Why ‘The Shining’ is a Masterpiece
(Spoiler Warning, Graphic Violence, Depictions of Abuse Warning)
|Copyright 1980 Warner Brothers|
Stephen King explores this feeling of existential dread in his novel The Shining. After reading, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick thought it was “much more imaginative” than other horror books.
So, he took up the chance to create a film on King’s work and thus a horror classic was born.
The story follows a writer and his family travelling to the Overlook Hotel for the winter to be the caretaker during the off-season. But all work and no play makes you do crazy things, like kill your family, and hallucinate things that aren’t really there.
At first glance, it is a simple slasher film, however, the more you look into it, the more complicated it becomes. Not only was it difficult to film, which we will get into later, but the plot is up to an incredible amount of interpretation.
There’s a lot that we don’t know about the hotel. Is it a front for the Devil to make deals with mortals? Or is it just a regular hotel, only the people are what is wrong?
“The truth is that monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win. That our better angels sometimes – often! – win instead, in spite of all odds, is another truth of The Shining. And thank God it is,” King says.
I think that Kubrick’s and King’s writing is brilliant in this way. It is, quite possibly, the most theorized and speculated film ever made. Ranging from theories about connections to the Nazis to being haunted by spirits of an Indian burial ground, this film has many conspiratorial, or downright serious, fan theories.
Personally, there are a lot of different theories that I believe, but the one I believe the most is that ghosts haunt the Overlook.
Every winter, it is fate that a certain household is brought to the hotel to caretake it. I know this because of Jack’s being in the 1920’s photograph at the end of the film.
I think he was destined to die in the hotel because he was the reincarnation of his ancestor.
The ghosts of the Grady family are vengeful spirits and want to re-enact the same kind of pain they experienced on people who deserve it, like a man who sexually abuses his son and verbally abuses his wife.
We know that the paranormal and strange are plausible because of Danny and Dick’s ‘Shining’ ability, which allows them to communicate telepathically. So, would it be such a stretch to believe that ghosts exist in the Overlook?
Throughout the film, Jack’s family is seemingly on edge around him, even before he snaps. That awkward scene of Danny asking his dad what is wrong, and him sitting him down on his knee had me extremely uncomfortable.
And later in the film, fans speculated that Wendy’s hallucination of the person in the bear costume performing oral sex was a representation of Jack’s sexual abuse.
The cinematography is immaculate.
Each swing of the axe as it hits the door are frantically tracked by the camera, creating a more chaotic look. This works because it conveys how Jack is feeling in this moment; completely erratic.
The iconic scene of him peering through the broken doorframe at Wendy and saying, “Here’s Johnny,” is an excellent use of frames within frames. It shows the audience that he is contained only for a moment by the door and that impending doom is near. It is a dramatic way to build suspense.
The scene with the blood spilling out of the elevator doors was jaw-dropping, and I’ve never seen anything like it. The fact that it was all practical makes it incredibly impressive to me. And I love how it’s interlaced with shots of Danny screaming, implying that something is coming later in the film.
Not only that, but the multitude of tracking shots of the characters only adds to the suspenseful tone of the film. It all culminates into the best tracking shots of the film, which is when Jack is chasing Danny through the dark maze, illuminated only by white floodlights. Kubrick had mastered the tracking shot.
The music is masterful. You hear it gradually build up during the scene where he slowly moves towards Wendy, wanting to kill her.
The score crescendos and builds and builds and suddenly Jack is hit in the head by her baseball bat, causing him to fall down the stairs and sprain his ankle. It kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time.
The score was written by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, two incredible film composers at the time.
“…Another one was Jack locked up saying ‘go check out the snowcat and the radio,’ and I used a bit of Polymorphia and managed to sort of synch it up with him drumming his fingers on the door. Also, Shelley running upstairs and seeing the dogman – that was Penderecki Utrenja, complete with that incredible choir. I feared I might have ‘gone over the top’ with this, but fortunately Stanley loved it.” Gordon Stainforth, assistant editor of the film, says in an interview.
A lot of different people worked on this soundtrack, and it allowed for a diverse range of sounds to be heard.
Sadly, during filming, one of the actors, Shelley Duvall, was verbally abused by the crew on purpose. This was done to obtain a raw performance from the actor.
I obviously do not think this was the right decision as it can have some horrible side effects. Extreme forms of method acting only serve to upset and alienate the crew from the actors. It could even lead to legal action.
Most of the fear and upset you see on screen from Duvall was real, as the crew did not tell her when the axe would hack at the door, and they did a record one hundred and twenty-seven takes of the scene where Jack is following her up the stairs. Her voice hoarse, and her hands blistered from holding the baseball bat.
The actress would even wake up crying because she knew more pain would come later in the day.
Despite this, Duvall and the rest of the actors did a superb job at portraying their characters. They felt like real people and Kubrick’s attention to detail really shone through.
I have already mentioned it, but Jack Nicholson is an expert at facial expressions. Just look at the scene where Jack is staring out the window at the snow falling on the Overlook, knowing he will be trapped there for months, a raw depiction of disdain.
With Kubrick’s directing combined with Nicholson’s skilled acting, Jack is an incredible presence on screen. He did a fantastic job of making the audience hate him and empathize with Wendy and her son Danny.
It is no surprise to me that ‘The Shining’ is a masterpiece.
With its excellent writing, iconic cinematography, directing and acting, it will be remembered as a horror classic for years to come.
The Grady twins standing in the hallway of the hotel, the opening scene of the car driving along the empty road with that iconic music, the classic improvised line of “Here’s Johnny,” everything about this film just works and it works beautifully at that.
I haven’t seen much from Kubrick, but this might just be his best film out of the ones I’ve seen.
I want to leave you with one message before I go. Remember to be careful when you are in a rut, or you just might overlook things too.
“The Shining – Why Stanley Kubrick Changed Stephen King’s Story” Michael Kennedy, Screenrant (https://screenrant.com/shining-movie-stanley-kubrick-stephen-king-changes-explained)
“How The Shining Changed Shelley Duvall Forever” BJ Colangelo, Slashfilm (https://www.slashfilm.com/726299/how-the-shining-changed-shelley-duvall-forever)
The Shining, Multiple Contributors, IMDB (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081505/?ref_=ttsnd_snd_tt)
“A Chat with Gordon Stainforth” 2001, Felix Martinez (https://web.archive.org/web/20150503164444/http:/www.amateurhometheater.com/gato/felix_stainforth_interview.html)
“Shelley Duvall Has Been in Hiding for 20 Years (Wendy from The Shining),” 2021, Facts Verse (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2A9NqZ0bv0)
“The Ultimate Guide to Stephen King” 2022, Entertainment Weekly