Critcal Analysis: The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Since its creation in 1980 by the late, great Stanley Kubrick, The Shining has since developed a cult following and is now considered to be one of the greatest and most terrifying horror films ever created. While expressing true Kubrick style, the film’s utilisation of the temporal and spatial uncanny is developed both through narrative and formal techniques and as a result generates an uncomfortable growth of suspense as time progresses in the film and as the space of the hotel is confined by the presence of the winter. The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, Shelley Duvall as his wife Wendy and Danny Lloyd as their son Danny, has become one of my favourite and most widely discussed films to date. Kubrick, in one of his last films, completed only before Full Metal Jacket in 1987 and Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, creates more than what many conceive to be the average horror film. While The Shining, arguably, can be realised as being a parody of the horror genre, it is also an examination of the family, in this instance a discovery of the patriarchal domestic environment and a prophecy of its collapse. Kubrick has adapted Steven King’s novel of the same name and furthered it, much like with Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange, to controversial lengths. King reportedly was very unhappy with Kubrick’s version for it’s lack of faith to his original material and brought out Stephen King’s The Shining in 1997. Paul Miers writes; “when you are watching a Kubrick film, you are also watching a finely tuned exposure of the artist’s mind,” which I think is very important when looking at The Shining. It was Kubrick’s decision to include the exterior maze structure and all of his captures and editing decisions involve duration and spatial considerations, which will be the focus of this analysis.
According to Robert Kolker in his article ‘Tectonics of the Mechanical Man’, Kubrick’s attempts to suggest that the hotel has a strange life of its own is ‘unsuccessful’ but I would argue the fact that he proficiently succeeds in transforming the hotel into a living organism, adopting its own space in the film, and a hidden spiritual significance within the architecture and the adorning features. Kolker also addresses the generic expectations set by the horror film, confirmed in the scene where Wendy shockingly discovers Jack’s manuscript. The camera movement, emerging behind Wendy, is an assurance that the mad husband is the bearer of the threatening gaze that quickly approaches. But Jack’s appearance after the camera has stopped its movement and his slightly off central trajectory is a surprise and suggests that the moving camera has signified another point-of-view (POV) altogether; one that is present within the hotel space. The unsettling environment of the Overlook Hotel, lacking the presence of other people and cast amidst a homogenous background of white snowdrifts, creates just the right dehumanising atmosphere capable of creating hallucinations. The film camera is a “presence” from its first frames as its eccentric trajectory seems to stalk, then lose interest in, then stalk once again, the travelling car below. Immediately we are made aware of the isolation the family will be subject to, as the last shot of this opening scene is an aerial view of the Overlook Hotel, surrounded only by mountainous landscape on the brink of winter. The space of the hotel and the camera’s relationship to this space is quickly established in this opening scene. The camera emerges as a character rather than as an embodiment of authorial presence – unlike a camera in a Hitchcock film for instance. Kubrick makes specific use of the wide-angle lens and the moving camera, which is made fluid through the use of a steadicam device. This innovative use of the steadicam facilitates the extensive choreography of both character and camera movement and creates significance in regard to the camera’s relationship to each of the characters and the way that they are captured by Kubrick. During long takes, and prominent through the entire film, the steadicam tends to track rapidly backwards, retreating in front of the characters as they move towards the camera. Kubrick’s cinematographic choices allow the camera to act like an observer, present during each of the events, realised as a presence by the audience but obviously unnoticed by the characters in the film. His camera often adopts large distances, particularly when larger parties (four or more) are walking together and appears to stalk from the side.
While Kubrick prefers to shoot characters frontally, the camera is often located behind Danny sometimes seeming to share his point-of-view (POV), like when he first sees the ghosts of the two dead girls in the games room. The camera quickly zooms in on his face, followed by his subjective POV. The camera also seems to sometimes be in a non-uniform pursuit when Danny is circling the corridors of the hotel on his tricycle. A number of times throughout the film, and particularly in the ‘Saturday’ sequence, the camera seemed to stalk Danny from behind like a spectre. Sometimes the camera is directly over his shoulder, or close to ground level next to the wheels, while other times the camera retreats back, framing him from more of a distance.
Differently, when Wendy is walking around the hotel alone, the camera keeps pillars and posts between it and her, making it spatially separate. An explanation of this may be due to Danny’s ability to ‘shine’, and to interact with the hotel’s past, so the camera tends to closely adopt his space. The distortion of the mise en scene, and the purposive, almost obsessive movements through the corridors of the Overlook Hotel suggest the POV of a spiritual destructive force. The moving camera represents Kubrick’s own control over the mise en scene. Kubrick permits greater room to observe and judge his characters’ situation and the viewer’s own perception of the situation as well, while also ensuring that his spectator is embodied into each scene along with the characters. On specific example is when Wendy locks Jack in the storeroom and we see Jack pleading with her to let him free. The shot is directed at Jack’s hulking figure as he bangs on the door and looks down to the ground, where the camera is oddly positioned. This is a very strange angle but we embody all of his emotions, his vulnerability at having been placed in this situation, and then his sudden sense of glee when he reveals to Wendy his destruction of the snowcat. Apart from this shot, the camera remains at the back of the claustrophobic storeroom for the rest of the scene, surveying Jack as he sleeps and extenuating the proximity of the space.
One of The Shining’s most impressive features is the way it carefully sets up comparisons between the interior spaces of the hotel and the exterior maze space. Wendy refers to the Hotel as “a maze” and in many ways the maze present in the grounds of the hotel is a smaller version of the labyrinth structure of the hotel. It isn’t an accident that the camera continues to stalk Wendy and Danny as it does in the hotel, when they first explore the maze. Kubrick has said: “One of the things that horror stories can do is show us the archetypes of the unconscious, we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.” The structure of the maze allows for such an indirect confrontation of these dark forces. Symbolically the maze transcends physical time and space. When Danny is fleeing Jack at the denouement, he leaves the hotel and is plunged straight into another terrifying labyrinth, the hedge maze, where Jack is ultimately trapped and frozen solid in time. Danny eludes Jack in the maze through his skill both in navigating the corridors of the hotel, established earlier through his adventures on his tricycle, and similarly the hedge maze.
The film creates different spaces within the hotel, such as Jack’s writing space, the Torrance living quarters, the hotel corridors, the gold ballroom and the outdoor maze. Maria Falsetto observes that these spaces are all endowed with “specific characteristics” and are all presented to the viewer differently through the camera. When viewing the spaces Jack occupies throughout the film we can realise that the cramped, enclosed space of the Volkswagen at the beginning is mirrored by the claustrophobic living quarters and ultimately the maze that encloses Jack’s frozen body. During the chase sequence in the maze, the film repeatedly cuts between varying points-of-view within the maze as Jack chases Danny with views of Wendy wandering the labyrinth of hallways inside the hotel and for the first time, interacting with the ghostly residents. This crosscutting extenuates this idea that runs throughout the film that the feeling of claustrophobia yet isolation is present both within the hotel, and also in relation to the snow-bound exterior. In the scene where we see Jack throwing the tennis ball around in a senseless boredom, the interior is linked to the exterior through Jack’s sense of ‘mastery’ over his family as he looks into the model of the maze. The camera zooms into the maze and we see the tiny figures of Wendy and Danny moving, transforming the model into the real. There is sense of cerebral intent from Kubrick, portraying the hotel as almost human with each section of its overall space having distinct characteristics.
Many critical responses to The Shining have connected the Overlook Hotel with a womb-like space and suggest that the corridors are corporeal passages – arteries for the transport of blood. The décor is predominately dominated by oranges and reds, established through the footage of Danny cycling through the hallways and the hotel, in many ways, turns itself into a body with these corridors functioning as arteries. This vision is fulfilled by the famous supernatural sequence where the blood escapes from the elevator, begins to fill the room and eventually completely engulfs the camera positioned at the end of the room.
One of the most significant spaces in the latter half of the film is the huge ballroom, which appears to be a hallucinatory creation by Jack to serve as a comfort for his growing madness and anger at his wife. Drawn from the past, Jack appears very out of place with his cheap clothes and unkempt appearance, but he interacts with the ghosts and enjoys his presence within the sprawling space of activity. Jack’s ‘visions’ or mental projections (experiences with the dead) take their subjects from both newspaper photos and from the myriad of black and white photos that adorn the walls of the Overlook Hotel. These images take upon lush colours as Jack brings them imaginatively to life, entering their spaces and interacting with the characters that populate them. Jack returns to the bar where he is recognised and served once again by Lloyd. Jack’s money is denied (“orders from the house”) and later runs into a waiter, revealed to be Delvert Grady, a former caretaker who had gone insane and killed his family. Jack recognises him from a photo he saw in the newspaper, and we can conclude that many of the other guests present in the ballroom are drawn from the photographs that adorn the walls of the hotel. An issue of time emerges during the conversation between Jack and Grady as events of the past are disputed and Grady informs Jack that ‘he’ had always been the caretaker in the same way that Grady had always been there. So is Jack essentially a ghost of the hotel also, does he reside in the secondary reality of the hotel in the same way that Grady and Lloyd do? From the photograph that ends the film, the viewer establishes this idea.
On the issue of time/history Mr Halloran talks about past events leaving ‘traces’ in time and space, particularly referring to the past horrors at the Overlook Hotel. The present within the building (notably room 237) is haunted by the past for all eternity, which as America’s collective unconscious as it were, returns with a vengeance. Is this ghostly presence realised through Kubrick’s sweeping camera movements that stalk the characters as they move through the hotel. But a presence also exists in the choice of decoration that adorns the walls of the hotel. Mr Ullman refers to the site of the hotel being on an Indian burial ground, and there are decorations adorning the entire hotel linked to American Indian culture. So the hotel, through its architecture and design, is linked inextricably to the past. Also, past celebrations within the hotel are shown in hundreds of photographs that line the walls. Throughout the film we can examine the isolation of space in relation to an isolation of time. There would be a sense that every day experienced within such an environment would seem to be repetitious; as a monotonous sequence of identical time (leading to Jack’s ‘Cabin Fever) where Jack is literally searching for some form of intensity in the space, hence creating the activity within the ballroom.
Another very peculiar feature of the film is the way that it uses a random choice of days (Tuesday through to the following Wednesday) to inform the audience of the narrative’s position in time, and also to highlight this indifferent monotony. Kolker refers to these ‘titles’ as “giving days and times in such a minute profusion that they become parodic and cease referring to any usable meaning within the narrative.” Time and chronology, through the use of the inter-times seems to make no sense, but while time is subject to repetition there is a link to the space of the hotel. The colour schemes and patterns on the walls and floors are repeated throughout the entirety of the space and most of the rooms share matching qualities, with the exception of room 237, which is deliberately portrayed differently. But, what is interesting is the use of Kubrick’s first title card, ‘The Job Interview.’ We become aware while Jack is at the Overlook that he is there for a job interview, why does Kubrick tell us aside from that? This event has already been determined as seen in the final image of the film where we witness that Jack Torrance has always been a part of the Overlook Hotel; this early step only solidifies his destiny. Time, in relation to such an isolated space, cannot function as normal and Kubrick utilises various techniques that dispossess the presence of sequential time, by including elements of the past.
The idea that the hotel itself hides another space is evident in the scene when Wendy brings in Jack’s breakfast. It is in this scene that the camera “moves through the looking glass” (as put by Brigitte Peucker in her article Kubrick and Kafka: The Corporeal Uncanny) and crosses into the uncanny space of the hotel. Titled “A Month Later” we can already see a change in the character of Jack, who’s first revealed by the camera moving back and placing him as an object of the mirror. We next see the ‘real’ Wendy enter the frame, and then the camera moves back again to the space in the mirror. The shot that follows this is from Jack’s POV that emerges from an almost ‘impossible place’ – out of the mirror itself. We get the sense that there is another space lurking behind every object. In another key scene, we see Jack throw a tennis ball into one of the corridors, which then seems to disappear as Jack ignores the ball. Later, a mysterious ball rolls up to Danny. It is as though the hidden spaces of the hotel swallow Jack’s ball and then uses it to lure Danny into room 237. Inside Room 237, the mirror plays another important role. As the woman’s body visibly ages, disintegrates and decays in the mirror, the mirror telescopes time, as if the space from the past is beginning to dominate the ‘real’ (present). Jack is the subject of the gaze, however, it turns inwards and he ultimately becomes its victim, as the Jack from the past meets with the one residing in the present, and hence begins his murderous spree.
The opened door of Room 237 allows for the opening of this ‘supernatural space’ within the hotel. The different space of the Halloran’s home, through Mr Halloran and his ability to ‘shine’, is linked to the horrors that Danny is seeing at the hotel. This morphs into a POV shot of Jack as he enters room 237 and encounters the woman in the bathtub. The interior of this room differs from the rest of the hotel, dominated by greens, blues and purples. The bathroom is green (signifying the supernatural space), a very striking difference to the red used in the bathroom situated near the ballroom, which can be realised to match the red jacket of Lloyd the bartender, Jack’s devil.
The Shining is one of the more complex horror films to analyse, through its inter-connected subplots, and many scholars have puzzled over Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. But to understand and appreciate the film, it must be viewed from an angle that recognises the figuration of time and space, as much of the film’s meanings can be drawn from Kubrick’s techniques in establishing this.