Synopsis: From a script he co-adapted from the Stephen King novel, director Stanley Kubrick melds vivid performances, menacing settings, dreamlike tracking shots and shock after shock into a milestone of the macabre. In a signature role, Jack Nicholson (“Heeeere’s Johnny!”) plays Jack Torrance, who’s come to the elegant, isolated Overlook Hotel as off-season caretaker with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd). Torrance has never been there before – or has he? The answer lies in a ghostly time warp of madness and murder.
eyelights: Jack Nicholson’s performance. the composition of each shot. the incredible use of music to create the tone. the eerie atmosphere. the impressive-looking Overlook hotel.
eyesores: Shelly Duvall. Danny Lloyd.
“The most terrible nightmare I ever had. It’s the most horrible dream I ever had.”
Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ is one of my all-time favourite films. It has been for longer than I can remember. Unlike some people, I don’t watch it that often; it’s so indelibly imprinted in my mind that I don’t need to – I remember most of it. But whenever I do, whenever I want to see something utterly chilling, there’s really nothing better than ‘The Shining’.
So it was natural that, when the documentary ‘Room 237’ came out, I had to see it. I’m not just a fan of ‘The Shining’, but I’m a devotee of Stanley Kubrick: he’s one of those rare people I’ve read a biography of. And when I told my friends about it, they were also intrigued. We agreed to watch the two successively – with the documentary first, so as to watch ‘The Shining’ newly-enlightened.
That was the easy part.
The difficult part was choosing which format to watch it in. You see, there is much controversy with respect to which is the correct way to see a Kubrick film. Many of his pictures were shot in 4:3 and some claim that this was his preferred format. Others, however, state that he tolerated the format but preferred the regular 1.85:1 cinema ratio. Others feel he preferred 1.66:1.
Unfortunately, there is no official record of what Kubrick actually intended. But the fact remains that, having a photography background and being a perfectionist, it is documented that he considered multiple ratios when he filmed, putting tape on the view finder so that he could compose each shot to include multiple ratios. He was a little bit obsessive in this and many other ways.
When I explained our dilemma, the group had mixed reactions at first. Some preferred watching the 1.85:1 ratio because it fills the screen. Others wanted the 4:3 ratio because it meant more picture to see. Others wanted the Blu-ray version because it would look and sound better. Some didn’t care. But the balance shifted when some considered that they had never seen the 4:3 version.
So we watched the picture in 4:3, not 1.85:1. We actually settled for DVD, not Blu-ray (which I had purchased for the occasion, just in case), because 4:3 was only made available in the original DVD releases.
I’m glad that we did: The composition of each shot is genius. I tried to imagine the 1.85:1 while watching it and the picture works both ways – they’re equally valid. This leads me to believe that there probably isn’t a perfect way of watching ‘The Shining’. Still, there is far more to see in the 4:3 version because Kubrick had considered that it would find its way on television and made the most of it.
Now, what is there to say about ‘The Shining’ that hasn’t already been said far more eloquently by others than I could ever aspire to? Not much, I suspect.
The build-up is terrific, which is one the primary elements in any horror/suspense story. In ‘The Shining’, Kubrick takes his time to create discomfort in his audience: The first act is exposition/set-up, in which some unusual things happen, to tease us. The second act is the slow unraveling of everything in The Overlook Hotel. The third act is the balls-out insanity, taking his characters -and us- over the edge.
Kubrick consciously makes us the observers, reminding us that we cannot interact with anyone or anything; we are forced to watch the story unfold, transpire, powerless. A perfect example is the big wheel sequence, where we’re just behind Danny, with him, but not quite at his side. Similarly, right from the onset, we are shown slow aerial shots from a distance, giving us a bird’s eye view.
But it’s the Overlook itself that alienates us the most: this overwhelmingly large hotel looks strange, awkwardly designed from the outside. But inside, it’s epic, with high ceilings, huge open spaces, looking seemingly endless. It’s a monster, dwarfing, engulfing all that enters it. It’s hard to sit there not awe-struck with its immensity, especially when there are only three people populating it.
Everything gets lost in its grandeur, and by the time we arrive there we are entirely removed from the picture.
What’s fascinating is that while Kubrick allows us to see large shots of the hotel, he never once lets us get a real perspective on it, a grasp of where everything is situated (in fact, he may have purposely presented it in a confounding way). That leaves us disoriented, unsure of ourselves, destabilized, insecure… and it gives the Overlook Hotel the upper hand, offering us little chance to escape.
Also contributing to this estrangement is the music of ‘The Shining’: it is as much of a character in the picture as Jack, Wendy, Danny and the Overlook. It’s omnipresent and sometimes overwhelming, and purposely so. It has a Grand Gignol quality to it at times, injecting drama, if not terror, in moments that should be innocuous. In that sense, it’s brilliant (as is much of the music in Kubrick’s pictures, actually).
The recordings themselves are astounding: the way the strings are played in a discordant fashion, the mixing in of choruses in the background on some pieces, and the addition of Wendy Carlos’ grimly atmospheric keyboards to add an otherworldliness, it’s all deliberate, intended to chill. It’s a terrific soundtrack on its own, without even considering how it was used in the finished film. It’s a shame that it’s not officially available on CD anywhere.
Naturally, the characters are of prime importance in a picture that isolates three leads in a large empty space like the Overlook. Interestingly enough, although all three represent one’s everyday mildly dysfunctional family, none of the characters (or the performances, for that matter) leave one ambivalent: one can’t help but feel strongly about each of them.
Jack: Jack is a lost soul. He means well, but he’s a slacker and he’s tormented by the desire to drink. He’s hard to root for: although he’s been hired to caretake the Overlook during the winter months, he does absolutely nothing and leaves all the work for his spouse, Wendy, for whom he holds intense contempt.
Jack Nicholson incarnates Jack Torrance with glee. He was criticized back in the day for being over-the-top, and a case could be made for it. However, his only artificiality really comes at the initial interview, which makes sense contextually. He was otherwise far more nuanced on his way to and at the beginning of his gig at the Overlook.
Right from the start, we see Jack’s patience tried by his family. He soon unravels and not only has fits of anger, but he begins to stare vacantly and become aimless, consumed with a hunger that we can’t explain. Of course, Nicholson eventually lets go of all restraints when Torrance begins to lose his mind. And when he does, it’s the performance du siècle.
By the time Torrance starts to stalk the halls of the Overlook for his family, we are almost cheering him on. Twisted, I know, but such is the strength of his performance. How he was overlooked at awards time is beyond me: the devilish look in his eyes, his maniacal grin and the exaggerated body language actually carry us through what would otherwise a very grim turn of events.
Wendy: Wendy is a character that’s extremely easy to dislike: she comes off as feeble, both physically and intellectually. And you can’t pity her because she makes herself a punching bag, a sucker for punishment. By the end, when she’s in hysterics, all you can see is the lamest example of humanity, fit for natural selection.
But, for the first time, I watched her with a newfound appreciation. Unlike Jack, she’s taking care of business: she’s watching the boilers, keeping in touch with the authorities, preparing the meals, taking care of Danny. She’s not wholly incompetent. Don’t get me wrong, I still find her pathetic. Just not as much as I used to.
I also didn’t dislike Shelley Duvall’s as much as I once did; I used to f-ing loathe her like crazy. But now my revulsion with her is blurred between her and the character. It may very well be that she was perfectly cast and perfectly incarnated the part. Her physical style only adds to the mélange, making her unwatchable.
Duvall was nominated for the very first Worst Actress Award at the Razzies in 1980 and lost to Brooke Shields. While at first glance it would seem to be a well-deserved nomination, Jack Nicholson has defended her performance, saying that he considers it the most difficult role he’s ever seen an actor take on.
Duvall herself has said that it’s hardest part she’s played in her whole career, and it’s not surprising one bit when one watches the behind-the-scenes footage of the making of ‘The Shining’: Kubrick was abusive to her, driving her to despair, no doubt for the part. It took such a toll on her that she was ill and starting losing her hair.
Should we reassess her performance? Not sure. But perhaps at least we shouldn’t discredit it as much as we have.
Danny: Danny’s your typical 5-6 year old: he watches cartoons, plays with his toys, rides around on his big wheel. He’s a bit reserved, but part of this may be due to his family life, what with his abusive alcoholic father. But there’s one thing that’s different: Danny is a sensitive who gets premonitions and can tap into the spirit world.
He has an “imaginary” friend called Tony, whom he says is the boy living in his mouth. He brings Tony to life by speaking in a croaking voice and by articulating his finger at the same time while in the presence of adults. In his mind, it”s Tony who is showing him all those premonitions, to warn him about the future.
I’ve always despised Danny because of Danny Lloyd’s Novocained mouth and the stupid finger; to me, it made a freak of him. I’m pretty sure he could have expressed himself differently to convey Danny versus Tony. I still despise him, but he does offer some subtlety and his eyes are amazingly expressive. Thankfully, Danny doesn’t have enough dialogue to be completely grating.
Hallorann: The only other notable character in the piece is a secondary one named Dick Hallorann, who is the Overlook’s chef. Hallorann also has a similar power to Danny’s, which he calls “shining”. He naturally connects with Danny very early on because of this and they remain somewhat in touch even after Hallorann has gone to Florida for the winter.
Scatman Strothers starts off being quite artificial as Hallorann, but you have to consider the context: at first he’s meeting new employees, so he’s putting on a performance for them, and then he’s talking with Danny, and lots of adults act wildly unnatural with children, like they’re talking to mentally-deficient gnomes.
Later, however, when he’s expected to deliver more serious lines, Strothers is perfect. It’s an understated performance, really, more skilled than he’s given credit for, and I’m surprised that he’s not mentioned more when one talks about the film. Strothers also had a memorable turn in another Nicholson picture, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest’.
These characters anchor ‘The Shining’, whether you like them or not. Although the story is about the Overlook and what’s going on inside it, Kubrick makes it about the people inside it; in that sick world, they are the only tether that we have to a sense of normalcy. And as the Overlook’s illness grows, we are taken into it along with Jack, Wendy and Danny.
The greatest horror stories aren’t about gore or cheap scares: they’re about people. We need characters we can relate to in some fashion so that we may assimilate the danger they face and, by extension, take on the fear that they feel. When we take on their fears, we are in actuality facing our own fears, helping us cope and sometimes exorcise them.
‘The Shining’ may have more to it beneath the skin than a mere ghost story (see ‘Room 237’, for example), but it’s also one of the greatest horror film because it reaches into us much as the Overlook taps into Jack, Wendy and Danny: it slowly creeps into us, disquiets us, then terrifies us. By the end, we are relieved to escape the Overlook.
Kubrick, who has been accused of being too intellectual (by none other than Stephen King himself, in fact), has managed to disprove his critics with this picture: he tapped into a very primal part of our psyche, made us feel for characters that are unlikeable, made us afraid, and stimulated our imagination. Even on a base level, he has achieved what few do.
And yet, just as there is more behind the Overlook’s facade, there’s likely more to “The Shining’, more beneath the surface, secrets that we may never fully reveal and/or comprehend. Kubrick has left behind one of cinema’s greatest puzzles, one that stimulates the intellect and the imagination in tandem, giving us a sense of awe as we watch it.
No wonder it’s widely hailed as a masterpiece now.
Date of viewing: October 4, 2014