This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
We’re celebrating a Kubrick classic for day twenty-seven. It’s The Shining…
Stanley Kubrick once said that if audiences completely understood his adaptation of The Shining, then he had failed as its director, producer and co-writer. Deviantly raising more questions than it answers, this seminal horror is an artistic masterpiece; a visual and technical triumph, thrumming with thematic engagement. Perhaps it’s not the film Steven King wanted but it is exactly the film his duplicitous novel warranted.
Jack Nicholson gives his career best as Jack Torrance, the man employed to caretake the isolated Overlook Hotel though five ‘fantastically cruel’ snow-bound months. Alongside, Shelley Duvall proves brilliantly expressive as wide-eyed wife Wendy and Danny Lloyd plays their psychically inflected son Danny. Far from happy families, the trio strike an off chord from the start, with suggestion that Jack is an abusive father and signs that Danny has links with the supernatural. Repeated assertion from Jack that his family will ‘love’ their time in isolation somehow doesn’t convince.
On face value, The Shining plays rather like a straightforward haunted house tale. There are ghosts – the remnants of an earlier massacre at the Overlook – and a deeply disquieted building; there are spooked residents and secrets to be revealed. Yet, precious little is simple in the long, amaranthine corridors of Kubrick’s hotel. Much goes unexplained and innumerable readings are open to scouring viewers. What is the significance of the old Indian burial ground upon which the hotel is built? Are those not Native American motifs on the walls? Suggestion, meanwhile, that Jack Torrance’s fate represents a crisis of masculinity fits a very strong bill – indeed, the hotel seems to represent a last bastion of paternalistic authority – but perhaps not. Who can say?
More certainty can be assigned to the source of the film’s great critical depth; this is the work of Kubrick. Making the most of vast widescreen perspectives, Kubrick shoots his version of King’s story as though each frame were a great artist’s canvas. Iconography is vital to the telling here, with ominous imagery leading to fruitful conclusions and delicious uncertainty. An early trick, involving a cigarette box and some pencils, seems to mock the principle of Chekhov’s gun, before a more precursive shot lowers Jack above his unsuspecting family. Mirror imagery symmetry is fundamental to the film’s scenography, foreboding looming historical repetition and heightening our awareness of a world that isn’t quite right. An unsettling air pervades every room, maze, bar and ballroom on this all-encompassing screen.
Cinematographer John Alcott was robbed of an Oscar – The Shining faired better at the Razzies in 1980 than the Academy Awards – for his role in establishing of the film’s hypnotic quality, whilst Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown deserves acclaim for realising Kubrick’s succession of fluid long takes through the London-built sets. Continuous, gliding motion, set in stark contrast to instances of hollow tranquility, helps build an aura of disorientation as the danger rises, which is hammered home by the film’s piercing score, having been first indicated by the rolling opening titles – credits that are indicative of Jack already reach the end of his metaphorical road.
For all the beautiful imagery of The Shining, it is a furiously intense example of cinema at its most thrilling and illuminating. For every nod in the direction of old-fashioned, children’s fairytales – Hansel and Gretel get a look in, as do The Three Little Pigs – there is an unforgiving stab of something galvanically modern. Kubrick’s fastidious approach to filmmaking might have drawn out his production well beyond its expected tenure but the result is impeccable and endlessly rewatchable. Exit signs may be flashed across the backdrops of scenes throughout the film but just try heeding their advice.