Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.
The more I look at winter films, the more I notice they almost all fall into two extremes. Either they’re overly sentimental, dealing either with the romanticization of Christmas or falling in love, or on the other spectrum they deal with the cold both inside and out—horror films for the cold or evil outside, and psychological games for the inside. I fully admit I lean toward the second category. Sometimes that type of film deals with both the internal and external, and a prime example of this is Stanley Kubrick’s relentless 1980 loose adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.
King has been very vocal that he doesn’t like the film as an adaptation of his novel, but Kubrick has a long history of taking source material and making it his own. I’m not going to focus on this film as an adaptation, but as its own entity. For this film, entity is a humorous choice because there are a number of theories out there on both sides as to whether there are external forces at play on the lead character Jack Torrence versus if he is just a man slowly going mad.
The Shining focuses on Jack Torrence (an unhinged Jack Nicholson in his heyday) and his family, wife Wendy (a perpetually freaked-out Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), who have been hired to be the winter caretakers of a remote hotel in Colorado. The hotel has a history of weird occurrences, including a previous caretaker who went mad and killed his family.
The film, like all Kubrick films, is a master class in composition. Each shot in the film, from tracking to specific framing of a building, room, or piece of furniture, could be taken as an individual frame and probably win awards. This eye for detail gives Kubrick’s films a specific feel that you can always tell. There’s a cool symmetry to his compositions. It doesn’t surprise that the film ends in a maze—in fact the whole film feels like a maze with each turn unlocking something new.
Nowhere is this more evident than in a scene in which Danny is riding his Big Wheel around the hotel. Keen observers have noticed that the rooms he rides through are not beholden to reality in sense of location. There’s no way the rooms can line up the way they do. The more you think about this, the more you start to think of other scenes and realize that the hotel itself is one big maze. The manager’s office cannot possibly have a window facing outside when it’s on the inside of the building and there’s a hallway right behind it.
A lot of these weird things come to light in the amazing 2012 documentary Room 237, a highly recommended documentary on a number of conspiracy theories surrounding the film. These theories range from Kubrick supposedly admitting he filmed the moon landing to the film being about the genocide of Native Americans. Once you’ve seen The Shining, this is definitely worth checking out.
Besides the direction, the film is all about Nicholson’s descent into madness. There’s a hint of alcoholism in his character’s past, but that can’t be the only cause. His son, Danny, also has a supposed power—a strange telepathic ability called the Shining. I’ve seen the film numerous times (it’s one of my top horror films) and have watched it two ways: thinking the power is real and seeing it as just a coping mechanism for child abuse. The film surprisingly works both ways. That’s one of the great things about it; Kubrick doesn’t spell everything out for the viewer, instead letting you draw your own conclusions.
Nowhere is having to draw your own conclusions more apparent than the final shot, which focuses on a photograph in the main hallway. Does this mean that everything was meant to happen? Is it all in Jack’s head? Danny’s head? Or does history keep repeating itself? Interesting questions—and a lot deeper than most horror films require you to delve.
The Shining is a horror film with a few shots of graphic display, but for the most part the film deals with horror cerebrally. It builds on the madness in small ways, so that when something does finally happen your pent-up emotions are forced to react. This is a perfect film for Halloween, but also for the dead of winter.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.