind, accidental child abuser. He manages to snag a job being the winter caretaker of the secluded Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado which is ideal for him as he has plans of writing his great novel during the time. Yet we never find out if he is offered the job due to his actual skills or if he is the only one who applied. He gets regaled a cautionary tale of one of his predecessors who murdered his family and killed himself out of an extreme case of cabin fever. Torrance seems not to be terribly perturbed by this grisly tale in fact telling his employers that his wife will be thrilled to hear this as a “ghost story and horror movie fanatic”.
This is our first indication that Torrance is not entirely reliable as his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) seems the furthest thing from a fan of macabre ghost tales, and it is unclear that Jack ever divulges the Overlook’s sordid history to her. Duvall was often cited as the weak link in this movie but in watching it again it is clear that her role in the movie is crucial in that she is the “normal” one of the group and is thus the only one who truly realizes that things are going south very quickly with her family and her horror mirrors ours. And in that role, Duvall is masterful in portraying a very ordinary and timid woman thrust into an increasingly perilous situation. Her companion and playmate is her young son Danny (Danny Lloyd), rounding out the trio. Ever since having his arm accidentally dislocated by Jack, he seems to have picked up an imaginary friend and has the seeming ability to sense and see things that the others cannot. Yet like Jack, we are never entirely sure if his “shining” is a real thing, or some elaborate coping mechanism as a result of his abuse.
This uncertainty as to what Jack and Danny witness and see is something that is absent in the novel, as King makes it clear that what afflicts the Torrance family is an external supernatural force. Instead Kubrick plays up the frailties of all our characters, so that while the haunting seems obviously present it is also clear that the ultimate implosion of the family also comes from demons within. Jack’s descent into madness is plausible because we see his frustration with his writer’s block, and all the inadequacies this brings up, as impetus for his eventual murderous anger. We see Danny’s visions and ultimate catatonia as equally plausible through the lens of an abuse victim and his response to trauma. Wendy herself also carries enough trauma within herself so that while the chances that her experiences are compromised hallucinations are slim, they are also not impossible.
This uncertainty is Kubrick’s genius masterstroke that elevates the movie beyond a merely spooky ghost tale. This is because as things begin and continue to go horrifically south, Kubrick continually hints at the possibility that this may all just be in their head as a result of cabin fever. Thus there he also dangles the hope that they may overcome their afflictions the moment they snap out of it and become a family again. The psychological component of the film keeps alive the hope that their fate may not have been sealed the moment they stepped into the Overlook Hotel and in the mire of all of its evil demons within.
Unfortunately they are doomed from the start, and that is because the Overlook Hotel is truly evil. One of the great haunted places in film history, the Overlook Hotel is also a masterpiece of design. The halls, long corridors, the ballroom, the kitchen, the maze, and living quarters of the Torrances all convey so much depth of character in their location, richly decorated and supplied to seem grotesquely opulent for this modest family. The Overlook also manage to be impossibly expansive and horribly claustrophobic at the same time with each long walk through the building merely emphasizing the isolation and trapped-ness of the Torrance family. The hotel was clearly meant to be occupied by more than just these three people and so its cavernous space becomes eerie by default making it the perfect backdrop for the hotel’s ghostly presences. But unlike other ghost stories, the ghosts themselves are not the main players for the madness that ensues. Rather, they are merely the spark to light the explosive fire for a family whose problems have long been simmering beneath the surface. The Overlook Hotel, which the Torrance family had been looking to as a possible means to their domestic salvation, thus becomes the catalyst for their doom.
The movie has been subject to much interpretation, with people looking through every angle from symbolism to psychological analysis to revisionist history to try and ascertain its meaning. The documentary Room 237 is ninety minutes worth of rabbit hole theories of the Shining, which coincidentally is interesting for about twenty minutes before becoming mind-numbingly repetitious. But I think the reason why this film has inspired so many interpretations is because the film is shockingly simple. It is a tale of the frailty of familial relationships, the banality of humanity, of how minor incidents can fester and brew until they boil over, and of how sometimes our fate and success are shockingly beyond our control. It is a universally simple message wide enough to accommodate a variety of interpretations that can work as the blockbuster horror movie that it most obviously is but also be the subject of great philosophical musings.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other innovation in this movie that elevates this genre film to something more profound and that is the revolutionary use of the camera in this movie. Starting right at the beginning, where the camera eerily hangs above the air of Jack’s car driving up the mountain the cinematography continually conveys the effect of things feeling slightly off-kilter. This makes even the most ordinary conversations and actions seem ominous. Whether in the famous maze scene or in the steadicam shots with Danny’s three-wheeler, the camera constantly makes us feel that the Torrance family is being stalked by a presence. And given that this is our viewpoint into their world, we too end up stalking the Torrances as well, contributing to their growing mania. This spectral camera, along with the atonal and unearthly soundscape, create a permanent disquieting atmosphere so that even the most ordinary scenes feel ominous and threatening.
If there is one glaring weakness of this movie it is the way it ultimately handles the character of Dick Hollaran (Scatman Crothers), who is for the most plays the stereotype of a magical-negro, dispensing wisdom and wisecracks with aplomb. The novel redeems this character slightly by making him a hero who saves the day. In the movie, he is indeed set up to be the ultimate hero, but this ultimately turns out to be a red herring. In the context of the movie itself, Hollaran’s untimely death is a true comical shock as Kubrick upends our expectations while upping the immediate danger Danny and Wendy find themselves in. But unfortunately as a result, Hollaran truly becomes a magical-negro character in a film devoid of any other non-white presence (apart from the Native American art that adorns the place).
Apart from that unfortunate stereotype, this movie is a masterful showcase of actors unhinged to the point of near-parody yet remaining reigned in just enough to render the story horrific. The stories are famous as to how Kubrick pushed both Nicholson and Duvall close to the edge of insanity, demanding take after take of each scene and deliberately choosing the takes where the actors were at their most tired or frustrated. The process sounds truly maddening, but the results as the film clearly displays are undeniably excellent contributing to a movie that from beginning to end is unsettling at an almost primal level.
The movie’s meaning will be debated for perpetuity, and the question of whether this is a movie is a story about cabin fever gone amuck or about ghosts who plot murder is essentially unanswerable. The genius of Kubrick’s The Shining is that the movie works as a horrific tale either way. It is simple enough that any moviegoer will catch its basic meaning, and yet frustratingly opaque enough that its mysteries never get fully unearthed. But ultimately that is exactly why I keep returning time and time again to the Overlook Hotel.
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