I should say up front that there may be spoilers for The Shining in this review
“Hi Lloyd. Little slow tonight, isn’t it”
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining represents something of a turning point for the director: it was the last truly great film of his spectacular career. Never again would he reach the highs of this, his one and only foray into the horror genre. The strange thing is, The Shining was critically panned upon its initial release, even being nominated for two Golden Raspberry awards for Worst Actress and Worst Director.
The Shining is a film that reveals its secrets the more times you watch it. First time around, you’d be forgiven for missing the significance of Wendy’s reference to the hotel as being like a maze, or the story of the previous caretaker, a man who succumbed to the seclusion of living so far from civilization and brutally murdered his family with an axe. These stories go a long way to shaping the plot of the film, subtly hinting at the nature of the narrative, and they certainly require more than one viewing to fully appreciate. Thankfully, The Shining is a film that not only requires repeat viewings, but demands them.
Kubrick’s trademark use of tracking shots, lingering close-ups and an almost constantly moving camera help to develop an atmosphere of dread; one that runs throughout the film. Starting with a dazzling aerial shot of a secluded mountain road, ending with a slow track up to a photograph hanging on the wall of the hotel, the majority of the film’s power is drawn from these moments, particularly his use of extreme close-ups, lingering on their subjects for just enough time for the audience to become ill-at-ease with the face on screen. The look of horror on Danny’s face following the death of Mr. Hallorann is devastatingly effective.
Aside from his use of the camera, Kubrick’s main influence to The Shining is its setting, the Overlook hotel. An odd mixture of space and a lack of space, the Overlook is, when in season, a busy mountain hotel, yet in its off-season, the hotel is an expansive, labyrinthine building that, due to its oddly decorated interiors, resembles not one, but many different locations.
Take the famous scene of Danny riding around the corridors of the hotel on his tricycle. The scene features the look of numerous different hotels: in one corridor, the halls are decorated with bland white walls, brown doors and a brown, orange and red hexagonal print carpet. In a different section, however, the hotel is decorated differently, with the painted white walls making way for flowery wallpaper and the hexagonal carpet making way for a thin blue carpet over wooden floorboards. You would think that a normal hotel would have a consistent design, but the Overlook isn’t a normal hotel, is it?
This seemingly off-kilter approach to set design begs the question: why does Kubrick make such an effort to present the hotel as having such a wildly varied design?
One interpretation of this is that Kubrick is trying to explore the theme of duality. As in many of his films, Kubrick presents his lead characters as two parts of the same whole: Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket (1987) both undergo drastic transformations throughout the course of the film. With The Shining, Kubrick introduces Jack Torrance as a seemingly intelligent, mild-mannered family man, but, as the film progresses, he turns him into a psychopathic murderer, an altogether different character than the man we meet at the start.
Of course, there are many interpretations of Torrance’s transformation: is it the influence of the bloody history of the Overlook hotel? All three members of the Torrance family encounter ghosts at some point in the film, specifically Jack, who is convinced by the old caretaker of the hotel to kill his family. But are these ghosts real or are they simply visions caused by cabin fever, due to the requirement of living in such isolated surroundings?
No one but Kubrick can really say for sure, but it does make The Shining that little bit more interesting. A deceptively deep film, The Shining is certainly the work of a director at the top of his game, and a true classic of the horror genre.