What is it about the Overlook Hotel that casts such an ominous cloud? How do the mysterious, inexplicable events surrounding a small and isolated family affect the terror they inflict on one another? These are just two of the broad questions hovering over a long mystery in “The Shining,” a movie of ageless dexterity that also remains one of the more fascinating case studies in academic film analysis. When it arrived in theaters over four decades ago, the conventional wisdom at the time had been swift and dismissive: the exacting hand of one Stanley Kubrick had lost sight of a cogent vision, supplementing the famous source material by Stephen King with so much surrealistic ambiguity and nonsense that he had released a labyrinthian mess instead of a probing psychological essay. But much like his own “A Clockwork Orange” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” time has offered a generous reassessment, and now the picture is usually seen hovering towards the top of most lists of the greatest horror movies ever made. When I first encountered it at the age of 15, my admiration for its technical skill and tone were undermined by an inability to decipher the clues. What was happening to the Torrance family? Were they being haunted by ghosts, pitted against one another by elaborate mind games? Would they have been seen if the young boy at the center of the action were not clairvoyant? Or were they simply imagined by people whose sanity had been compromised by isolation? Over 20 years and dozens of viewings later, I can finally speak with confidence on some of the great paradoxes the story weaves.The primary key to Kubrick’s riddle, I believe, exists in the material involving mirrors. The most obvious occurs in a bathroom behind the hotel bar, where Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has gone to drown his sorrows in the third act after an explosive confrontation with his wife. As the Gold Room fills with the enthusiasm of countless flappers and socialites, a waiter crashes into him and spills a tray of drinks all over his jacket. They wander into a nearby restroom to clean the stain, and their dialogue is insufferably formal to the point of discomfort. Then, Jack’s eyes arrive at a great and devious realization: the waiter is actually Mr. Grady, one of the former caretakers, who eight years prior murdered his entire family before committing suicide with a shotgun. How is his presence possible? Because the hotel, of course, vibrates with paranormal energies that spill over into reality, and a critical detail offered by the hotel manager at the start of the film foreshadows his eventual arrival. It is the mirror in the restroom that is the bridge between planes of existence: it offers him a physical gateway into Jack’s consciousness, much in the same way it allows other details earlier in the film to take root in the eyes of the characters.
We accept this explanation based on a thread that subconsciously occurs throughout the movie, across scenes established in the same reality. A vision of a bloody elevator flooding a hallway, created by young Danny (Danny Lloyd) when he is talking to his imaginary friend in the bathroom mirror. A scene shot from the perspective of reflection in a bedroom, after the family has set up shop in the hotel and Wendy (Shelley Duvall) brings Jack his breakfast (notice how his eyes seem possessed by malevolence). A shot of an empty liquor cabinet in the bar with a reflective backdrop, which Jack stares into before manifesting the vision of Lloyd, his trusted bartender. The startling switcheroo that occurs in Room 237, when Jack stumbles upon an attractive woman in the bathtub, embraces her, then turns to the mirror to notice he is holding the bloated and decaying body of an old lady. All this eventually culminates with the famous “Redrum” shot, when Wendy finally realizes her son’s moniker is actually a warning observed in reverse. The finality of the gesture becomes obvious with one sharp zoom-in towards the word in question: what is confusing in reality makes brutal sense when you gaze it from the opposing angle.
These are not ruses or coincidences for a filmmaker who took perverse pleasure in creating obscure patterns, dismantling ordinary narrative structure and leaving behind frustrating loose ends. “The Shining” endures, in part, because so much of the open-ended uncertainty can simply be found by stumbling upon it. There is never a moment in which our observations remain precisely the same from one viewing to the next; always, there is another detail coming to light, a framing device that makes itself known, a common bond that we did not detect before, or a reconsideration of the underlying exchanges that occur somewhere between dialogue and behavior. Unlike so many horror movies that feel as if they have been permanently carved into a fixed state, Kubrick’s movie remains eternally alive on screen, always in flux as age and wisdom allow us to take different roads and find more resonating explanations. How marvelous it is to return to those frightening corridors on the 40th anniversary and find them still so potent on our unsettled algorithms.
All the same, you can sense how the initial frustration began. “The Shining” came not just on the cusp of Kubrick’s own descent into stylistic madness but arrived at the onset of the most literal age of horror films in Hollywood, when audiences preferred visual assaults and simplified gorefrests. The chords routinely struck in such pictures were, for the most part, symbols of transparency that could be absorbed and forgotten with minimal effort. You never had to think about what they suggested. Even a film like “Alien,” another famous slow burner of the time, could be accepted with certainty as its notorious monster stalked and murdered members of a space crew. Yet here was a mother, father and son whose only grounding to reality could be described by their reactions. You could scarcely trust what they were seeing was more than figurative. Audiences resented that kind of trickery; it required them to perform mental leaps they were unwilling to make, lest that rob them of the experience to be lazily assaulted by the images ahead of them.
The movie does not begin with that insinuation. The first shots follow a lone car overlooking a mountain range as it speeds over a scenic byway, on a destination to something of great importance. The spot: a hotel atop a great peak in Colorado (the establishing shot actually uses Mt. Hood and its Timberline Lodge), where the driver has arrived to be interviewed for the caretaker position. Over the course of a long eight-month venture, he will be assigned to watch over the site and keep its electricity and boilers functional as heavy winter snowfall buries all the nearby roads. His wife and son, of course, will be allowed to stay with him, occupying a room in the servants’ quarters. There is an initial enthusiasm in Jack, who sees the quiet and solitude as a chance to gain focus on the book he hopes to write. The strange and bloody legend of Grady fascinates him but does not dissuade his enthusiasm, perhaps because he is not easily impressed by the legend, or perhaps he is already aware of the details.
Danny’s gift for psychic phenomena, seen well before his first step into the Overlook, is an entry point through the supernatural membrane of the story. When he conjures up the vision of the famous bleeding elevator, in fact, it is so terrible and shocking that his own imaginary friend Tony attempts to conceal it from him. Afterwards, the boy collapses and is tended to by a doctor, who is just as startled as we are to learn his shoulder was once dislocated by his father during a drunken rage. Alcoholism and child abuse, of course, were prominent fixtures of the King novel, but Kubrick deliberately glosses over those details because of his disinterest in the humanity. Of course the mother and son will be horrified by what occurs, and of course the father will descend a madness that spills over into unrelenting violence. Those are a given, and none of the actors are destined to play the material without the usual hysteria. But to make the characters relatable is to position the film as an exercise in empathy, and Kubrick wants us to stand on the outside so we can submit to the same exhausting dominance imposed on them.
The movie’s plot occurs over roughly six weeks from the point of entry to the eventual mental collapse, but time functions like a drain, dragging everything downward with it. Title cards offer perfunctory indications early on, such as one that reads “A Month Later” after the Torrances have moved in and set up domicile in the hotel, but they become more and more infrequent as the certainty of the terror begins to absorb the material. How am I sure? Because there is no other tangible explanation, for instance, why Jack would wander into a room populated by 1920s partygoers, other than to create a visual link to the movie’s famous final shot of a portrait on a wall containing his face. Others, initially, were befuddled by the implication, especially since it seemed to contradict the shadow cast over them by the Grady murders, which occurred eight years prior to their arrival. I would argue in defense of that confusion if Grady himself had not shown up to a party that itself must have occurred fifty years prior to his suicide. What the anomaly suggests, I feel, is that negative energy of the past is not bound by age or era, and when it gathers in the mind’s eye of the living, they too are taken out of the time continuum.
Notice how that also affects their collective visions. In her final flight from a murderous husband, Wendy catches glimpses of strangers in nearby rooms, dressed as if they belonged to the flapper society. Or one where she is greeted by a partygoer smiling at her, despite having a bleeding wound on his forehead. Or the moment towards the end where she, too, shares the vision of the bleeding elevator, now seemingly brought to literal manifestation after Danny had experienced it early on. Is she sharing in the psychic energies permeating through those corridors? Is the supernatural entity enveloping them all? Or is she psychic too?
I doubt the explanation is as complex as we make it. Consider, for example, that Wendy’s own visions are never individual; she only arrives at them after her son, whom she shares a close bond with, conjures them in moments of outright panic (he is being chased by his murderous father when they reach her). Of course she might feed from them instinctively in the same way mothers tend to feel pain experienced by their children, and there is no doubt he is gifted at the concept of “shining.” But how does that explain Jack, who experiences visions as well, and without the influence of his son? The only logical explanation is that the ability has been passed down by heredity, through the father that is now using his gift to channel the evil of the past.
There is no apt way to describe the performances other than ethereal. Nicholson, in particular, positions himself at another level of haunting: he is not merely performing for a camera, but looking directly beyond it like a dagger that pierces a barrier between safety and anguish. The Nicholson method is rarely not devious or gleeful, and much of the early material exploits that dexterity. But even a scene like the confrontation at his typewriter must have felt otherworldly, even to him. He snarls with meticulous viscosity, and watch how the unease in Shelly Duvall’s voice is so organically shrill as she attempts to back away from his overwhelming presence. Her own work in the film must have been such a psychological ordeal, given how she and Kubrick reportedly came to verbal altercations repeatedly before each take. Perhaps that was a maneuver to push the ordinarily docile character actress closer towards the mental collapse of her screen persona. However you want to label it in the aftermath of Duvall’s own bouts with depression and instability, what remains carved into the picture frames is a startling gaze towards the absolute agony of performance.
Acquiring the full abilities of his actors was but one of many skills buried in the Kubrick arsenal. New technologies were rarely far from his grasp, and his “2001” is still held as the grand standard when it came to perfecting the technical illusion of man engaged with the vacuum. For his venture to the Overlook, it was the remarkable Steadicam that gave him such fresh eyes. When young Danny rides his bike through the various hallways of the hotel and sometimes comes to abrupt stops, watch closely as the frame stops with such great precision. The technique, in truth, is easier than it looks: a handheld camera is kept level with the action in a cameraman’s hand, anchored underneath by weights that ensure the movements of the holder do not cause unnecessary shaking or rattling. The effect only adds emphasis to the notion of evil forces dwelling in the hotel. Perhaps it is not a camera at all that stalks young Danny, but a ghost that observes and guides him towards the confrontations his young psychic mind is not ready to deal with.
What nerve did Kubrick have in forging that kind of destiny? What gave him the right to create living, breathing films that did not feel trapped by the boundaries of their own artifice? It is the same nerve that fuels the nightmarish social subtext of “A Clockwork Orange,” the sharp wit of “Dr. Strangelove,” the audacious moral-bending standard of “Lolita,” the discouraging dehumanization of “Full Metal Jacket” and the grotesque pornography of “Eyes Wide Shut” – an ability to work beyond textbook ideas and give his images the heft of hypnotic precision. Time and again, it plays like a paradoxical signature in the autobiography of his film style. What does it add up to under the weight of the horror blanket? Only one of the great endurance tests of its time, an elaborate and mysterious psychological puzzle that mirrors the great hedge maze contained in the backdrop of the story’s hotel.
I have seen and written about “The Shining” more than any other film in my time as a zealous film blogger, essentially because new essays feel like necessary exercises to keep up with the ever-changing approach we bring to it. What I see in it now, long after it first caught my eye, in no way resembles the austere – if inconclusive – opus I assumed it to be all those years ago, and like a fine wine each taste grows slightly more intense and savory, until at last we last we become one with a sensation that sits above the literal content. Think of the film’s unsettling score as it underlines the action, then reflect on how its intensity seems less alien to ears that now can detect a menagerie of whispering voices, suspicious alarms and paranormal vibrations between the orchestra swells. We arrive there much in the same way Jack arrives at the center of the Overlook Party of 1921 – by a deep sense of wonder that no longer desires to stay trapped inside the box of space and time we all populate.
Written by DAVID KEYES