Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980)

This article is an excerpt from “The Master Works”, Part 4 of our video series on Stanley Kubrick

Many films lay claim to the title of “scariest movie of all time”, but only a select handful can truly call themselves as such. Of this elite group, you’ll find movies about demons, ghosts, serial killers, and zombies, but there is one film that defies easy explanation—whose horror derives from its very inability to articulate its evil in tangible form. We fear the unknown, so if we are presented with a presence or force that we can’t ever hope to know, then it stands to reason that it will terrify us in endlessly fundamental ways. Stanley Kubrick’s blood-soaked masterpiece of horror, THE SHINING (1980), is just such a film, still talked about in hush whispers by those it terrified. Kubrick’s film is a giant, labyrinthine puzzle where no two viewings are ever the same. Its secrets continue to present themselves, with these new revelations factoring into the continuing conversation about the film and continually reshaping our perceptions of its meaning. The typical horror film by its nature is fleeting and ephemeral— for all intents and purposes, they are roller coaster rides. THE SHINING, however, has touched a nerve in the deepest part of the human psyche and endures in our collective unconscious. Much like the ghostly spectres that haunt its halls, we have never quite left The Overlook Hotel.

Stanley Kubrick was unique among filmmakers in that he didn’t specialize in any one particular genre. Rather, he liked to sample from all of them—like one would a craft beer flight—and deliver a final product that would serve as the gold standard within its respective genre. By the late 1970’s, the horror genre was phenomenally popular; a reflection of turbulent, uncertain times and a fundamental distrust of authority. Kubrick sensed his irrelevance within the horror genre and sought to rectify the situation while bringing artistic legitimacy to otherwise schlocky fare. This meant finding subject matter that was completely different from the usual assortment of zombies, ghosts, and vampires. After poring through mountains of prospective material as per his custom, he found what he was looking for in “The Shining”, Stephen King’s seminal novel about a man driven mad by the spooks residing in an old Colorado hotel. Kubrick was infamous for radically changing his films’ source material, and his treatment of King’s “The Shining” is perhaps the most egregious example of that. King’s initial screenplay draft was thrown out by Kubrick, who disagreed with the author’s supernatural-heavy take, and instead hired Diane Johnson to help him rework the story into a tale about malevolent energy and its effect on the human psyche. Working once again with his brother-in-law Jan Harlan as executive producer, Kubrick set about making his version of “The Shining” in England—a production that would bog down cast and crew for over a year while the director battled his way through the shoot’s frequent and frustrating speed bumps. The final film initially met with lukewarm critical reception and a scathing dismissal from King himself, but Kubrick’s hypnotic take on the horror genre would grow in esteem and notoriety until it became considered as one of the master filmmaker’s finest films and, quite possibly, the scariest film of all time.

THE SHINING begins when writer and unemployed family man Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) agrees to take on a caretaker job at the Overlook Hotel while it closes down for the winter. He uproots his family—wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd)—from their humdrum apartment in the suburbs and moves in to the grand old Overlook, looking forward to the promising amount of writing that several months’ worth of solitude will afford him. He ignores warnings about the hotel’s supernatural phenomena- ghosts lurking in the corridors, the ancient Indian burial ground that sits below the foundation, and the very real tragedy of a previous caretaker who went mad with cabin fever and slaughtered his family with an axe. For a while, the Torrances are happy in their new home, but all is not what it seems. Danny becomes acutely sensitive to the dark energies, and his ability to “shine”—that is, the ability to manifest said energies into visions of the past, present and future—results in increasingly disturbing hallucinations. The Overlook’s ominous malevolence then begins to work its dark charms onto Jack, who finds himself losing his grasp on his sanity and seeing and hearing things that he shouldn’t, or having conversations with people who—by all rights—should not be there. These evil entities succeed in tempting Jack back to the bottle after months of sobriety, further impressing upon him that his wife and son are to blame for his own state of internal torment and must be punished. As a freak snowstorm descends on the mountain and strands the Torrances inside The Overlook without transport, telephones, or radio, Wendy and Danny must evade their murderous father while also dealing with the blood-soaked terrors that lurk deep in the hotel’s interior.

THE SHINING isn’t the first time that Jack Nicholson crossed Kubrick’s orbit—the director previously had Nicholson in mind to play the titular role in his failed passion project NAPOLEON. Instead, Nicholson makes his Kubrick debut here as Jack Torrance, the frustrated protagonist turned antagonist. An actor well-known for his brilliantly unhinged performances, Nicholson turns in the work of his career by channeling a fundamental twitchiness, as if he’s uncomfortable in his own body. His spiraling psychosis is at once both riveting and terrifying to witness. Shelly Duvall is also effective as the ineffectual, meek, and needy wife to Nicholson—a woman whose mundane blandness is almost oppressively so. Duvall famously had a rough time on the production, where Kubrick tormented her with constant verbal abuse. If it was all done to get a certain performance out of Duvall, it certainly worked—Duvall’s exhausted shakiness projects a hopeless demeanor that adds to the film’s overall tension. As the young, innocent Danny Torrance, Danny Lloyd doesn’t fall prey to overacting—the bane of all child actors— and it is precisely this restraint which makes his “redrum” trance so bone-chilling and memorable. Famously, Kubrick avoided the possibility of exposing such a young boy to the horrific subject matter of the film by convincing him it was a family drama, even going so far as substituting doubles or a dummy in scenes that would’ve shattered the illusion and revealed the true nature of the project. Kubrick even showed Lloyd a heavily edited version of the film when it was released—Lloyd reportedly did not see the real film until well into his teenage years.

For his supporting cast, Kubrick reunites with a couple familiar faces—Philip Stone and Joe Turkel. In his third consecutive appearance for Kubrick, Stone assumes the persona of Delbert Grady, the ghostly waiter of The Gold Room, whose distant politeness and manner is uncomfortably creepy. Turkel, who last worked with Kubrick on 1957’s PATHS OF GLORY, plays Lloyd, the Gold Room’s bartender. Turkel is particularly inspired casting, as his gaunt visage already resembles that of a skull. Turkel adopts an emotionless, painted-on smile that sears itself into our retinas, like a morbid Cheshire Cat. Scatman Crothers, who used his friendship with Nicholson to get into the casting room, plays The Overlook’s head chef, Dick Hallorann. Crothers’ role is an important one, as he shares Danny’s ability to “shine”, and explains the phenomenon to the young boy (and by extension, explains the title to the audience). Crothers plays Hallorran as a jovial, energetic middle-aged guy, but he also incorporates some minstrel overtones into his performance that date the film quite considerably.

THE SHINING marks Kubrick’s third consecutive collaboration with director of photography John Alcott, and their groundbreaking work together on 1975’s BARRY LYNDON translates here into a horror movie that looks unlike any other. Beginning with the sweeping, rock-steady helicopter shot that opens the film with the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, Kubrick and Alcott immediately signal to us that this won’t be just another cobwebs-and-candelabras creepshow. THE SHINING, perhaps more so than any other Kubrick film, features the near-constant use of one point perspective compositions, which imbues the 35mm film frame with an evocative sense of depth. By setting up the Overlook Hotel as a three-dimensional space, Kubrick and Alcott then introduce the idea of exploring every nook and cranny via their camera.

While THE SHINING features lots of conventional dolly camerawork, its legacy lies in its introduction of Garrett Brown’s Steadicam rig to audiences. Kubrick was fascinated by the organic, yet serenely smooth, nature of Brown’s groundbreaking camera innovation, and he uses the technique here almost as if it were its own character. Indeed, many of the shots in THE SHINING give us a distinct sense that a foreboding, unseen entity (or even the hotel itself) is alive and watching the Torrances’ every move. Instead of relying on the gothic imagery of horror films past, Kubrick employs the Steadicam to generate the film’s unnerving creepiness. His expertise with various lenses also helped him considerably as far as this new tech was concerned—by placing an extremely wide lens on the Steadicam, he could create an exaggerated sense of momentum, speed, and gravity, which served to better place the audience in the point of view of malevolent ethereal entities.

Kubrick and Alcott also utilize a host of camera techniques popularized by the New Wave in the service of amping up the horror and tension—flash cuts, rack zooms, the breaking of the fourth wall, and Kubrick’s own signature shot that looks up from the ground at a subject while he or she is at a door. All of this adds up to a highly stylized, yet naturalistic, visual presentation.

Also returning to the Kubrick fold is musician Wendy Carlos, who teams up with Rachel Elkind to deliver THE SHINING’s score. This being a Kubrick film, their work isn’t necessarily comprised of new, original cues—rather, Carlos and Elkind appropriate and manipulate dark, existing works from contemporary classical artists, weaving them into a foreboding tapestry that underlines and enhances Kubrick’s images. Most of the film’s music is filtered through the prism of a Moog synthesizer, previously used to equally chilling effect in Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). The electronic synths are worked into an ominous music bed, peppered with disembodied, chanting voices and the rhythm of a throbbing heartbeat. Perhaps the most recognizable aspect of THE SHINING’s musical soundscape, however, is the use of the Ray Noble Orchestra’s vintage recording of a slow love ballad called “Midnight, The Stars And You”. Used in the background of the scene where Jack may or may not be hallucinating a 1920’s-era ball, it gives us a peek into the glamor of the Overlook’s heyday while underscoring the tragedies that doomed it to ruin. Kubrick was a master of ironic song choices that served as counterpoints to the images they accompany, and his juxtaposition here of a glamorous old-fashioned love ballad echoing in the foreboding emptiness of the Overlook creates an irony that is distinctly chilling.

A significant reason why THE SHINING has endured over the decades within a genre that seeks to top itself with every new entry is Kubrick’s inclusion of heavily-coded visuals and clues. The Overlook Hotel is presented as a giant puzzle that requires multiple viewings to solve—a reflection of Kubrick’s own love for the intellectual stimulation provided by chess. A documentary film released in 2013, ROOM 237, examines the various interpretations and hidden messages inherent in THE SHINING. These “conspiracy theories”, for lack of a better term, range from the reasonably sound (the film being a metaphor for the genocide of the Native Americans) to the utterly ridiculous (the film being Kubrick’s confession that he faked the moon landing for NASA). It’s a veritable master class in how to “read” a film.

The documentary itself is well worth watching to see all the various interpretations of meaning that THE SHINING has given birth to since its release, but two interpretations in particular bear legitimate explorations. Ever since Nicholson uttered the line, “White man’s burden, Llloyd. White man’s burden.”, to the ghostly bartender in the Gold Room, academics and fans alike have drawn allusions from Kubrick’s film to the massacre of the Native Americans—a genocide upon which modern American is founded and barely acknowledges. The Overlook is stuffed with Native American imagery—from decorative quilts to the cans of Calumet baking powder that line the stock room. This interpretation was first popularized in 1987 by former ABC reporter Bill Blakemore in an essay entitled “Kubrick’s ‘Shining Secret: Film’s Hidden Horror Is the Murder Of The Indian”, where he points to the closing image of Nicholson’s face among the revelers in a photograph of the Overlook’s 1921 July Fourth Ball. He writes:

“…most Americans overlook the fact that July Fourth was no ball, nor any kind of independence day for native Americans; that the weak American villain of the film is the re-embodiment of the American men who massacred the Indians in earlier years; that Kubrick is examining and reflecting on a problem that cuts through the decades and centuries”.

The second interpretation that suggests THE SHINING as a massive puzzle is the inconsistent and conflicting layout and geography of The Overlook itself. King famously modeled the novel’s version on the infamous Stanley Hotel in Colorado, a purported hive of paranormal activity and spectral spooks. Like he did with King’s story, Kubrick rejected King’s suggestion to shoot at the Stanley in favor of his own design, basing it on the Timberline Lodge, situated at the peak of Oregon’s Mount Hood (a point of pride for us Portland-bred cinephiles). Kubrick shows us the Timberline in wide shot during bright daylight towards the beginning of the film, allowing us an unadulterated, extended glimpse of it. This isn’t merely an establishing shot, however—it’s the setup of an extremely subtle deception on Kubrick’s part. For the rest of the exterior scenes, Kubrick built a condensed-scale version of the Timberlines’ façade outside a soundstage in England. The effect is a hotel exterior that looks the same upon first glance but under closer scrutiny reveals dramatic inconsistencies. This approach extends to the interiors, all built on a soundstage in such a way that allows Kubrick to run a Steadicam through its grand halls, residential corridors, and industrial kitchen spaces seamlessly. What we don’t realize as an audience, however, is that if one were to map the layout of Kubrick’s Overlook on a sheet of paper (and many have done so), one would find an impossible geography pockmarked by dead-end corridors, windows where there should be walls, etc. Kubrick’s Overlook is like one of those haunted house mazes where the door disappears behind you the moment you enter the room. Architectural design aesthetics vary wildly from room to room, creating a mishmash of jarring colors and styles from drastically different time periods. By rendering the Overlook in such a way, Kubrick is subtly suggesting that the hotel itself is a living, breathing entity of evil that exists outside of normal space-time.

THE SHINING, more so than any other film in his filmography, illustrates one aspect of Kubrick’s work that becomes clear only in retrospect—a recurring motif that incorporates imagery from the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. In Greek folklore, the Minotaur was a beast with the head of a bull and the body of a man, who dwelled in a massive maze-like labyrinth. The labyrinth itself was designed to test the fortitude of those who would attempt to slay the Minotaur. Mazes, labyrinths, and tunnels play a huge role in shaping Kubrick’s aesthetic worldview. Ever since he sent a camera careening down a narrow New York city street in a dream sequence for KILLER’S KISS (1955), Kubrick has made potent use of “the tunnel” as a visual allegory. There’s also another allusion to the Greek myth in KILLER’S KISS, in the form of an opening credit that reads: “A Minotaur Production”, or the name of Kubrick’s production company at the time. This could hardly be construed as coincidental, especially when such similar “tunnel” imagery reappears in PATHS OF GLORY’s embattled trenches or 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s claustrophobic spaceship corridors. Kubrick’s protagonists always seem to be descending into an underworld of sorts, where they will have to confront a supernatural enemy. THE SHINING is easily Kubrick’s most overt reference to the Greek myth, what with the long, languid takes that roam the Overlook’s countless nooks and crannies. He even places the climax inside a literal maze, just in case we were incapable of picking up on his earlier signals.

The horror genre serves Kubrick well in his explorations of sex and violence, allowing him to indulge in more lurid meditations of each—see Jack’s psychotic axe murder spree or the ghostly naked woman in Room 237 (or even the fundamentally unnerving shot of a ghost getting fellated by another ghost wearing a warthog costume for that matter). THE SHINING is no doubt a film about a man’s swift downward spiral into madness, but Kubrick’s particular ideas about the fragility of the human psyche make for an utterly original film that bears his unmistakable stamp. He never quite tells us what exactly is causing the hotel’s unexplainable phenomena. Are these ghosts simply a manifestation of Jack’s growing psychosis, or are they authentically supernatural? Michael Ciment, a leading Kubrick scholar, has pointed out in his writings that whenever Jack converses with the ghosts of the Overlook, he is always situated so that he is talking into a mirror. This would seem to definitely suggest that Lloyd the bartender and Grady the waiter are simply manifestations Jack’s psychological state, but then later on in the film Grady is depicted physically releasing Jack from the meat locker that Wendy has trapped him inside. When this happens, we’re forced to admit that the real source of the Overlook’s evil is ultimately unknowable. This is where the true horror of Kubrick’s THE SHINING lies.

THE SHINING is held in such high regard today that it’s easy to forget that Kubrick’s first (and only) horror film was not well-received when it was initially released. Critical reviews were unfavorable, and box office receipts were lackluster before picking up steam quite some time afterward. In setting out to conquer the horror genre, Kubrick created an enduring classic that continues to not only to chill us to the bone, but to awe us with its impeccable craftsmanship. Very few horror films can be rightfully called masterpieces, but THE SHINING is just that: a stunning, reference-grade work of cinema that dares to show us that true horror comes from within.

THE SHINING is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.

Produced by: Stanley Kubrick
Executive Produced by: Jan Harlan
Written by: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson
Director of Photography: John Alcott
Production Designer: Roy Walker
Edited by: Ray Lovejoy
Music by: Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind