“The most terrible nightmare I ever had. It’s the most horrible dream I ever had.”
It’s time for me to forgive The Shining. I’ve been a die-hard Stephen King fan since I was 10, and although I found Kubrick’s adaptation of one of King’s best novels to be striking and absorbing the first time I saw it, I had a lot of sympathy for King’s position on it. There are key changes from the novel that dramatically alter what the story actually is; most prominently, the novel is about a weak man corrupted from outside by a supernatural force, whereas the film’s Jack Torrance (Nicholson) seems dangerous and crazy from the beginning. Halloran, a very likable character in the novel, gets reduced in the film to little more than a plot point. There’s a whole laundry list of complaints I could (and have) leveled against the movie as an adaptation–and it didn’t help that Kubrick essentially targeted King’s bestseller as a way to make a sure hit after Barry Lyndon‘s disappointing box office. But the more I watch The Shining, the more I can’t help but love it. It’s its own movie, about its own ideas. Kubrick crafted a terrifying, brilliant experience, and it’s okay for me to enjoy that as much as I enjoy the book it’s based on.
So let’s put the book aside and talk about this movie, which may be one of the most studied and obsessed over in history. The documentary Room 237–for which I have written a companion review–shows that Kubrick essentially constructed a puzzle box film with no solution, a movie whose interpreters tell you more about themselves than the film itself. As such, it seems like there isn’t an inch of The Shining that hasn’t been discussed, analyzed, and extrapolated, from the props to the carpets to the extras. What I like to do with a movie like that is back off as far as possible from the micro and talk about the macro. What is this story doing? What am I feeling and why?
There are three basic arcs throughout the film that, along with Kubrick’s direction and techniques, build the story.
I. Time and Space
Hitchcock’s original intention for the first shot of Psycho was a zoom that went from a wide helicopter shot of the Phoenix skyline all the way to a close-up through the window of a hotel room. The technology at the time made this impossible, so in the actual film it’s a series of dissolves; but the other element of the opening remained intact, a series of titles telling us that the story began in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday, December 11th, at 2:43pm. The absurd level of comprehensiveness and precision in demonstrating the scene’s time and space was meant ironically, to convey the ordinary, banal nature of the following narrative, that it could have happened to anyone. It shows how important the framing of time and space can be to the way a story is told and felt.
The Shining uses similar techniques to different ends. Much has been written about how Kubrick used a brand new technology, the Steadicam, to create long, eerily smooth shots which follow the characters through the Overlook. These prove to us that the hotel is a real and unified space, even when the geography would be impossible. For example, the window in the office of Ullman, the manager (Barry Nelson), appears to look out on the hotel’s exterior, yet must (according to other scenes) border an interior hallway.
Meanwhile, the film’s chronological structure is a tightening spiral of time signifiers. At first, the film’s various sections (separated by title cards) are driven by key events–“The Interview,” “Closing Day,” etc. Then the story jumps forward a month, to when the Torrances are already settled in. As the narrative begins to accelerate, we start getting sections only a few days apart–“Tuesday,” “Thursday,” “Saturday,” “Monday,” “Wednesday”–and finally we’re down to a matter of hours, moving from “8AM” to “4PM.” The final scenes take place more or less in real time. Like Hitchcock’s titles, these are both very overt (title cards are the filmmaker speaking directly and obviously to us in a way that, say, incorporating an on-screen TV broadcast giving the date or time is not) and not strictly necessary. It’s not really important to the scene what day it is. But the sense of acceleration adds strongly to the feeling that things are going increasingly wrong.
Taken together, The Shining presents us with a story that exists in a space that feels real but cannot be understood literally, and that exists in a period of time tightening down from “Can they last the winter?” to “Can they last the next few hours?” It’s this combination of unnerving and tense that defines the film’s emotional impact.
II. The Family Unit
There are three main characters in this film, three points in a damaged family triangle. The pressures and isolation of the Overlook will lead each of them to the place they fear most: Jack’s disintegration into violence. But what makes the film such a complex and hypnotic experience is the way it sinks you deep in the headspace of all three.
Every performance in this movie is nails-on-chalkboard in one way or another, but Shelley Duvall’s is probably the worst in that regard. It’s not a bad performance by any means; but it’s a deeply uncomfortable performance, because she spends the majority of the film cringing and making excuses for Jack and the rest of the film screaming and weeping. It’s like she’s sending off that sense of victimhood that predators are attracted to. You can see Jack at certain points just having total contempt for her, as when he mocks her in the staircase scene, sneering, “You think ‘maybe’ he should be taken to a doctor? … When you do think ‘maybe’ he should be taken to a doctor?” We often characterize the story of women who are abused by saying they were strong, but Wendy arouses our sensibilities by seeming weak throughout–even though ultimately she successfully escapes her situation.
The other thing that makes Wendy distressing to root for is that she’s essentially completely unaware of what’s going on here. Her key scene early in the film comes when talking with a doctor about Danny’s (Danny Lloyd) medical history. She relates the story of how Jack dislocated Danny’s shoulder one night while drunk in a way that suggests that she knows how bad it sounds but she doesn’t want to admit to herself how bad it is. We’re listening, aghast, and the kicker is that this episode only happened five months ago–these problems are very much a present part of their relationship and we know it’s going to boil over again, even if Wendy doesn’t. The revelation of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is the moment when she realizes what’s really been happening. From that point on, her only priority is getting her and Danny out.
If the “shining” is Danny’s extrasensory gift for perception and connection to others, Danny’s experience in The Shining is about the horror of making a bad connection. His ability to feel the thoughts and emotions of others around him is a sci-fi metaphor for the way children of an abusive marriage know and absorb the terrible feelings present in their environment. Frequently Kubrick cuts from Jack and Wendy having an argument to Danny’s visions of blood, danger and “redrum,” or simply his silent screaming face. In one of the film’s most chilling moments, Danny finds his father sitting on the bed in their suite, Jack slack-jawed and staring at nothing; during the subsequent conversation, Danny seems to pick up something from Jack’s mind, asking him, “You would never hurt Mommy and me, would ya?” Jack’s eventual assurance that, “I love you, Danny. I love you more than anything else in the whole world. I would never do anything to hurt ya. Never. You know that, don’t you?” is, shall we say, less than convincing.
Abuse is always awful, but it’s worst when children are the victims, because they’re not equipped to handle those situations. Danny’s scratchy-voiced counterpart, Tony, is his way of externalizing a point of view that’s too adult for him, one that acknowledges out loud (if only in pictures) that Danny fears his father and fears that there will be violence over the long winter. At a certain point, as the family dynamic spirals out of control, Danny disassociates entirely: “Danny’s not here, Mrs. Torrance.” His warnings are literal cries for help, including the psychic SOS he sends Dick Halloran, and when Dick finally arrives and is killed by Jack, all of Danny’s worst fears seem to have come to fruition. No child should have to experience this.
Nicholson gives one of the all-time great performances as Jack Torrance. Of all the actors in the film, he seems to best escape intact Kubrick’s insane demands for 50, 80, 100 takes in a row. (Crothers, who reportedly broke down during the kitchen scene, comes off the worst, feeling overly arch throughout.) He does this by presenting Jack’s over-the-top, ironic speech patterns as the poisonous result of a literate, intelligent man filling up with self-disgust and rage. There’s no question in the film that Jack will explode sooner or later; the only question is when.
A note here on Kubrick’s editing. There’s a familiar sitcom trope (which seems fitting, as The Shining is on one level a very demented family sitcom) in editing called the Gilligan Cut, which works like this: “Oh, no, I’m never putting on that dress, no way, no how, not me, never!”. Cut to Gilligan wearing the dress, cue laughter. The construction plays on dramatic irony; the denial is so over the top that the strictures of comedy demand a reversal, which the Gilligan Cut provides immediately. But when removed from the comedic subtext, what remains is almost Freudian–the psychological need to loudly deny what one fears most is true about oneself is a deep and powerful instinct (as any homophobic, closeted politician won’t tell you). Kubrick is known for his long takes, and he tends to turn necessary cuts between scenes into implicit commentary–for example, the way his famous edit between a bone in the air and a spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey points to the entire history of human technological development. He employs that technique here by presenting us with a series of half-Gilligan Cuts. Instead of Gilligan denying that he will wear the dress, we get Jack denying that he will go crazy and murder his family (“Well, you can rest assured, Mr. Ullman, that’s not gonna happen with me”), and then instead of the cut to Gilligan wearing the dress, we simply cut or dissolve away to the next scene, leaving the implications to hang ominously over the rest of the film.
What does drive Jack to finally combust? His psychological breakdown is deceptively complex, because much of it happens offscreen or through the eyes of his wife and child. The key moment for Wendy is also huge for our understanding of Jack, because it shows the shocking depth of his difficulties. Like anyone interviewing for a job, Jack portrays his best self to Ullman, telling him he’s got a new writing project and all he needs is the next few months of quiet and isolation to pull it off. In reality, this is Jack’s last ditch effort to provide for his family–after all, this a teacher who got fired from his last teaching job and is now becoming a glorified maintenance man for the winter. Jack spends a lot of the movie pecking away at his typewriter in the hotel’s big lounge, but we later learn that all he’s been doing is brooding and writing “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,” presumably to give his family the impression that his writing is succeeding.
This revelation tells us what’s really going on in the scene where Wendy interrupts Jack at work. Note that when she walks up, he tears the page he’s working on out of the typewriter, not wanting her to see he hasn’t written anything. In his first true moment of assholeishness, Jack tells her to get the fuck out and don’t come back if she hears him typing–“or whether you don’t hear me typing,” he adds in a moment that says a lot about his buried shame and frustration. Nicholson plays these early scenes (everything before Lloyd, basically) as a man at the end of his fucking patience, unable to endure the banalities Wendy floats to him as conversation (not because she has nothing interesting to say but because she hopes, say, the weather is boring enough not to make Jack angry–unfortunately for her, it isn’t). Everything about his rage and violence is tied to his failure as a man to provide for his family and have the respect of other men; the failure with the writing has him trying to at least get this caretaker thing right, even if that means killing his wife and son to obtain the respect/approval of Grady, who speaks for Jack’s employers. This all comes out in an extraordinary rant later in that same room:
Have you ever had a single moment’s thought about my responsibilities? Have you ever thought for a single solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employers? Has it ever occurred to you that I have agreed to look after the Overlook Hotel until May the first? Does it matter to you at all that the owners have placed their complete confidence and “trust” in me, and that I have signed a letter of agreement, a “contract,” in which I have accepted that responsibility? Do you have the slightest idea what a “moral and ethical principle” is? Do you? Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future, if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you? Has it?
This rant has absolutely nothing to do with what Jack and Wendy are discussing (whether they should take Danny down the mountain to see a doctor), but it’s all Jack has been thinking about for more than a month. Jack’s alcoholism is a distraction, meant to signify his weakness to temptation. This need to meet his “responsibilities” is why he feels temptation toward evil in the first place.
III. Telling Fairy Tales
But there’s one more character here: The Overlook itself. Snowbound and glowering like the half-buried head of a malevolent giant, the hotel is a mirror reflecting the darkest dreams and most feverish nightmares of its inhabitants. With its impossible geography and silent, haunted corridors the Overlook is a labyrinth into which the Torrances wander to be destroyed. The biggest question of the movie is what kind of role it plays in the family’s dissolution.
Horror is uniquely suited to symbolic expression. Most films are realistic stories taken literally; sci-fi is more often than not simply a “What if” story of extrapolated trends, while fantasy (at least in film) seems constrained by its need for positivity. Because horror can be both unreal and unhappy, it has the freedom to obliquely approach our deepest and most primal emotions through storytelling. But there’s one more genre like that: the fairy tale. Those are for children and horror is for adults, but both more often than not present a working through of psychological desires and fears, of social roles and social boundaries, and of existence in a cruel and unjust world. Those portions of the film which deal directly with the Overlook itself seem drawn from a fairy tale mentality draped with the trappings of horror fiction, and by the end of the film that approach has taken over the story entirely.
The Overlook, then, is the film’s largest and most complex symbol, and it means something different to everyone. To Wendy, the Overlook is a chance to start over, to build a normal life; but just like any hotel, it presents a false front. One of the many clever subtleties in the film’s soundtrack is how much Wendy and Jack’s voices echo in the hotel’s cavernous rooms–like Charles Kane’s Xanadu, the Overlook’s enormity and luxury reveals itself as a series of hollow, loveless spaces where distant people speak. The unassuming shifts in the hotel’s look and layout (from replaced and moved props to changing carpet patterns to the exterior facade, which is sometimes the Stanley Hotel in Colorado and sometimes a set not built to match exactly) emphasize the futility of relying on it. Wendy would like to maintain her family’s crumbling foundation here but there’s nothing to build on but quicksand. When Jack finally turns on her completely, the hotel first betrays her (by letting Jack out of the kitchen pantry) and then shows her its true colors, spilling blood from its elevators, filling the halls with spookhouse skeletons, and generating all manner of ghosts. “Great party, isn’t it?” says a bleeding man in a tuxedo. Wendy’s time here, as well as her marriage, always hid this madness, but now it’s everywhere.
To Danny, the Overlook is a dangerous and damaging adult environment, one to which he is painfully sensitive. Multiple scenes follow Danny via Steadicam at a low angle as he roams the hotel’s empty halls on his Big Wheel; the relative silence (so quiet we can hear the difference in sound as his wheel goes over wood or carpet) and composition emphasizes that Danny is a very small person in a very large and eerie place. His encounter there with the dead girls triggers rapid editing between Danny’s horrified face, the little girls, and glimpses of the girls’ horrifying murder; taken together, the sequence symbolizes childhood innocence horribly, violently shattered. Dick reassures Danny that the scary visions in the hotel are little more than pictures in a book, but even if that’s true (and we get another half Gilligan cut when Halloran tells Danny that there’s nothing in room 237), the Overlook is still a book Danny shouldn’t be reading. By the end of the film, the boy is running through a hedge maze as complex and confusing as the emotions he’s been grappling with the entire film; his success at escaping it represents Danny’s triumph over those emotions, and by the time Danny and Wendy ascend a hill of snow and exit the movie, we feel like their escape has been very well earned.
To Jack, the Overlook represents a world of respect and success he wishes to join. During the “Closing Day” section, manager Ullman has this exchange about the people have stayed at the hotel in the past:
Ullman: Four presidents, movie stars…
Ullman: All the best people.
Jack badly wants to be one of those best people–believes it’s his due, in fact. The fact that here they’re all ghosts doesn’t really seem to faze him–nor the film, really, which transitions smoothly and eerily from Jack pretending to talk to a bartender to the bartender responding on-screen. His interaction with Lloyd is a marvelous piece of writing and acting in and of itself, and summarizes Jack’s whole quality. In fact, he’s basically a bore here, in the classical sense, repeating himself in false good humor (“Words of wisdom, Lloyd, words of wisdom”), giving the bartender exaggerated compliments, and being ironical (“White man’s burden, Llloyd, white man’s burden”). Jack is one of those people who considers him smarter and therefore better than most, but who also prides himself on being a “man of the people” who can converse with anybody. When Jack reaches for his wallet to pay for his drink and comes up empty, it’s a metonymy for his whole self, which doesn’t hold the value he thinks it should. Later in this same room (note again how Kubrick advances narrative lines by returning to a specific room for each, as if the hotel itself were a map of the story, or of the different aspects of the human mind), Jack finds himself in the middle of a swanky, high class party. In a movie filled with the rich texture of small moments, my favorite may be the little dance he does by himself there, right before Grady spills a drink on him (probably on purpose). It’s like he’s pleased to be here with all these successful people, but held back too much by his own self-doubt and self-loathing to do more than an ironic little parody of a dance. Nicholson subtly plays this entire sequence as if Jack believes himself to be dreaming, hallucinating, or simply imagining the ghosts around him, but it has the added effect of reminding us that Jack always carries himself above and apart from the people around him, even his own wife. He’s arrogant (a quality that, in my experience, is always paired with self-hatred), but he also believes that if he invested fully an interaction that he would be judged and found wanting.
Jack’s desperation to be successful, to fit in here at the Overlook, is what opens him up to the hotel’s manipulations, but it wouldn’t work without his self-denial. The scene in the restroom where Grady suggests to Jack that he murder his family as Grady murdered his own is all about the repression of the past. The room’s distinctive red walls specifically recall the elevators full of blood, which are visual symbols for repressed violence spilling into the present. At first, when Jack confronts Grady with the information that Grady killed his family and then himself, Grady responds, “That’s strange, sir. I don’t have any recollection of that at all.” But a minute later, Grady tells Jack the story: “My girls, sir, they didn’t care for the Overlook at first. One of them actually stole a pack of matches, and tried to burn it down. But I ‘corrected’ them, sir. And when my wife tried to prevent me from doing my duty, I ‘corrected’ her.” Likewise, Jack is also in denial about his past violence. The most sensitive point in his and Wendy’s marriage is the moment when Jack hurt Danny while drunk (we get the sense that if Jack hadn’t stopped drinking at that point, the marriage would have ended), which is why the event that precipitates Jack’s big explosion is Wendy accusing Jack of hurting Danny (who emerges from room 237 with bruises around his neck). Jack protests to Lloyd, “I never laid a hand on him, God damn it,” but a minute later admits, “I did hurt him once, okay?” He plays it off as an accident (“A momentary loss of muscular coordination”) and claims it happened three years ago (as was the case in the book), not five months ago (as Wendy tells it here). Unable to acknowledge the past, Jack is doomed to repeat it, and will spend the rest of the film trying to seem capable and worthy to Grady. One of the movie’s subtler ironies is that Jack is even a fuck-up at this; he lets Wendy get the better of him with a baseball bat, then fails to chase down his son. His end, a single shocking shot of Jack frozen and dead with an ogre’s dull-faced sneer, is the final, terrible humiliation; but for his efforts, he at least gets to join the hotel’s endless party. Success at last.
But in truth, the Overlook is not just a symbol, not just a trap, but a participant. It gives Jack the opportunity to kill Wendy and Danny, even tells him to do so. It shows itself to Danny, and later to Wendy. But what does it want? To have a caretaker? To add the Torrances to its menagerie of the damned? To use and abuse Danny’s peculiar talent? The hotel’s shifts, the appearance and disappearances of whole roomfuls of ghosts, are also obscure shifts in perception for the Torrances as the Overlook manipulates both perception and events for maximum impact. But to what end? To me, the scariest answer may lie in the moment when Danny, playing with his trucks on the floor of a hallway, sees a rubber ball roll over to him out of nowhere. It’s as if the hotel is saying to Danny, “Come and play.”
All things to all people, the Overlook is a slick salesman of rotten dreams, and room 237 is the diseased and beating heart at the center of its maze of mirrors. To Wendy, it’s a mystery she fears but can’t look at directly. To Danny, it’s Bluebeard’s closet, forbidden but alluring. To Jack, it’s the buried sexual component to his need for success in the man’s role as breadwinner and patriarch. In the film’s most dreamlike sequence, Jack enters the room and discovers a beautiful, naked woman in the bath; she rises, goes to him, and they kiss. That’s when he realizes that she’s an aged, rotting corpse and has been the whole time. Moaning in horror, he backs out of the room and down the hall to go tell Wendy that there’s nothing there. That moment when he kisses the thing is like the final swooning embrace of all the Overlook’s seduction and madness.
For there is madness here. Although the vast majority of the film’s narrative is an intricate web of set-ups, foreshadowings, and establishments of atmosphere and mood, the last act plays with very little dialogue at all. Here Kubrick layers on allusion and metaphor, many of them through Jack, who shouts TV catchphrases and quotes “The Three Little Pigs.” A number of myths and fairy tales cohere around the sequence of violence to give it emotional context, from the story of the Big, Bad Wolf to the tale of Theseus and the minotaur (as Jack chases Danny through the hedge maze) to stories of woodmen and their axes to tales of isolation and family disunity, with Jack as the wicked stepfather. These tales are meant to educate and caution, to tell us not to let our desires obscure our wealth, or our fears our kindness. Children are always being endangered fairy tales, but the world is always just in the end. So too, with Kubrick’s story.
The Shining presents a film that is endlessly watchable, endlessly analyzed, and yet forever opaque to a full and complete understanding. In the end, the only way you can look at it is on the level of a fairy tale. You see, once upon a time, there was a Mommy, a Daddy, and a Danny, and they all moved into a big, old house, and one day they got snowed in. And then all was redrum. Great party, isn’t it?
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because the Overlook recruits all the best people, believe me. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.