Critical Essays On The Shining
“The Shining,” released in May, 1980, has always been seen as Stanley Kubrick’s pulpiest and most commercial venture. It’s not just that it’s a horror film. (All of Kubrick’s works, really, are horror films.) But the source material was an early Stephen King novel; this was back in the days when the Times would still matter-of-factly describe King’s work as “preposterous claptrap.” And the thrills in “The Shining”—the jump cuts, the shock images—are more conventional, less arch, and somehow less mordant than those in the rest of Kubrick’s filmography. It was also one of his few films set in a recognizable contemporary reality, and “The Shining” was, until “Eyes Wide Shut,” the only one that included an un-perverted family unit, though, of course, that’s not saying much, given the murderous father at the heart of the story.
A new film, which has been called a documentary but is really some other species of work, goes to great lengths to convince us that this perception of “The Shining” is mistaken. “Room 237,” directed by a Kubrick obsessive named Rodney Ascher, argues that the movie’s scenes of created reality, far more than its Grand Guignol horror scenes, hide important and, in some cases, truly dark meanings. Our guides in this analysis are a troupe of brothers and sisters in arms who, via voice-over, take us through a mental maze no less ominous than the deadly one that sits outside the mountain resort in the film.
If you recall, “The Shining” was released in 1980, following “Barry Lyndon” and preceding “Full Metal Jacket.” Kubrick did his customary years of research beforehand, and put his cast and crew though a typically gruelling eleven-month shoot in a U.K. studio. The actors were forced through scores of takes of demanding emotional and physical scenes. The movie is centered on a boy named Danny, who has an imaginary friend named Tony and, we later learn, a capacity for telepathic communication called “shining.” His parents are played by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. The family is hired as winter caretakers of a hotel, the Overlook, a juggernaut of a construct high in the Rockies. Once the family has been sealed off from society, strange things begin to happen. Egged on by phantoms of the hotel, Nicholson’s mental condition deteriorates. In the second half of the movie, his demons and those in the hotel run free, with horrific results.
“The Shining” opened to negative reviews but good business; since then, an influential demographic of mesmerized fans has helped the film, over the years, be appreciated as a nonpareil horror show. Today, we can see that “The Shining” ’s slow but inexorable pacing, crisp editing, sumptuous production design, over-the-top lead performances, technical innovations (notably, the most extravagant work to date with the then new Steadicam camera), and a handful of indelible scenes (Danny’s Big Wheel rides, a Steadicam tracking shot that leads Duvall up several flights of stairs, that elevator car full of blood) all combine to leave viewers shaken and unmistakably drained.
But “Room 237” isn’t about any of those things. It is a cinematic digest of the work of a corps of people who claim to have found semi-hidden meanings in the film. For just about anyone who has seen “The Shining” and who has a slightly higher than average interest in cinematic studies, “Room 237” will be an engrossing and at times hallucinatory viewing experience. And even for those who care not a whit about Kubrick or “The Shining” but who have a taste for a different type of horror—the postmortem and postmodern horrors of the sort the poet John Shade endured in the novel “Pale Fire” at the hands of one who searched for elusive meanings in Shade’s work—will find much to delight here.
The bravura conceit of “Room 237” is to take what might have been a dry and tedious collection of expository film theories and transform them into a deeply immersive cinematic experience in its own right. Ascher does this by running his commentaries over a mind-blowing collection of clips, from the entire Kubrick oeuvre and then a slew of other filmmakers’, and cleverly stitching them together, using a variety of music cues and intense editing beats to drive the movie forward. The effect is both powerful and mischievous. For example, “Room 237” begins with someone talking about having seen “The Shining” poster for the first time; on-screen, we see, instead, a scene from “Eyes Wide Shut” in which Tom Cruise looks at some posters outside a jazz club featuring his friend Nick Nightingale. Audaciously, Ascher swaps out the jazz photos and swaps in a “Shining” poster and publicity stills from the films. I went back to “Eyes Wide Shut” to see the original scene; interestingly, the poster advertising the Club Sonata is the same burst of yellow that marked the original, and now iconic, “Shining” poster. Point Ascher.
Ascher identifies his analysts on-screen only briefly, a provocative and dislocating gambit. The five—four men and a woman—become distinct personalities over time. Vying for our intellectual allegiance, spewing out observations, analysis, free associations, and more, they succeed to varying degrees. Some display a charming self-deprecation, chuckling in embarrassed amazement at the secrets they’ve unearthed. It’s also clear that one of the contributors is quite mad. “I fully expect my taxes will be audited next year,” he says at one point. In that deathless line I hear echoes of a famous aside from Professor Kinbote in “Pale Fire”: “There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” Ascher buttresses their voices and the clips with some animated sequences, notably an eerie abstract three-dimensional floating map of the hotel that follows the characters’ movements around to make this or that point about the spatial world Kubrick is working in. “Room 237” ’s narrative thrust is persuasive. By creating a provocative filmic world in its own right, it gives itself a great deal of intellectual credibility to discuss Kubrick’s.
The first interviewee makes the case that there is a pattern of American Indian iconography through the film. The eeriness begins immediately, as he fixates on a single out-of-place can of Calumet Baking Soda, strategically placed above a character’s head in a storeroom. Calumet uses an Indian head for a logo. Any amateur student of Kubrick’s work knows that there is little in any frame of his that he did not intend to be there. The can is made eerily meaningful. Then, guided by our interlocutor, we see a half-dozen examples of Indian-related imagery, some of it plain, some of it fanciful. (A quick clip of Duvall saying “Keep America clean” is followed by a quick cut of the famous anti-littering commercial featuring an Indian with a tear running down his cheek.)
The analysis becomes dizzying quickly. Every movie has what are called continuity errors, those little inconsistencies obsessive film viewers collect, like a character’s hair parted one way and then, a cut later, parted the other. Here they become ominous. A chair disappears. In Danny’s room, a cartoon sticker on a door—the Disney dwarf Dopey—vanishes as well. The carpet pattern under Danny’s feet suddenly shifts.
The theories—involving the Holocaust (stemming from Nicholson’s German typewriter), the Apollo Space project, fairy tales, and more and more and more—continue, until the viewer is about to concede all of them. (To discuss them further would spoil some of the film’s surprises.) “Room 237” falls apart a bit at the end, however. Art will always produce obsessives who pick nits, who see specters and goblins, and insist, Kinbote-like, on their visions within it. And the Internet is not the wellspring of such activity; it has always been with us. (To cite a mundane example: the idea of “The Annotated Sherlock Holmes” is divine—until you start reading the inconsistent and often tangential exegeses.) One of the film’s points, that a bathroom off the hotel’s main dining room is placed in a spatially nonsensical way, isn’t really made convincingly. Others are tedious. One analyst is allowed to drone on about a coincidental thing that one of her dreary children said. And a too long sequence in which the film is run simultaneously forward and backward goes nowhere. These elements show the strains underneath the conception.
So obsessed is “Room 237” with the minutest elements of “The Shining“ that larger issues (for any normal viewer) get barely mentioned, or not mentioned at all. Some of the difficulties critics had with the film on its release may have been owing to disrupted viewer expectations. Supernatural films are generally “about” one supernatural issue. Here, Danny has “the shining.” But the other supernatural manifestations are myriad and confused. Danny’s hallucinations may have been brought on by abuse. Nicholson, however, hallucinates as well, but the source of this—male rage, or insecurity, or isolation, or demons at loose in the hotel—remains unclear. There’s one key, jarring plot point: Nicholson is locked in a kitchen storage unit by Duvall. The door is ultimately opened for him by one of the hotel ghosts he talks to—a supernatural intrusion into the physical world that is unique in the film, and not explained. These are all discrete psychic conceptions, and they don’t really jibe. We see now that they are each part of the unease Kubrick intended in the film. (He took what he wanted from King’s book, and added various layers of his own.)
What “The Shining” is really about will remain opaque. Beyond child abuse, writer’s block, and insanity is the history of the hotel, which seems to weigh Nicholson down more than anything. One commenter in “Room 237” makes this point: “This is a movie about the past. Not just our past, but ‘pastness’.” This, interestingly, parallels something Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker in her original, appreciative but skeptical review: “I hate to say it, but I think the central character of this movie is time itself, or, rather, timelessness.” Instead, nothing is too small for these obsessives to obsess about. The documentary’s title is a reference to the scariest, bloodiest room in the hotel. In the book, it was apparently room 217. One of our detectives here takes issue even with the story given out about why the number was changed. It’s another of the unanswered questions left by “The Shining.” Here, the obsessive could have gone deeper. What would seem to be an utterly trivial issue was important enough to be mentioned in the original Times review of the film. It’s pretty clear that Janet Maslin was in on the cover-up, too.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) often described as a cinematic masterpiece wasn’t always met with this kind of praise. Kubrick having already cemented his status as an acknowledged master filmmaker; a god like auteur, (Oscar nominated for best director for four of his previous films (Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon)) expresses his true style and creates a rather unusual horror narrative within The Shining, however for this film he received more criticism than praise and this time was not nominated for an Oscar but rather nominated for the ‘Razzie.’ (a joke award for he worst performances and films of the year.)
This seems unlikely now given its ‘classic’ status; a “one-of-a-kind horror film and a great artistic accomplishment.” (-Joseph Byrne, 2013)
The Shining is atypical of its genre, it doesn’t necessarily fit into the typical horror conventions that the audiences at the time were used to seeing. (The Exorcist (1973) William Friedkin, Halloween (1978) John Carpenter, The Hills Have Eyes (1977) Wes Craven.)
The Shining did not operate as a traditional horror film, one example of this is that it refuses to reveal a specific singular source of horror. The dichotomy between the threat of ghosts and Torrance’s psychosis instead force the audience to find the source themselves. There are the supernatural forces that live inside the Overlook hotel, and the emotional instability and demons that live inside Jack Torrance. As the plot develops, the film almost operates as both a ghost story and a family melodrama.
The film ensures its horror status with the inclusion of the supernatural components from King’s novel, however Kubrick chooses to examine the evilness of the human psyche (Jack’s descent into madness) rather than focus on these typical horror conventions. He deliberately directs the audience towards a psychological explanation for the apparitions, the viewer wonders if they are actually present or if they merely manifest from Jacks mind. Its not until Grady’s ghost frees Jack from the freezer that there is no explanation other than that the Overlook is truly haunted. Often times its as if the supernatural aspects of the film serve as a welcome breath for the audience as the supernatural forces seem like an irrational fear where as Torrance’s outbursts are a rational fear. It contrasts the known and the un-known and plays on the audiences fears.
From the start it is hinted that Jack harnesses the possibility of being the films key threatening figure. There are brief mentions of his alcoholism and past violent behaviour, the audience is taught early on in the narrative to fear Jack and later becomes the films key villain where we may have suspected this role to belong to the ghosts of the Overlook.
The Shining doesn’t necessarily come off right away as a horror film. The ariel shots of the title sequence shows a picturesque mountain scene and there is the unusual choice of blue credits, a colour not usually associated within the horror genre, however the music choice makes this rather beautiful shot seem ominous and frightening, and highlights the vastness of the surroundings which completely overpower the characters.
Following this we enter the Overlook hotel where the entire film takes place.
The ‘Interview’ scene is mainly a medium shot of the two characters (Torrance and Mr Ullman.) The
nature of the dialogue and the somewhat exaggerated performances hint at the film as a horror, we get brief mentions to horror themes (mentions previous caretaker tragedy and the Donner party/ cannibalism) and the scene with Danny at 10 minutes where he has a vision of the twins and the blood filled elevator. However there is no actual supernatural activity in the hotel till around the half hour / 40 minute mark, here the narrative picks up and the audience are introduced to the hotels other guests.
Isolation is a key theme in The Shining and the mise-en-scène often highlights the insignificance of the human figure especially in the overwhelming surroundings. The opening shot immediately shows this as the camera follows the car only to move in another direction once it reaches it. Other examples of this can be seen in the camera work specifically in the maze and in the hotel lobby, where the surroundings shrink the character and there is a feeling of helplessness. This complies with the horror convention of helpless characters in supernatural settings. (Examples shown below.)
The design of the Overlook is very important to the horror element of the film. The unusually well lit stylised hotel is where the audience will spend the entirety of the film, much like the characters we are trapped there. The hotel itself is a maze, everything connects together in a continuum that we really get to see when Danny rides through the corridors on his tricycle. The vastness and connectivity of the space frustrates the viewer and causes an entrapped sensation. This could be reflective of Jacks mind; Richard T. Jameson wrote in his 1980 review, ‘The Overlook’s spaces mirror Jack’s bankruptcy. The sterility of its vastness, the spaces that proliferate yet really connect with each other in a continuum that encloses rather than releases, frustrates rather than liberates – all this becomes an extension of his own barrenness of mind and spirit.’ – ‘The film comment’ July 1980.
The insinuation that the Overlook Hotel is haunted serves as the primary horror convention and helps identify the film into the horror genre. Carol Clover, 1992, argues that since Psycho Alfred Hitchcock (1960), contemporary horror films pay some ‘tribute, however brief to the ancestor – if not in a shower stabbing, then in a purling drain or the shadow of a knife-wielding hand.’ She finds that The Shining pays homage through the idea of the ‘terrible house.’ (The Shining also fits into the traditional horror sub genre of ‘haunted house’ / ‘ghost story.’) Both films take place in a hotel/motel and the central psychotic characters are feminized (Jack is feminized by his status as housekeeper.) Another similarity between the films is in the musical score, Psycho is perhaps most famous for the infamous screeching violins, The Shining uses similar techniques in its score creating stingers at crucial moments, e.g. Danny meeting the twins, the old lady in room 237 and the bloody elevator.
Dissimilarly the performances in The Shining, mostly from Jack Nicholson and Shelly DuVall are very exaggerated and deliberately over the top, this is an example of stylised acting. This isn’t necessarily what you might expect from a film of this nature. Perkins performance in Psycho is extremely contrasting to Nicholson’s approach as the cool calm Norman Bates, up until he grabs that knife of course.
The lighting of The Shining is also abnormal of its genre, there are not much use of shadows or chiaroscuro lighting which we would expect. Rather than presenting a cold, cramped dark environment, it is instead often clinical and sterile and the usual use of shadows and darkness are not exercised by Kubrick. There are exceptions to this however where Kubrick delivers a more traditional approach to horror lighting, this can be seen when we see Jack in a silhouette during the climactic maze chase scene where we see Jack as a threatening black figure.
This use of lighting shows influences of german expressionism and traditional horror films and specifically connotes malevolence and terror.
It could be argued that like the maze like design of the hotel the lighting also reflects Jacks growing insanity. One of the most well lit scenes of the film is Jacks first encounter with Lloyd in the Gold Room, this is shot in low key lighting which lights Jacks face from below, only highlighting his crazed facial expressions.
Low key lighting is mostly used in old school horror flicks (e.g. Frankenstein, James Whale (1939)) and is easily recognisable as a horror convention. The lighting here also accentuates the red colour scheme of the room, a colour widely associated with the horror genre, and the connotation of blood and murder.
Kubrick uses light to define characters and settings rather than to locate the film into a specific genre. It is a refreshing approach and is rather unsettling to watch, the horror could happen at any point, we are not forewarned by a gloomy corridor and a shadowed figure.
Kubrick’s camera techniques are a particular achievement of The Shining, he was praised for his development of the Steadicam, particularly during the scenes in which we follow Danny through the hotel. The camera is extremely close to the ground where as previously the Steadicam had been confined to the operators waist height.
Kubrick often prefers to shoot characters from the front and sometimes the audience shares the characters point of view. In one instance in the Gold Room the audience is put in the position of Lloyd before we actually meet him, it is a strange choice but works well and causes an uneasy feeling for the audience as Jack, clearly crazy talks directly to us, and we are confused and ultimately scared. Kubrick uses a number of techniques such as this to disorientate the audience, another example of a different technique is the scene in which Wendy brings Jack breakfast, the audience is unaware that it is being shot through a mirror until closer inspection, it disorientates the audience and confuses them for a moment on what is real and what is reflection.
This is a common theme in The Shining , the film poses the question what is real and what isn’t?
Kubrick presents us with a horror narrative, however the audience isn’t entirely sure what to fear. By looking at The Shining in terms of genre; analysing the narrative, style and overall themes, it proves to be atypical of its genre and doesn’t explicitly tell the audience what to fear but rather underlies a constant sense of tension and danger, which only leaves the audience with more questions after the credits roll. “The Shining leaves a residual effect that is uncharacteristic of its genre specifications. Rather than being haunted by the memory of horrifying images, the audience is haunted by the question of “what initiated those horrifying images?” Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a revisionist work because it challenges the viewer to find the evil within the film; it’s there somewhere, but he doesn’t show us where.” – (Mike Thorn, 2012)