Cine-East Film Club Presents (Halloween Special) #12: 1980, The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)

by George_East on November 1, 2012

˜I fear that you are going to have to deal with this matter in the harshest possible way, Mr Torrance’ (Delbert Grady)

Halloween calls for a horror film.  It is a genre that has fared well in the Cine-East Film Club, so far, with three films featured. The  Club’s third film was one of the earliest of all horror films, the German expressionist masterpiece of mind control, murder and madness: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.  The fifth film featured was Ridley Scott’s Alien: and yes genre-wise it’s more of a horror film than a Sci Fi film.

Today though we turn to Stanley Kubrick’s one foray into the genre (though A Clockwork Orange could be said to be a horror film too) and his last great movie (Full Metal Jacket is only half of a great film and the less said about Eyes Wide Shut the better). There are probably 4 or 5 Kubrick’s films I prefer to this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a writer who takes a winter job as caretaker of a remote mountain hotel, but that just shows how good Kubrick was.  The Shining  is a master class of horror film-making and showcases a director at the very peak of his powers.

What you have probably forgotten for a film of such visual brilliance, particularly, if you haven’t seen it for a while, is that it is shot in academy ratio (1.37:1) (the trailer above has been stretched into a wider ratio).  This old style television ratio was used by pretty much all films until the 1950s, when various wider ratios were adopted by the film studios, initially for epics, and then over time for most films, in order to make the cinematic experience bigger and better than its small screen rival. The ratio is in danger of seeming completely outdated now, given the prevalence of wide screen televisions.

The reason that you have probably forgotten that The Shining is shot in academy ratio is that, it is a film which uses the screen space so well, it feels like it is in wide screen. From the opening shots of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) driving up to the Overlook Hotel for the first time through the Rocky Mountains to the snow bound exteriors of the hotel, to the scenes in the hotel’s maze, it employs the kind of cinematography which would usually benefit from a wider ratio.

But the reason for Kubrick’s use of the academy ratio is that it adds to the sense of entrapment.  It is claustrophobic.  It doesn’t allow much room for escape.  When Wendy (Shelley Duvall) tries and fails to squeeze through the window of the bathroom while Jack smashes his axe into the wood of the door, she seems all the more confined, her plight all the more hopeless, given the shape of the screen. The huge size of the Overlook Hotel with its myriad of long corridors and massive spaces, such as the Gold Room or the Games Room, which Jack uses as an office, still does not feel big enough, for any of them to get away from the Overlook’s past or for Wendy and their son Dan to get away from Jack. They are trapped by the screen as well as the hotel.

The film taps into many horror genre conventions.  The child with supernatural powers, the building with a history of death in its fabric (or even soul) – in this case the Overlook is built on an Indian burial ground,  the small group cut off from civilization by a natural disaster, the conspiracy between the dead and the living,  the threat from within (both the hotel and the family). But it does so with a panache and style, that raises it above a mere genre piece.

The use of colour in the film is perhaps as good as anything since Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas.  The colours are brash, bold and exaggerated. From the yellow wallpaper, to the orange carpets, to the blood red of the gents bathroom, where Jack has the pivotal conversation with Delbert Grady (Kubrick stalwart Philip Stone in the best performance of the film), matching the red of the lifts from which the blood will spill, to the bleached out white of the scenes at the end in the maze.

The use of sound is equally impressive and equally exaggerated – Dan on his bike running over the various surfaces.  Jack playing catch with a baseball against the wall in the reception while he is struggling with writers’ block.  The fast clicking of the typewriter, as Jack pretends (or perhaps thinks he has) overcome the block “ ˜all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ repeated endlessly in different patterns on the paper. If you look closely enough you will see misspellings on the sheets of paper – ‘dull bog‘ and ‘dull bot‘ for two – this is not typed by a possessed automaton but by a man being driven slowly mad through being trapped in the hotel and his life (which his rage towards Wendy makes clear, hasn’t turned out as he dreamed it would).

Whenever Dan moves anywhere we follow him from behind.  In the famous shots on his bike through the corridors of the hotel, to the equally famous shots of him trying to get away from Jack in the maze at the end.  In contrast with Jack, we are always with him from the front.  With Dan we, the audience, are the threat – complicit in the boy’s terror. With Jack we are with him patrolling the corridors – equally complicit in Jack’s actions. If the audience is with Jack, it is no wonder that Wendy looks so terrified  and for all of the criticisms that can be made of parts of Shelley Duvall’s performance in the film (in particular in the early scenes), has anyone ever acted sheer terror as well as she does in the iconic bathroom ‘here’s Johnny‘ scene?

Jack Nicholson’s performance, a bit like Al Pacino in Scarface, in retrospect marked the point where he passed from being one of the greatest of screen actors into something of a self-parody. The arched eyebrows, rolling eyes and rictus (Tony Blair-like) grin are all ratcheted up to 11, in a performance that feels over done, watching it now (probably because we have seen Nicholson do it so many times since).  But that would be to forget that, a bit like Toshiru Mifune’s performance in Cine-East’s last presentation, Rashomon, Kubrick is deliberately heightening everything. It is as exaggerated as the garish patterns on the wallpaper and the carpets.And in this there is a clue to what the film is driving at.

Although it is the boy’s supernatural powers, the shining of the title, which results in Mr Halloran (the ever wonderful Scatman Crothers) from driving up to the Overlook to find out what is going on, the consequence is simply Halloran’s swift and bloody  death at the hands of Jack. The shining does not assist.  There is no rescue by Halloran. The boy’s survival is ultimately down to him using his brain and laying false footprints and being able to evade his father, who is weakening from his earlier fall down the stairs and baseball bat blow from Wendy.  The shining causes the death of the innocent chef, maybe all part of the Overlook’s voracious appetite for the staff and guests of the hotel.

After all, the implication from the bloodied guests, the young/old woman in the bath, and the strange vision of two men (one in a bear costume) in one of the rooms, which the various members of the Torrance family see (or think they have seen) is that there have been far more victims than simply Mr and Mrs Grady and their two daughters. The photograph at the end showing Jack as part of a 1921 4 July celebration suggests that the Hotel is seeped in blood.  The family killing Charles Grady of 1970 and the Delbert Grady in the Gold Room in the 1920s, may be related, but they are, chronology would dictate, not the same.  If you allow yourself to believe in what is on the surface rather than challenging what you think you see, madness and death will result, the film implies. As Halloran says to Dan, they are not real.

In some ways, then, the film can be seen as a cry for calm rationalism and a rejection of the shallow acceptance of what is on the surface.  The maze at the Overlook is entered and negotiated by both Wendy and Dan, but not Jack.  This is, on this reading of the film,  for a good reason.  It is a metaphor for the border between sanity and insanity.  The border between a child having an imaginary friend (like Dan’s Tony) and a voice in your head telling you to kill your family to teach them a lesson.  One, if left unchecked, perhaps could lead to the other.

Halloween also sees a limited re-release of the film in  cinemas in its original US 146 minute cut (which I have never seen).  This will restore more than 30 minutes to the familiar UK cut of the film.  Whether it will improve it remains to be seen.

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