By Kim Scott
I have seen Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) countless times during my life and no matter how many times I watch the film, it still manages to scare and amaze me. Even if you haven’t seen The Shining, you should be familiar in some way with Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) peeking his head through a hole in a door, yelling, “Heeeere’s Johnny!”. Perhaps you have seen the image as one of the staple movie posters that hang in the dorm of at least one film major you know. The iconic scene, which itself is an homage to Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage (1921), has been referenced in a multitude of films and television shows. The hype around the film is not understated; The Shining is captivating, terrifying, and intelligent.
Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, the film follows Jack, Wendy, and their son, Danny Torrence, and their stay at the isolated Overlook Hotel in Colorado during its off season. The plot is peppered with ominous warning signs that range from the subtle to the overt, any of which would make the seasoned horror film viewer back off with a resounding, “Hell no.” Stay in a hotel suffering from a dark past, possibly with some macabre events involved, and all alone for eight months? Sure, why not!
The Shining isn’t a horror film that only serves to make you jittery for a few hours until you forget about it. Kubrick’s underlying criticism of 1970s American culture, masculinity, family dynamics, and media consumption (among other topics) permeate the plot and leave lingering questions for the viewer. While the issues that arise for the Torrances revolve around the supernatural, they are linked to problems involved with humanity itself. This is best exemplified in Jack Torrance’s shift from protagonist to main antagonist.
Although I admit the scenes involving the paranormal were chilling, I was most disturbed by Jack Torrance and his descent into madness. The relationships between Jack and his family are strained, uncomfortable, and at times abusive, especially when the Bambi-eyed Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) is involved.
The film works by using a slow-moving, psychological terror. It conveys the feeling that what could be right around the corner, or worse, within you is much more frightening than a good ol’ face-popping-out-of the-darkness or other sorts of cheap fanfare. The heavy atmosphere makes the desire of the hotel’s malevolent spirits tangible, even if the spirits themselves go unseen. Coupled with the haunting setting of an empty hotel and eerie soundtrack, the audience is drawn into the unsettling world of the Overlook Hotel with its dizzying geometric floor patterns, long stretches of hallway, and the mysterious ‘Gold Room.’
With the fantastic elements of cinematography, scoring, costuming, set design, and acting, The Shining is a multilayered film and a goldmine for interpretations. From the minute choice in paintings to the depiction of light, you could easily spend years dissecting a single scene’s details to figure out Kubrick’s hidden meanings. All aspects of the film work artfully with the plot to create a perfect pace and tone. For the first half of the film, the changes come quietly, which only adds to the terror later on.
The combined elements of the creeping dread in the hotel’s atmosphere, beautiful visual design, and the full-blown terror of the wolfishly gleeful Jack Torrance, The Shining comes highly recommended for film buffs, horror film junkies, and casual movie-watchers alike.
I followed my viewing of the film with a few other Kubrick classics. After four hours and switching over from contacts to glasses, I finally watched one of the unseen gems that had lingered for a little too long in my ever-growing Netflix queue: Room 237 (dir. Rodney Asher, 2012). Room 237 is a documentary that explores the many possibilities in the interpretation of The Shining. Essentially, it seeks to answer our dogged cry of, “But what does it all mean??” as the credits roll and we’re collapsed in our seats, reeling from what just happened.
The varied meanings behind the documentary are presented by a few notable figures, such as NBC journalist Bill Blakemore; yet all are admittedly fixated on Stanley Kubrick and the magnificent thematic potential of The Shining. Interestingly enough, the physical presence of interviewees is notably absent. While a disembodied voice narrates and analyzes a scene or theory, the documentary displays archival footage that is both relevant and illuminating. Some of the supposed hidden messages involved in The Shining range from the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust, and Kubrick’s own supposed involvement with the faked moon landing. And that’s not even all of it. It sounds impossible, but they put up a fantastic argument for all of the documentary’s theories, whether or not they may actually be true.
Room 237 pulls us into the world of The Shining, interprets countless things, and leaves the audience wondering, “Is there more we could have missed?” In this, Room 237 stays true to the documentary’s tagline, “Many Ways In, No Way Out”.
I advise watching The Shining a few times and finding your own interpretations of the film before viewing Room 237 (now on Netflix!). I repeat, it is imperative that you mull over The Shining for a few weeks (months, years even…) before diving into the Room 237. If you watch them immediately back-to-back, you might feel cheated in that you have some the answers readily given to you. Especially if you’re a cinephile reading this blog. Ultimately, both are remarkable and very different bodies of work, but fit for any film-lover who appreciates inventive and absorbing movies.
Kim Scott is pursuing a BA in Film and Media Arts at Temple University. She has completed various studies on film analysis and film history with a focus on feminist theory. In her spare time, she can be found reading (anything and everything) or binge-watching TV series on Netflix.
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