My Year of Scary Movies
(Part 9): The Shining
By Daniel Hutchens
The story goes that during filming of The Shining, director Stanley Kubrick once called novelist Stephen King (from whose book the film was drawn) at about 3:00 in the morning.
“Do you believe in God?” Kubrick asked.
“I knew it,” Kubrick said, and hung up. During another early morning call Kubrick asked King if he didnʼt think that ghost stories were essentially optimistic.
“Because they imply thereʼs life after death.”
“What about hell?”
“I donʼt believe in hell,” Kubrick said.
Apparently Kubrick was really thinking deeply about concept and story while working on The Shining, and wanted insights into the authorʼs mind, for one reason or another. After the filmʼs release, though, King said he didnʼt like Kubrickʼs adaptation of the book, that the film veered off plotline and ignored certain important themes and events as they were written.
All of which may very well be true, and I can understand a writer wanting to protect the original intent of his creation. But letʼs face it, King may have been a bit too close to the forest in this case, and the fact is that Stanley Kubrick wandered down his own path with this film, created his own world, spoke in his own voice. And the results are iconic. Many scenes from this film have, over the years, seeped into the collective consciousness of filmgoers everywhere–– the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” has taken on an undertone of menace since this film was released––and certainly no one ever checks into a big old hotel with labyrinthine hallways without at least flashing back to this movie for a minute or two.
The little boy on the Big Wheel. The flood of blood from the elevators. The little ghost girl twins. The brilliant Kubrick touches are on display here, the extraordinary scenes/images composed as thoughtfully and perfectly as paintings. Or perhaps itʼs more accurate to say, composed perfectly as still photographs, because Kubrickʼs first love was always photography. He knew how to get a great shot, whether still or moving pictures; he knew every technical aspect of the cameras, lenses and film that he used. He was intimately familiar with his tools, and he wielded them with brilliant precision...the visuals he created are so lush and riveting and fully realized, like strange dreams come to life.
Dreams have something to do with why I love these kinds of films. You can watch them late at night, and the soundtracks are downright soporific, but your brain remains engaged on some level as you fall asleep and begin dreaming. Still connected to the movie sometimes, and witnessing the scenes come alive in your dreams, then branching off into all sorts of creative areas, inspiring other dreams of other movies, so sometimes you wind up writing/filming/viewing your own movies inside the dream––and soundtracks too, you sometimes wake up having heard/written entire songs––and somehow this all drives at the essence of creativity, the very root youʼre digging down to hopefully devour––
And one of the very best rides you can catch to that cherished state of mind is The Shining. Itʼs one of those rare pieces that transcends its genre, while still servicing the requirements of that genre to a masterful degree. But thatʼs typical of Kubrick films. The Shining is a horror movie, but you canʼt call it “just” a horror movie, any more than you can call 2001: A Space Odyssey “just” science fiction, or A Clockwork Orange “just” a crime drama.
The Shining is scary, and will definitely get under your skin, but itʼs also just plain beautiful. Kubrick managed this trick throughout his films. The gang violence and raw angry lust in A Clockwork Orange are filmed beautifully; the war scenes in Full Metal Jacket are disturbingly beautiful; and evil/possession/hallucination/whatever-you-choose-to-call-it in The Shining is very beautifully filmed, as well. All that blood flooding out of those elevators like some surrealistʼs wet dream nightmare, lovely and sparkling and savage, rushing gushing crimson power...
The criss-crossing of perceived realities, the little boy Dannyʼs horrific psychic warnings vs. Jack Torranceʼs hypnotic siren call toward evil, duel with each other for the right to be called Real––but the amazing point of this movie is that itʼs all real. When youʼre sleeping and dreaming, and when youʼre wide awake. When youʼre living and when youʼre dead. Theyʼre all different kinds of realities, but theyʼre all real.
And then of course thereʼs Jack. (Nicholson, as if you didnʼt know.) He plugs into the high wattage for this picture. He lets it all rip through. His maniacally contorting eyebrows and his million dollar grin. The lowered head with the upward looking eyes, a classic depiction of evil intent. The irritated writer wanting to be left alone at his typewriter. (“Whenever Iʼm in here and you hear me typing, or whether you donʼt hear me typing, whatever the fuck you hear me doing in here, when I am in here that means Iʼm working, that means donʼt come in.”) The boozy sessions with ghostly bartender Lloyd. (“Best goddamn bartender from Timbuktu to Portland, Maine. Or Portland, Oregon for that matter.”) Taking the axe to the bathroom door. (“Hereʼs Johnny!”) Then chasing little Danny with the axe, loping out into the snow covered hedge maze like heʼs reverting to some simian brute, determined to murder his son, growling and grunting and insane...
This is Jack Nicholsonʼs signature movie, I donʼt care what anyone says. His performance is like classical music translated into frightening visions (Nicholson himself referred to Kubrickʼs approach to this movie as “balletic”); heʼs like a power hitter slamming fastballs over the center field fence one after another, no doubt about it, pure muscle and savvy firing on all cylinders. Yes, heʼs chewing the scenery, and yes, heʼs morphing into Jack The Movie Star, a character he became criticized for too often resorting to onscreen...but hell, that Jack character is like a national monument or
something; itʼs like the goddamned Grand Canyon. And back when The Shining was being filmed, that character was finding its finest, purest expression.
So the nuts and bolts of the story are these: Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a frustrated writer who gets a job as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel for the winter. The Overlook is perched up in mountain country, and closes down for winters because the roads become impassable. Torranceʼs job will be to keep the place heated and repair weather-related damages as they occur. Torrance will be bringing along his wife Wendy and their young son Danny.
Along the way we find out that some pretty horrendous things have gone down at the Overlook in the past. It so happens that little Danny possesses psychic abilities (“The Shining”), which allow him to see visions of things that have happened at the hotel, people who have died, etc., and sometimes he also gets flashes of future horrors. On some level Danny knows that his father is being taken over by the dark power of the hotel. Dannyʼs visions provide some of the more memorable images in this film.
So thatʼs the basic shape of your thrill ride here, folks. The opening shots show a car driving along a winding mountain road, past a scenic lake. Weʼre on the way to our destination, and the subtle, buzzing, fearful music (of which weʼll talk more later) raises apprehensions right away.
Then we switch to Torranceʼs job interview inside the Overlook Hotel. This is one of my favorite opening “set-up” scenes in horror movie history...itʼs hard for me to explain, but the conversation in the interview office draws you into the story so quickly...itʼs a perfectly “normal” situation, with just slight notes of warning beginning to trickle in, and Nicholson-as-Torrance plays it so relaxed and smiling in his chair talking to interviewer/boss guy, pleasantries exchanged, polite––and Kubrickʼs camera captures facial expressions that are miniscule but meaningful, something he was justly famous for being able to do––itʼs a clever chess move of an opening for the film, mapping out much of whatʼs to come in a calm, quiet way. Then the horror story begins to unfold, in the following exchange between the interviewer and Torrance:
“Thereʼs one other thing I think, uh we should talk about, I donʼt want to sound melodramatic but itʼs something thatʼs been known to give a few people second thoughts about the job.”
“I donʼt suppose they told you anything in Denver about the tragedy we had up here during the winter of 1970?”
“I donʼt believe they did.”
...[a previous caretaker] “Ran amok and, uh, killed his family with an axe. Stacked them neatly in one of the rooms of the west wing and then he put both barrels of a shotgun in his mouth. Police, they thought it was what the old timers used to call cabin fever...”
...”Well...thatʼs quite a story...”
Nicholson nails that soft-spoken opening volley. His performance then continues to elevate and intensify until by the end of the film heʼs a raging storm of lunacy and violence. He hits the right notes every step along the way; his acting style seemed to mesh well with Kubrickʼs directorial technique, and supposedly the two became quite friendly personally. Nicholson has recalled that Kubrick “could be brutal” on the set, but not usually in Jackʼs direction.
“Youʼre the big fella, letʼs see it,” he recalls Kubrick saying during filming. “Thatʼs about as harsh as he ever got with me...He was a completely different director with Shelley.”
Shelley Duvallʼs experience making The Shining was extremely difficult, according to interviews sheʼs given over the years. Kubrick apparently berated her, screamed at her, made her feel completely nervous and bullied and even unwelcome––which all comes through on film, of course. Her character onscreen is appropriately rattled, jumpy, confused. Sheʼs a mess and it shows. Kubrickʼs methods are open for debate, but the results are diamond pure.
“For a person so charming...he can do some pretty cruel things when youʼre filming,” Duvall has remembered. “It seemed to me at times that the end justified the means...It was a long shoot, and I had to cry, and hyperventilate, and carry a little boy and run...you know, for most of the time we shot, and that was about a year, a little over a year...I wouldnʼt trade the experience for anything...it was such intense work, that I think it makes you smarter. But I wouldnʼt want to go through it again."
And then the music in our film is a strangely disorienting mash of layered tracks, sounds of breaths, heartbeats, creaks and slams...jumbles of sound washing across one another and painting the film with a veil of confusion, madness, fear and doubt.
Wikipedia has this to say about the music: “The film features a brief electronic score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind...the soundtrack LP was taken off the market due to licensing issues and has never appeared as a legitimate release...for the film itself, pieces were overdubbed on top of one another.”
All I really know is that the music works. Kubrickʼs films were always pioneering in their use of audio. In the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, director Tony Palmer says this:
“Before Stanley Kubrick, music tended to be used in films as either decorative or as heightening emotions. After Stanley Kubrick...it became absolutely an essential part of
the narrative intellectual drive of the film...I never knew whether the images arose out of the music or the music arose out of the images. But perhaps the true thing to say is, they became in his imagination clearly, and so have become in ours, totally inseparable.”
In Kubrickʼs hands, the music became like another character in his films. The Strauss pieces “Blue Danube” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” are now forever linked with the visual imagery of 2001. Beethoven played on a synthesizer sets the tone for A Clockwork Orange: classic and proud, but twisted with a shot of rude futuristic punk. The music of The Shining is every bit as important to its film, but this time the music is less identifiable...the swirled tracks are the audio equivalent of The Overlookʼs winding hallways: mysterious, ominous, but always making us curious about whatʼs really going on, always inviting us, luring us in a few steps deeper.
There are certain horror films––The Exorcist is certainly one; Psycho is another––that so many fans have viewed so many times, until the content of the films has become entrenched in popular culture, and itʼs sometimes easy to think that these films are so familiar by now that theyʼve lost their power to thrill and frighten. Until you actually go back and watch them, and find theyʼre every bit the scary monsters they used to be. They still grab you hard by the throat, and they still donʼt want to let go. The Shining is like that too. Even if youʼve seen it 50 times like I have, and think you have every line of dialogue memorized, when you watch again youʼll find a new angle on something, an unexpected little chill you hadnʼt remembered at all...
The Shining is simply that well constructed. It holds up, and it can still scare the hell out of you. After all, itʼs a Kubrick film. As Jack Nicholson once said, “Everybody pretty much acknowledges heʼs The Man. And I still feel that underrates him.”
Play a little trick and treat on yourself all at the same time this year, and take a look at The Shining. Pay a little visit to the Overlook Hotel. Jack Torrance will be there, waiting for you. Heʼs the caretaker. He has always been the caretaker.