“Until you learn to name your ghosts and to baptize your hopes, you have not yet been born; you are still the creation of others.”
– Maria Cardinal, THE WORDS TO SAY IT
A hallmark of Gothic literature isn’t just that spooks exist in the old dark house at all, but that the ghosts have some kind of agenda; think of the spirits that Scrooge must suffer in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Hamlet’s father demanding revenge, or even the lonely Captain in THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 translation of Stephen King’s modern gothic THE SHINING stands apart from this tradition by making us wonder not just what the spirits of the haunted Overlook Hotel may desire, but if any ghosts reside there at all.
King’s book arrived in 1977, hot on the heels of the publications of ‘SALEM’S LOT and CARRIE (not to mention the success of the 1976 film version of CARRIE), and King was suddenly a full-blown phenomenon. With THE SHINING, he delivered a story fueled, in part, by his own struggles with alcoholism (a factor that similarly fueled Stevenson’s novella THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE), and follows a barely recovered alcoholic family man who becomes the winter caretaker of an elegant, Manderlay-esque hotel; once he and his brood move in for the long snowbound winter, the three realize the Overlook may, in fact, be haunted.
Kubrick biographer John Baxter incorrectly points out on the DVD release of the film that King’s novel is “unashamedly mystical,” inferring that the story is all laid out on the surface. In fact, there are numerous degrees of ambiguity in the book, although in the end King does indeed side with the supernatural, such as when the topiary animals on the grounds spring to life.
Kubrick’s film, much like Poe’s THE TELL-TALE HEART, torques up the ambiguity a hundred times over, but even in the book, it is questionable how many of the frightening events are happening only in the heads of the dysfunctional Torrance clan, and there are never any concrete answers to fully explain the film (another staple of Kubrick’s work); indeed, wading through THE SHINING’S layers, we become lost in a psychological labyrinth every bit like the hedge maze that dominates this picture.
For the most part, Kubrick’s oeuvre doesn’t deal with the domestic; BARRY LYNDON’s family scenes are far from cozy, and the space travellers in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY only see home via pre-Skype video messages.
Only LOLITA and EYES WIDE SHUT deal with characters whose problems hone in on the familial, though the specifics are far from typical. EYES WIDE SHUT shares a kinship with THE SHINING in that both deal with fractured marriages, but in THE SHINING we are never given details about what’s caused the cracks. Dr. Bill in EWS realizes with a vengeance that his wife’s needs are not being met, nor have they been for quite some time; Jack and Wendy Torrance never seem to get to the bottom of their marital problems, nor do they try. This is in sharp contrast to King’s novel, where Jack, Wendy, and their son Danny are trying hard to rebuild the dyke destroyed by Jack’s drinking.
In the film, Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson take a far darker turn by leaving the specifics under the surface. In his chat with the ghostly bartender Lloyd (if he’s talking to anyone), Jack simply sounds resentful of his wife, though he professes a token love for his boy. In Kubrick’s hands, Torrance is far from the overgrown man-child we see in several of Spielberg’s films, like WAR OF THE WORLDS or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, men who had families before they were truly ready. No, Jack Torrance comes off as a man who feels his shipwrecked status needs a scapegoat.
In the novel, Torrance sacrifices himself to destroy the hotel and spare his family, thus redeeming all his sins. Kubrick himself sounded as though he saw nothing at all redemptive in Jack’s character, and wanted him on a pitch black course from the beginning. “Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its bidding,” the director told Michel Ciment. “He doesn’t have very much further to go for his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable.” Kubrick further felt that Jack is “quickly ready to fulfill his dark role,” so this could be a man ready to blame ghosts for his misdeeds.
It must be pointed out, however, that although the psychological subtext of Kubrick’s adaptation shares a similarity to the great 1942 horror gem CAT PEOPLE, where it is completely ambiguous whether or not Simone Simone’s character actually transforms into a deadly panther or whether it’s all in her mind, Kubrick (and King, in the source material) sprinkles enough inexplicable supernatural phenomena in the story (how does Jack get out of the locked storage room?) that we can never truly explain everything as just existing in the characters’ damaged heads, but such questions are precisely what keep us returning to THE SHINING after so many decades.
If character is destiny in fiction (if not in life), the setting of a tale is often a mirror for the characters, if not the tale itself; where better for Dickens to have set A CHRISTMAS CAROL than the very country where Gothic literature was born? In THE SHINING, the vast, empty corridors of the Overlook become a perfect reflection of Jack Torrance – cold and empty with unknown horrors around every possible turn, plus mother and son doing their best to keep warm and thrive amidst the frigid isolation.
In the latter half of his career, from 2001 onward, Kubrick seemed increasingly drawn to trying to create films with enormous understatement, films that seemed razor thin on the surface but had myriad undercurrents; the dialogue is often less than electric because the real emphasis is what’s not being said, the looks and gestures accompanying every banal line, and THE SHINING is no exception.
A prime example is the job interview scene early in the film. Yes, it features key exposition with the horrific backstory of the Overlook, but Jack Torrance’s reaction to the news that a previous caretaker butchered his family becomes an interesting Rorschach test for what happens later.
Also of interest is how Kubrick makes us, on subsequent viewings, reexamine Torrance via an almost throwaway character. Bill Watson, the assistant to the hotel’s manager, Mr. Ullman, joins them during the interview and is initially all smiles and handshakes, until the conversation turns to the subject of the previous caretaker. Kubrick then throws us for an interesting loop by cutting to Watson’s reaction to how Torrance is taking all this. What is Watson thinking? We never know, because he’s never given another line in the whole film, but he’s there throughout several key upcoming scenes, always at Ullman’s side; Watson is seen in the background having an intense discussion about the potential new hire as Jack calls Wendy. What is Watson saying? Does he already detect something is off? Has he noticed the profound resemblance between Torrance and the man in the ballroom photo from 1921?
Typical of Kubrick’s work, THE SHINING was met with extremely mixed reactions when it hit the cinemas in May of 1980. The film was financially successful, but it received indifference from critics; in an interview for the DVD release of EYES WIDE SHUT, Steven Spielberg admitted that he was less than impressed with the film at first (though he said it is now an all-time favorite of his, something made abundantly clear by the astounding homage he paid to it in READY PLAYER ONE), and Spielberg was far from the only filmmaker to feel uneasy about it.
“I don’t think (Kubrick) understood the [horror] genre,” SCANNERS auteur David Cronenberg told the Toronto Star in 2013. “I don’t think he understood what he was doing. There were some striking images in the book and he got that, but I don’t think he really felt it.”
Again, par for the course with much of Kubrick’s oeuvre, time has been kind to the craftsmanship that (understandably) threw many for a loop in 1980, especially anyone expecting a typical fright fest. Kubrick was an innovative stylist, from the still awe-inspiring visual effects of 2001 to the candlelit splendor of BARRY LYNDON, and it is easy to imagine how much filmmakers and filmgoers anticipated what Kubrick had up his sleeve for his foray into the macabre. What he had, beyond the exquisite sets, was the Steadicam.
This specially mounted (and perfectly balanced) camera rig, which allows bump-free mobile camerawork without cumbersome dolly equipment, was the invention of Garrett Brown in 1975; the Steadicam became a signature to ROCKY, with the God-like floating camera chasing Stallone up the steps of Philadelphia’s art museum, but Brown (who also operated the camera using his gadget), instilled in ROCKY’s director, John Avildsen, that the Steadicam was about more than stunt shots – it was a replacement for tons of expensive equipment.
Sure enough, many shots in ROCKY that might not be recognized as enormously complicated now, like the shots following Stallone running through the streets of Philly, were made far easier; with no dolly track to lay, the Steadicam was simply put in the back of van that Stallone followed, and the gadget delivered a perfectly stable shot every time.
Kubrick saw a test reel of this new device and knew he wanted to implement it on his next film, and THE SHINING is a masterclass in its usage.
Just as the zoom lens in BARRY LYNDON was used for more than simple effect, Kubrick, his cinematographer John Alcott, along with Garrett Brown himself, used the Steadicam not just for marvelous stunts like following little Danny endlessly throughout the Overlook’s corridors, but as a magnificent way to build tension.
In HALLOWEEN, director John Carpenter and his cameraman Dean Cundey got away with murder by constantly having objects pop up in the foregrounds of their shots, a perfect way to deliver quick shocks. While Kubrick does employ this at times in THE SHINING (such as when Jack walks in on Wendy reading his manuscript), it’s done sparingly. The fear of what lies around every corner is central to most horror films, and the inexorable momentum given to many shots in the film, be they fast, or creepily slow (as when Danny sees the tennis rolled toward him), it adds invaluable suspense even though we are seeing nothing but empty halls.
The wide lenses employed make the hallways seem even longer than they surely were, making them feel endless, with safety always farther and farther away.
In addition to the flow the Steadicam gave to a story set in such a confined place, Kubrick may have had an additional motivation for wanting the Steadicam’s omniscience floating throughout this film. Ed Di Giulio, the technician who adapted Kubrick’s cameras for the ultrafast lenses needed for the candlelit scenes in LYNDON, wrote to the director after seeing THE SHINING that the virtuosic use of the Steadicam gave the movie limitless dimension. “It was like a malevolent POV,” he wrote. “Evil was following the kid, evil was following the kid.”
Indeed, Kubrick had a way of always making the technology he used as an integral factor in his storytelling. If we can accept that the Overlook is haunted, it’s no coincidence then that the first interior shot of the movie, when Jack Torrance arrives for his interview, is a lengthy Steadicam shot, as though the evil of the hotel is locking onto Jack and already stalking him.
This wonderful opening scene, the kind that could easily be a throwaway, is also a fascinating microcosm of the way the whole film was made. Although Stephen King drew much of his inspiration for the novel from an actual hotel (The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado), THE SHINING was filmed completely on London soundstages. The vastness of the sets can be intimated by this early scene; the sunlight pouring in through the windows aren’t daylight at all, but dozens of harsh, bright fluorescent lights. Watch as Jack walks through the entire lobby to Ullman’s office, noting the amount of light coming in through every window, and you get an idea of how sizable this production was. Ditto any of the scenes in the huge Colorado lounge set with daylight blasting through.
The unstoppable momentum of the gliding camerawork in THE SHINING anticipated such later masterful examples that Kubrick did in FULL METAL JACKET (one particularly endless tracking shot following the Marines through Hue City is equally breathtaking and suspenseful), as well as the God-like POVs that Terrence Malick and company achieved on THE THIN RED LINE with the Akela crane.
Stanley Kubrick was far more than a cutting edge technician; he loved breaking conventions whenever it suited his storytelling needs. A perfect instance is the long scene in the restroom between Jack Torrance and the ghost of Delbert Grady, the previous caretaker (the fact that Mr. Ullman mistakenly calls him Charles Grady in the earlier scene adds to both the unreality of the scene, as well as Ullman’s ignorance of people beneath him).
In the bathroom scene, Grady’s ghost (if it’s a ghost) seduces Torrance to murder his family in the same way Grady had done. As film historian Paul Jensen pointed out, close examination of how a director handles simple, quiet scenes often says more about their talents than the bravura moments in a film, and in this scene, Kubrick breaks with convention by crossing the 180° line, aka “the invisible line.”
Traditional camerawork keeps the camera on one side of a “line” across which the camera shouldn’t cross, for fear of the change in angles being too jarring for the audience. Kubrick, however, keeps changing his shots constantly here, flagrantly breaking the rule, and it is jarring, but that is wholly appropriate – either Jack is talking to a ghost(!), or he’s having a long internal debate about whether he should kill his wife and child; whichever interpretation we choose, Kubrick is disorienting us as much as Torrance himself is mentally coming unglued. It is additionally interesting how the wide shot of the strikingly red bathroom, when Jack and Grady enter, echoes the earlier (and iconic) shot of the blood discharging from the elevators; the door at the rear and center of the frame branches out into the splashes of red across the walls, which has equal resonance with the topic of the conversation in this most curious-looking of movie restrooms.
Part of the allure of a puzzle box film like THE SHINING is that its riddles always offer new interpretations. This film, however, more than any of Stanley Kubrick’s other works (even 2001), has attracted more wild notions, and even conspiracy theories, than most other American films; neither FIGHT CLUB, MEMENTO, nor PULP FICTION have spawned such wild notions that were outlined in the 2012 film ROOM 237. Certainly, many layers of THE SHINING are open to interpretation, but the idea that any filmmaker, let alone one of Kubrick’s stature, would intentionally leave clues about his supposed role in faking the Apollo moon landings buried in this film are more ludicrous than anything dreamt up by Dan Brown on LSD.
Careful research into the lengthy, and rocky, production of this movie bring a long pause to such theories. For someone as meticulous as Kubrick dealing with daily script rewrites, sorting through upwards of 50 takes or more of virtually every shot with his editors, working closely with all the actors, leaves little time to make sure people decades later would know Mr. Kubrick had some alleged hand in faking Armstrong’s One Giant Leap (plus, for one as impossible to please as Kubrick, I doubt anything less than the genuine lunar surface would have sufficed).
King’s novel is structured in five parts, mirroring a five act Shakespearean tragedy; with the structure of the film, Kubrick proved innovative yet again. In the foreword to his story collection SUPERTOYS LAST ALL SUMMER LONG, the late sci-fi author Brian Aldiss recalled that as he and Kubrick futilely tried crafting a screenplay that became AI:ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, the director showcased a complete lack of interest in the traditional three act story structure, preferring instead a series of “non-submersible units” instead. This method was used to spectacular effect in 2001, which neatly divided itself into several set pieces (“The Dawn of Man,” “Jupiter and Beyond The Infinite,” etc), leaving the audience to fit the pieces together.
“This method works at its best in THE SHINING,” Aldiss wrote. “Here, blackboards announcing starkly ‘A Month Later’ or, simply, ‘Tuesday 4 p.m.’ warn the audience pleasurably that something awful is going to happen and that Jack Nicholson is going to be a little more over the top than before.”
Film editor Tony Lawson revealed on Criterion’s release of BARRY LYNDON that this precise method was tried out on LYNDON, but all involved felt it slowed the pace down too much, but it does work better in THE SHINING, keeping us at arm’s length to wonder what may be coming next. This type of storytelling was indeed widely used in silent cinema, but Kubrick relished trying new methods of old techniques.
Aldiss’ feelings about Nicholson’s performance being “over the top” is a complaint lodged by many (all of the performances in this film have been branded as such at one time or another); for Kubrick, naturalistic acting was a dead end. “It’s real, but it’s not interesting,” Nicholson said Kubrick loved to claim about Method acting in Vivian Kubrick’s video diary about THE SHINING , and the bigger than life acting fits the slow, dreamlike state in Kubrick’s work, almost as though we’re watching life in a late night reverie. Still, Kubrick knew when to have his actors dial things back; the ghost of Jack’s bartender (ghost or memory?) never blinks, creating an incredibly eerie presence as he grants Jack’s request for liquor in exchange for his soul.
Stephen King was colossally disappointed with the film, and the bestselling author has never been shy about saying so. “The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre,” King told American Film magazine in 1986, presaging David Cronenberg’s comments by more than 25 years. “Everything about it screams that from beginning to end, from plot decision to that final scene – which has been used before on THE TWILIGHT ZONE.”
King’s lackluster response could well be due to the personal nature of the book’s roots for the author; as a novel, King’s book (like all of his work) has a warmth for the characters and what happens to them, whereas in Kubrick, everything and everyone always becomes opaque. King did get to do THE SHINING his way in 1997, when he wrote and executive produced a three-part miniseries version for ABC. The television version is nicely done, but the deeper mysteries that lie between the words are what’s present in Kubrick’s iteration.
“Is there something bad here?” Danny asks Mr. Hallorann in a key early scene, and the answer is yes in more ways than one. The cold tone of the film says more about the banality of the Torrance’s home life than any line of dialogue ever could, and there is real venom beneath that frigidity waiting, maybe begging, to become malignant (the novel is appropriately prefaced by a quote from Goya: “The sleep of reason breeds monsters”).
Whether or not there are literal ghosts causing it is beside the point; our pasts are the ghosts that stalk us every hour of every day, and the real subject for Kubrick’s unblinking lens is what makes people do evil knowing that they’re doing evil, so naturally, we’re left with more questions than answers.
Haunted, you might say.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper