A Return Visit
The Shining is my favourite horror film. It’s possible I’ve mentioned that before. If not, well, now it’s set in Internet Stone.
Don’t get me wrong, many other great horror movies are available. From the shocking to the slapstick. From the timeless to the terrifying. Still, for me, there’s something about The Shining that will always leave a splinter lodged a little deeper into my nerve endings than other movie can touch.
Not that I feel the need to watch it frequently. I definitely watch other horror movies more often. Some invite return viewings, particularly the rollercoasters. The ghost train rides where you buy the ticket and have some giggles and gore with your scares. For my money, the latest version of It is shaping up to be one of those.
No, I only book a stay at The Overlook Hotel occasionally. Every visit always leaves me with a different souvenir. I go in with pieces of the mystery set firmly in my head, ready to help me decrypt what I’m seeing. The native American mythology. The reference to The Donner Party. The many, many other theories the truly mind-bending documentary Room 237 has implanted into my thinking. Regardless of those intentions, by the time I get to the end I’m always too unnerved to think past the overwhelming sense of escape. Those final forty minutes, where everything builds to a dizzying crescendo, pull me in too deeply every time to resist what Kubrick is weaving onscreen. A certain point, you just have to run through maze and hope you’ll make it until morning.
Actually, before we go any further, there are going to be spoilers ahead. If you’ve never watched The Shining and you don’t want to hear about the end or any pivotal moments, then I’d find something else to read. (May I suggest one of my many books, all are available through Amazon.)
I watched the movie this week, for the first time in a couple of years. I know it seems a bit backwards to say something is your favourite movie and then not watch it as often as others, but I feel there’s something I need to savour in The Shining. I don’t want to ever get too used to those long corridors or that nerve shredding score. I don’t want to remember exactly which scene is next. I’d rather keep that nightmarish quality alive. The one I’ve been experiencing since the first time I watched it.
I can still remember putting on that VHS for the first time. Through the entire two and a half hours, I could feel the film reaching through the screen and into my brain as it flicked switches and sowed seeds. The insidious nature of the thing is pure genius to me. In places, it’s almost abstract. In other places, it’s the character’s reactions that toy with your emotions. Jack’s acceptance of Lloyd the barman’s appearance still worries me as much as the cool, calm nature of the improbable barman himself.
I should point out I’ve never read the book. I’ve read the sequel, Doctor Sleep. Which is rather oddly a psychic horror version of the movie Shane, with the stranger coming to town and saving the innocent from the sort of monster he has the potential to be. No, for me, The Shining was made by a man called Stanley. He took the book, distilled it and delivered his own translation through a medium he conducted with supreme mastery.
On the surface, it’s a classic haunted house story. Only, here, the Torrances are being paid to look after their haunted house. Also, in a classic piece of Stephen King-nastics, we have a lead character who’s a writer. Maybe that’s why he’s not happy about Stanley’s treatment of Jack. It’s one of King’s best-known avatars but it will always be remembered as the iconic Jack Nicholson firework show.
I love how Kubrick borrows from the tropes of horror as he guides us through the story towards an ending that becomes more and more startlingly surreal. It’s a slow burn of dark suspicions and disturbing sightings. He toys with speed and holds our eyes to the screen. Things shift and change through twitches in the score and, at times, a very canny sense of the uncanny. The ghost of the last murderous caretaker knocking on the door. Or his simply declaration that he’s ‘always been here’. It’s all played so straight. As undeniable as a corpse in your bed.
Only, through all of it, Kubrick is laying other messages for us to find. He’s tracing Ley Lines and sending smoke signals. He’s talking about the destruction of the self and the family. He’s talking about belief and the dangers of in our past. When we hear Jack hurt his son years ago by accident, it’s no different to the mistreatment of the Native Americans or the disastrous results of doomed expeditions in the days of the pioneers. The nameless, faceless darkness in the hotel feeds on past mistakes. Or we’re allowed to believe it’s somehow a consequence of America’s brutal past, not we’re ever given a definite explanation.
It’s those hidden, extracted and redacted gaps in the evidence that always keep me coming back. Nothing is ever waved in your face as an explanation in the movie. We’re left with clues, feeling like the answers are just past the reach of our fingertips.
I once developed a theory that revolved around Jack’s breakdown coming from the photo we see on the wall at the end. What if you were already feeling trapped in your life and your head and then you saw a photo of a man who looked exactly like you in a place you’d never been before? It’s just possible you could start to lose your grip on reality. You could hurt your loved ones and never know what you were doing. You could relinquish your sense of self in a hope of finding a freeing happiness that was never quite yours to begin with. Only, of course, we never see him see that photo. We’re never shown it until Danny and Wendy escape and Jack is left out in the cold to die. Only then, as we dare to relax, does the camera takes us back into the hotel one last time. We’re moving in a shot that appears to be someone or something’s POV as the music drifts and we go into that photo. It’s a brilliant twist of the knife, if not exactly a twist in the plot. It couldn’t be an actual twist unless it came with an explanation. No, this is one last question to turn everything you were thinking on its head.
Kubrick’s use of the camera still knocks me sideways. His tracking shots of little Danny on the bike are almost clinical but, when things turn frantic, he keeps on the characters instead of the madness and he never overplays the horrors he confronts through the lens.
Take the scene where Danny sees the two girls. In any other movie, that would be played for jumps. If it had been in the 90s, those girls would’ve oozed blood and flickered like the light of a strobing fluorescent tube. In the eighties, they’d have sung a little song and then rushed at him. Kubrick keeps them still and smiling. It’s Danny’s reaction and the score that tells you that you’ve slipped into a nightmare. We’re just given a glimpse of their corpses.
The moment where the camera presses in on Danny covering his eyes and holds there always gets me. You want to see…only, you don’t. Not if they’re still there.
Although, for me, perhaps the greatest use of Danny circles around his trip into Room 237. The quiet terror of the ball that rolls to him up the corridor, sent by some unseen hand. The camera walking into the room as his POV, never cutting away or giving you a chance to settle. The next scene, after he’s called for his mum, showing us that she’s nowhere near but instead operating boilers and checking gauges, as if she’s somehow running the hotel’s dark shadow in that moment. Then Jack’s screams as he stays trapped in his own nightmare and finally the staggering silhouette as Danny walks in towards his shaken parents. We see that he’s been attacked, but we’ve never allowed to understand what happened. That jarring sequence of events allows Kubrick to neatly show Torrance family pitched headfirst into the crisis that will end them. Jack is falling apart and struggling to steer himself. Wendy is scared and unable to protect her family, whilst their son is becoming a walking weathervane. The Geiger counter trying to tell them that the hotel is no longer safe.
Of course, if you ever look at all the behind the scenes footage, you’ll see how Stanley Kubrick manipulated his actors into creating those performances for him. It’s difficult to watch the second half of the movie once understand you’re watching Duvall’s mania feels all too real for a reason.
I suppose that’s the genius of Kubrick. Cruel and pragmatic, but it allows him to create something that leaves a fingerprint on your senses long after it’s done with you.
The previous time I watched The Shining, I was lucky enough to see it in the cinema. It totally changed the experience. The score, in particular. That score is one of the all-time greats. The screeches and howls. The stabbing strings and thunder rumble bass. The hissed whispers that play as Wendy tries to find her son. The way she reacts to those voices, the way the camera seems to work hard to stop us from seeing what she’s seeing, it’s just possible we’re meant to think they’re not score. They’re the voices of the other guests. The guests The Overlook won’t permit to leave.
Or, of course, you’re not seeing that at all. The scariest version of The Shining lies in the possibility that nothing supernatural is happening. You could be watching an old man and a kid playing a game of pretending to psychic. You could be watching one man fall apart and begin to want to kill his family. If Kubrick is putting us through that, then it’s no surprise you’re always left breathless and hoping you’ll find mysterious explanations for the crimes you’re being forced to be complicit in by witnessing them unfold.
I know it’s wrong to want a book could carry the same effects as a film, but every time I watch The Shining I wish I could write something that leaves my readers feeling the same way as I do whenever those credits roll. Any silence after you’re out of The Overlook is never truly empty. Any closed door could lead to a red corridor or a Gold Room ballroom. Any photo might contain a smiling face that wasn’t there before.
Then again, I suppose wanting to recreate that feeling is missing the point. The Shining is one of a kind. A masterpiece. It’s horror with the toe tags cut off the bodies and the maps burnt in the fire. It’s horror boiled, presented at its most enigmatic and intelligent.
Ah, hell. I may just have to break my rule and watch it again this weekend.