Films / Horror

The Shining: Review and Analysis

Stanley Kubrick remains one of America’s strongest filmmakers – best known for classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick works across genres and his movies come with impeccable directing, atmosphere and a sense of intelligence. The Shining, one of Kubrick’s later movies, is now widely considered one (if not the) greatest horror movies ever made, and an excellent example of what an A-list director at the top of their game can do with the genre. Adapted, fairly loosely, from then up-and-coming author Stephen King’s novel, the film is a fascinating, twisted and dark movie, and remains prominent in popular culture today. It’s a film which certainly deserves a closer look.the shiningEverybody knows the plot of this movie – Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) takes on the role of caretaker for the Overlook, a vast, historic hotel located deep in the Rocky Mountains. The hotel needs maintenance during the harsh winter months and so Jack, along with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) are required to stay, isolated, for the winter. But the Overlook isn’t quite the homeliest hotel in the world – possessing a violent and savage history and collecting, over its years, a fair few ghosts. It’s an evil place, and the isolation and its influence begin to take a toll on Jack, who slowly begins to lose his mind. Danny also happens to possess ‘the shining,’ a psychic ability allowing him to see elements of past and future, a power of great interest to the hotel and its ghostly inhabitants.the shiningThe Shining opens with a series of tracking shots depicting the sprawling Rocky Mountains. The landscape is beautiful, and the viewer could potentially see this location of one of possibility; this is an endless America, a land of potential where memories and histories can grow and flourish. However, such a view is contradicted by Kubrick; the use of Berlioz’s ‘Dies Irae’ theme – a medieval piece depicting Judgement Day – creates an sense of unease which undercuts any positive potential – the mountains become both sublime and threatening, and there’s a great sense already of isolation; the twisting roads suggesting the impossibility of escape. The film is impeccably well directed throughout – Kubrick has a great eye for composition and knows how to frame a shot; the long, endless corridors of the Overlook spilling away from the characters. The film was one of the first to pioneer Steadicam, used to amazing effect here, following Danny on his tricycle with a sense of still hostility; this is a steady, measured movie, gradually building up the tension throughout. The film works as an inverse 2001 – whilst that movie was about an elevation or evolution, this is a regression, and so we’re going into hell and not heaven. The two films actually work remarkably well when watched side by side.the shiningThe Overlook itself stands as one of horror’s greatest locations; a landscape in its own right. The huge building, with numerous interconnected corridors and giant empty rooms, is a claustrophobic space – equally as isolated as the opening mountains, and just as physically imposing. It’s an impressive set, and something of a contradiction, spacious yet enclosed, and suffers from its duality; the Overlook is both glamorous and expansive but also serves as a tomb or prison, a place for memories to become trapped, where the past is always lurking beneath the surface gloss. There’s a pattern of mazes throughout the movie – note how in the Danny tricycle shots the corridors essentially roll into another, each room falls into the next, and how the first indication of Jack’s madness comes when stood over a model replica of the outside hedge maze.the shiningKubrick managers to further distort the geography of the hotel. Firstly, the snow which covers the landscape half-way through the film allows the Overlook to become even more alien. Perhaps the best example comes of this comes at the film’s climax, within the hedge maze – the audience has seen the maze previously in the film, but never at night with low blue lighting, and never in the snow. Snow makes the landscape more dangerous and ambiguous, and the film’s characters could become both literally and metaphorically lost in the ice. The snow tracks Danny leaves in the maze – which allow Jack to stalk him – essentially give the snow its own hostile memory, as if the landscape is holding Danny’s footprints for Jack’s benefit; the landscape almost seems alive in this respect, as if it is holding on to the past. The snow also serves an excellent means of isolating the characters from the outside world, an issue many haunted house tales suffer with.the shiningAs well as disrupting space with snow, Kubrick also disrupts time within the film. Several title cards show the viewer where they are within the film’s timeline – ‘The Interview,’ ‘Closing Day,’ ‘One Month Later,’ ‘Tuesday,’ ‘Thursday,’ ‘8am, ‘4pm’ – what is noticeable is how temporality reduces from months to days to hours – the landscape of the Overlook doesn’t seem to have a set timeframe, making it purposely difficult for the characters and the audience to get their bearings, which gives the film a dream-like quality. The repetition of ‘forever’ by the twin girls and Jack himself also serves to mesh past, present and future into one mass – all tenses are the same; the Torrance’s nightmare has already happened with the Grady family, and will possibly happen again with someone else. The landscape of the film exists in all timeframes simultaneously. The bathroom, and the 1930’s style party in the Gold Room, are memories from the past which have moved into the present day; in the Overlook’s shifting temporal environment, memories are not confined to the past, further adding to the distortion of the film.the shiningThe design of the Overlook is also interesting in that Kubrick strips the place of its gothic heritage; this is a modern, well-furnished and brightly lit hotel, with none of the standard ‘bumps in the dark’ that the audience would expect with this kind of film. Kubrick clearly wanted to step away from the genre and refuses to play into its rules – the ghosts, when they appear, are solid, threatening, and crucially, ambiguous; the hotel is bright throughout, and there’s a great sense of horror invading the real world here. It’s interesting how Kubrick took what was essentially a fairly pulpy novel and stripped it of most of its genre conventions – the novel is somewhat sillier in its approach, with the Overlook’s history and motive explained in greater detail; here, explanations are replaced with a sense of ambigiouty, the loss the audience feel representing the lost characters, and a sense of impending doom and horror. We don’t need to know the mechanics – why the hotel is haunted, why it’s driving Jack insane, if the ghosts actually exist at all – because the absence of knowledge makes everything scarier; Kubrick’s Overlook is considerably more alien and unsettling than King’s because of this. It feels evil, and that’s all it needs.shin6This is one of the most ominous films ever made – the pacing is excellent, beginning with a sense of slow burning dread, each scare is greater than the last, until the final amazing half-hour. Taken as a whole, The Shining is a remarkable exercise in tension and structure. It’s also incredibly frightening – the music is a massive help here, made up of classical pieces and eerie, string-heavy motifs; a large part of the movie’s effectiveness comes from the strength of its soundtrack; its truly horrifying and wonderfully atmospheric, almost dizzying in intensity. The scares are some of the most iconic ever put on screen and the film is tense and highly atmospheric – so tight that its able to make the audience jump at title cards – the whole experience is like walking up a staircase which gradually gets narrower. Very few films have the same feeling as this one, that bad things are going to happen.the shining liftThere’s some amazing scenes throughout – Danny’s run in with the twins, covered in greater detail in the Top Ten Scariest Movie Moments, and of course the bathroom attack towards the end, rivalling Psycho for the best horror movie bathroom scene. There’s a tremendous sense of physicality as Jack takes his axe to the door, combined with the tight claustrophobia of the bathroom itself. It’s a raw and impressive scene, the horror coming from a sense of perverted domesticity and the complete breakdown of the family unit. Jack’s ‘Wendy, I’m home’ as he axes through the door is a great example of this; the typical American values of the father returning to his wife are twisted and made menacing. The famous ‘Here’s Johnny’ line comes from the wholesome Johnny Carson show, a line which Kubrick takes from its context and bestows with a nightmare of implications – there’s an idea of sitcom values being poisoned here.the shiningThere’s a view taken  by some critics that the ghosts of the movie represent America’s culture heritage, serving as a stand-in for the massacre of the Indian people by settlers. The Overlook can be seen as a representation of America itself – a large, cultural melting pot of history -and so, if the Overlook can be seen as a representation of America, then Kubrick is implying that something violent and horrific happened in the country’s past, something which has haunted the American landscape ever since. Taking this interpenetration, the ghosts represent the darker memories which America has tried to repress, but within the confines of the hotel, the film’s character’s are forced to confront these fears. The horrific memories trapped within the hotel, within America, can be viewed  as a metaphor for the Indian massacre. Numerous references to Indian culture are littered throughout the film; the carpets and tapestries of the hotel for example all feature Indian designs, and its mentioned that the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground, an idea which does not feature in the original novel. The Indian chanting which occurs during the film’s climax reinforces such ideas, particularly as the chanting is tied to ghostly images. Following this, then the film is an allegory, and the repressed memories driving Jack mad represent an America unable to deal with its history. The ghosts, representing the past, have driven Jack to attack his present (Wendy) and future (Danny) in a mindless act of cannibalism; the film works in cycles, in which the past is turning on the future.The ShiningIn terms of cast, everyone is on top form here. Nicholson is fierce and deranged, coming with a great sense of menace and threat. People who criticise the movie by saying that Jack seems insane from the start are missing the point, and possibly not fans of Kubrick’s general style; Kubrick has little interest in his characters as people, using them more as vehicles for thematic ideas or allegory. They are vessels, and so The Shining shouldn’t be taken as a character study – the book treats the material as so, using the story as a metaphor for alcoholism and showing Jack’s turn from a nice guy into a monster. In the novel, it’s more implicitly implied that the hotel possesses Jack – the film, by making Jack ambiguous from the start, removes the certainty of possession and blurs what’s real and what isn’t – it’s a stronger interpretation and more unsettling in this regard.shin10Duvall is often criticised in this role but her performance is fantastic – she’s mousy and meek but that’s the character, and when she’s pushed, Duvall really lets go. It’s difficult to think of another actress in another film role reaches these sheer depths of terror. Kubrick basically tortured her with extended takes and the strain, stress and anguish actually add to her performance. Lloyd is great for a child actor, somewhat unsettling and able to switch from creepy and eerie to scared child in a second – it’s even more impressive when you realize he didn’t know he was filming a horror movie. Scatman Crothers shows up too, adding a drop of humanity to the film, though his character is a really a plot device, albeit one which ties into the massacre and racial themes of the movie. shin1The Shining is an amazing movie, one which is open to numerous interpretation. It’s also very scary, a stunning exercise in atmosphere and dread, and earns its place as not just one of the best horror movies ever made, but also, one of the best movies ever made. A shining example of a brilliant director elevating the material.

5/5

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21 thoughts on “The Shining: Review and Analysis

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  5. I really enjoyed your thoughts. I think The Shining is the best of Kubrick’s works. As the years go by it seems to never go away, there is always something extraordinary to discover about it. No other films is like that to its degree.

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  11. A really great review on a great movie. I loved how you stated that the Overlook doesn’t have a set timeframe Therefore making it difficult for the characters and the audience to know where they actually are. This holds true at the very final shot of the movie, which for me is the scariest part about this movie. Great Job

    • Thanks, glad you enjoyed the review. Yeah – when I watched it recently, I was struck by how time just completely collapses. We never know how long the Torrence’s are in the hotel or how long occurs between key moments. It’s all just a blur which becomes more and more frightening as it goes on

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  14. Hi Carl, thanks for sending the link over to your review. I really enjoyed it, very thorough and some really interesting points. I like your analysis of the way time (as we know it) just melts away thanks to those title cards, and of the hotel’s design. It’s a film that I will definitely watch again.

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