The Harshest Possible Way

The Shining (March 3, 2012)*     5/5

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (Warner Bros.)

*Screening of an original 1980 print at the Library of Congress (Packard Campus) in Culpeper, VA, preserved by the National Film Registry

Upon Stephen King’s angry reaction to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his bestselling novel, the nation’s most popular horror writer claimed that The Shining was made by a man who “thinks too much and feels too little.” Woah. I’d be a little upset too if some guy out in Hollywood took my book, stripped away half the plot, neglected to include certain themes, shredded the humanity of the characters, and in doing so, made an artistic product at least ten times scarier. Kubrick does take the essence of what made The Shining a terrific read and transform it into pure cinema, but indeed, this is an entirely different work, almost as if Kubrick were simply given an outline of King’s book and the freedom to rewrite it through film. And if there’s one thing we can all agree about Kubrick (I’m talking to you, Mr. King), it is that the world’s most notoriously particular director always made a film exactly the way he wanted to make it.

It is a story that Kubrick’s singular style permanently imprinted in pop culture. Writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is the new caretaker of the empty Overlook Hotel during blizzard-prone winter, bringing along his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their seemingly telepathic son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). Soon, the family begins to realize that there is more wrong with the Overlook than cabin fever, which becomes rather obvious as Jack begins to run around with an axe, following in the footsteps of former caretaker Grady (Philip Stone), who murdered his wife and two daughters before killing himself. The family’s only hope is Danny’s mental connection with a man who can also “shine,” the hotel’s head cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who along with the rest of the guests and employees, has departed for the season. They can only pray that he arrives before the bloodshed begins.

Kubrick’s key elements of terror are isolation and ambiguity. The family is not only separated from the rest of the world, but we are also fairly detached from any sense of human goodness within these characters. Jack is a recovering alcoholic, a theme of King’s that Kubrick keeps, but any ability for us to relate is purposefully lost. We are not given the context to feel sorry for Jack as the hotel manipulates his inner demons, and are instead left with the impression that he is simply a deadbeat gradually becoming insane, and whose weaknesses might have led him to have a slight mental illness in the first place.

Wendy, meanwhile, is loyal to her husband, and despite the odd quirks that make her an individual, blissfully accepts his bizarre nature until Danny or she is violently threatened. Yet in her sobbing and fragility, Wendy remains a symbol of human weakness. The great irony is that she is the last to see the hotel’s hallucinations, and the most gifted character, Danny, is the first. And never does he shed a tear.

This is where The Shining approaches brilliance, in a frequent shift of perspective that never allows us to have a clear view of what is real or unreal, or which character is even seeing what Kubrick portrays onscreen at any instant. One can even interpret the Overlook as a character of its own; after all, it interacts with Jack, Wendy, and Danny in completely different ways. I for one, prefer to think of it as a living entity. But is it the hotel, cabin fever, or inner turmoil that drives Jack to madness so quickly? What is Jack’s association with Grady and the hotel’s history? What does the photograph mean? Kubrick allows us to draw our own interpretations in a way that King never quite did, although the novel was spectacular in its own right.

Here, a good deal of the film’s greatness lies in both the visual design of the Overlook and the way Kubrick shoots it. The hotel is a fairly large place; one could explore quite a few places over the course of a single season. Yet the tightly wound corridors and atrociously patterned carpets tend to enclose us in what was initially a vast locale of unlimited space, not only in the terror of this current situation, but also the decades of history with which the activities in the hotel begin to intertwine. The Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown, plays a key role in the shots which memorably track behind the characters (whether through the hallways or in that infamous hedge maze), rushing toward / running away from imminent terror. Kubrick’s use of red also plays a dynamic role in the bold color scheme, contrasting with the white slate of winter outside the Overlook’s walls.

The whole production is a little mad, a little hilarious, and just the right amount of Kubrick to make a profound statement about the American way of life. The conventions of a typical, middle-class family are substituted for characters and situations of near absurdity, cast within an ironic location of luxury. I mean, if it wasn’t haunted, what better place to take the wife and kids? During the summer, at least. Kubrick took over a year in shooting alone, and many cast and crew members have described it as one of their worst experiences. That’s right – all work and no play.

Duvall, in particular, was bullied by Kubrick to be scared into character. Her performance is one of the best personifications of pure terror to ever reach the silver screen, and that she was nominated for a Razzie upon the movie’s release is pure idiocy, especially when Nicholson’s performance is the one that is eternally treasured. “Here’s Johnny” aside, it truly is a sensational portrayal of supernatural insanity. Thank God the cast had the tolerance to sit through each “Kubrick shot,” which might consist of more takes than each of their fingers and toes. Put together.

So what does it all mean? Is it a symbol for the American slaughter of the Native Americans, the Holocaust, or even the awesomely ridiculous theory that Kubrick helped fake video footage of the moon landing? I’ll tell you one thing, when I saw Danny in his tight-knit Apollo sweater, I couldn’t help but chuckle. I also couldn’t help but think when I saw Wendy and Danny’s matching red-white-and-blue outfits at the beginning of the film. What exactly is Kubrick trying to say, if anything, about topics that we are not consciously aware of? This is a factor that I believe enhances nearly all of Kubrick’s films, and in the case of The Shining, were examined in a documentary shown at Sundance this year, Room 237, directed by Rodney Ascher. I’ll eagerly await the Blu-ray.

In the meantime, seeing an original print of The Shining (on the big screen, nonetheless), complete with scratches, faded color, jerkiness within the projector, etc., made for the complete experience of Kubrick’s movie, his meticulous detail being aided by the sheer eeriness that seeing horror on actual film can present in itself. This might be the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen the picture, and for all it leaves up the air, it is still incredible to see how Kubrick just gently eases that book of newspaper clippings into the frame, daring us to notice it. Plus, there is nothing quite like that zoom onto Scatman Crothers’ face, as if we are about to take a ride into his nostrils. Nothing like seeing Duvall drag the unconscious Nicholson into the pantry, dried drool on his lips. Nothing like that blood slowly erupting from the elevators, as if it will soon rush under our feet. “Feels too little, huh?” I can assure you, The Shining has made me feel things that only Kubrick could ever arouse.

It’s like taking a trip into your worst nightmare, one where you can’t tell if you’re asleep or awake, and most horrifically, where you are not even the lead character. But you have to watch, and you have to decide why you are having this dream. Then you wake up, and are haunted by the fact that you stumbled upon something you never should’ve found, but were bound to discover. You pretend you weren’t there, but know you were somewhere. This place is the Overlook, and it is unlikely that you will ever leave. After all, “somewhere” is one place where you have always been.

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