I was holding off on seeing The Shining pretty admirably; since I don’t watch a lot of horror movies I thought I would wait until Halloween and do some sort of horror marathon around it. I couldn’t wait anymore! I watched a Stanley Kubrick documentary (Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures; it comes highly recommended) and that reminded me that the Kubrick film I most wanted to see next was The Shining, and I couldn’t keep away from it anymore. I did like The Shining a lot, but unfortunately it didn’t scare me. That seems strange, given that most people report being scared by it and I’m really the biggest fraidey cat that ever walked the Earth, but nevertheless there you have it. I did enjoy myself a lot though, and I couldn’t look away.
One thing I completely loved about this movie was the tracking shots. Sustained tracking shots are one of my favorite things in movies, and Kubrick has always been one for using them (one reason why I’m a big fan of his). The Shining is famous for its revolutionary use of the Steadicam and with good reason. Though it had been used before, for example during the training montage and boxing matches in Rocky, it is much more fluid here and Kubrick adds an extra innovation and shoots from just above the ground. These are mostly used for the famous shots of Danny riding around the Overlook on his toy tricycle. Those shots are really fun to watch, especially when he goes around corners. I almost felt like I was going on a ride. Fun times! Of course, the fact that these are in fairly long takes also adds to the suspense; you keep wondering when Danny is going to encounter something (because you know he will). There are also the swooping helicopter shots at the beginning; very dramatic, very beautiful, and very intense. That basically describes the whole movie, as a matter of fact.
I also really loved his use of the mirror in Jack and Wendy’s room. It adds to the unsettling feel of the movie because it puts you off a lot visually. It takes you a while to figure out what you’re looking at. There’s one scene where Wendy comes in to give Jack breakfast and we see his sleeping reflection in the mirror instead of his actual body. Then Kubrick switches and it’s a bit confusing, until you see the mirror and you’re like “ohhh that’s what happened…” You have to be on your toes when watching this movie, because there are a lot of trick shots like that. Another is when Wendy looks at Jack’s typewriter pages. It’s a low angle shot that appears to be through the table, and maybe just because of the mirror thing before I thought the table was a mirror, but then that didn’t make sense so I thought the table was just transparent. I’m still not really sure how that was achieved, but looking back on it, they probably just went as close to the table as they could without being under it. I don’t know. I don’t even know if this is relevant at all, but it puzzled me for a bit, because tables just don’t disappear like that. But enough mysteries in cinematography, because there is a story here you know.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is an aspiring writer who takes a job looking after The Overlook Hotel when it closes down in the winter. Basically all he has to do is make sure the building doesn’t fall into disrepair and not let the disturbing events that took place in the hotel previously get to him. He is warned about a previous caretaker who got “cabin fever” and murdered his wife and two daughters. He doesn’t mind having that hanging over his head, and even think his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) will be interested in it. He is looking forward to the solitude so he will be able to write.
Their son Danny (Danny Lloyd), has an imaginary friend named Tony which actually turns out to be a coping mechanism for his psychic abilities. When first being shown the Overlook, the cook, Mr. Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), sheds some light on Danny’s abilities. He has “the shining” too, and can see things from the past and the future. He also tells him to stay out of room 237, presumably where the murders took place. Danny has disturbing visions of blood flowing out from the elevators, creepy twin girls who want to play with him (presumably the ones that were murdered), and is even attacked when he dares to enter 237. Wendy realizes that he is in danger, even if she doesn’t understand what is going on. All of this goes unnoticed by Jack, who is so consumed with his writing and the hotel’s influence on him that he doesn’t spend much time with the rest of the family.
The isolation takes its toll, to say the least. Jack doesn’t really get any writing done, as a horrified Wendy discovers. He hallucinates or sees the ghosts of old hotel guests, the bartender, and most importantly, the former caretaker who murdered his family. The caretaker seems to convince Jack to do the same, and now we really have something to worry about. Danny’s personality becomes completely submerged and Tony takes over completely. This really leaves Wendy as the only line of defense against the madness that overtakes the hotel. Even though she doesn’t look tough, and she really isn’t, she manages things surprisingly well. I for one was pretty impressed. I always assumed they would she would die right after Jack axes the door in, but all things considered, it’s a pretty happy ending.
Wendy doesn’t seem like a fighter. She screams and wails in fear for the whole last part of the movie, and generally seems to be frightened and nervous for most of it. She tries to combat the things going on around her with a sort of forced cheerfulness, but usually this just results in Jack yelling at her. It’s hard for her to fight fire with fire. When Tony takes over Danny’s personality, she mostly hugs him. It’s as though she thinks she’s in a Disney movie and if she hugs a person hard enough, the evil will disappear. She tries to stop the insanity that engulfs the hotel with happiness and love because that’s just her character. Though it’s obvious she’s terrified for the whole chasing part at the end, she still manages to get away, with Danny, and on top of that put some hurt on Jack. I have a soft spot for Gothic heroines anyway, and Wendy is a pretty darn good example of one. Duvall’s performance usually seems to go unmentioned, which is a shame, because she’s fantastic in this film. She is able to portray terror, desperation, and despair very well, and even have that survivor aspect that allows her to live. It’s a great performance, and though Nicholson is great as well, I think he would have been much less effective if Duvall hadn’t been able to show how terrified her character was of him.
One of the trickiest things about this movie is why all of this happens in the first place. Is is the past murder intruding onto the present? Is Jack going crazy from alcohol withdrawal (then why would it have taken five months)? Does the hotel just have an evil influence on all who stay there? Why isn’t Wendy affected? None of these answers really seem compelling enough for me on their own, but maybe it’s a combination. Though it seems like a pretty safe bet that Jack is insane, I was wondering if maybe he was trying to establish (or reestablish?) his dominance over the family or something. He talks a lot about getting his wife back in line and the ghost/hallucination of the previous caretaker talks about “correcting” his family. It seems as if the Overlook is some sort of male controlled time capsule, and the people at the party wearing twenties clothes and Jack’s photo at the end there sort of support this. Jack, the previous caretaker, and the Overlook seem to represent stagnation, isolation, and repression of disempowered people. Notice how the adult white male tries to axe the black guy, woman, and child. One could get into some serious social commentary and feminist criticism with this film if they were of a mind to.
There’s just one more trick shot I have to talk about. Next to the hotel, there’s a hedge maze (think Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire but without the monsters), and Danny and Wendy go exploring there while Jack is writing. The room Jack is writing in has a model of the maze in it. He looks down into the model, and sees Wendy and Danny wandering around inside of it. And then there’s me going “is that actually happening or is it just a clever scene transition?” And really that’s typical of this whole movie. You don’t know what’s real and what’s not and you could spend forever coming up with theories about it (and people do this apparently). The way Kubrick shoots the film plays right into that, and that’s why it’s so great.
The Shining is a pretty great film, no matter how you slice it. The only complaint I have with it is that I didn’t really scare me, but I think that’s a combination of already knowing a bit about it, being a bit tired when I watched it, and also the emotional shut down thing I do a lot during disturbing movies. But nevertheless, I appreciate this film a lot both in terms of the technical side and the story itself. There are many mysteries to ponder and aspects to analyze. It really is a great film, and probably one of my favorite of Kubrick’s thus far. And it only gets better the more you think about it.
“Your wife appears to be stronger than we imagined, Mr. Torrance. Somewhat more… resourceful. She seems to have got the better of you.”
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