I first saw The Shining when I was far too young, probably about 10 years old. I remember being terrified, and rightly so, the father running around wanting to cut up his son tapping into that ultimate childhood fear of the bad parent. As the years passed I have seen the film – both cuts – probably a dozen times and am always left thrilled and impressed but never quite as scared as I was that first time around.
The Shining is a haunted house story, the ultimate haunted house being a hotel built on an Indian burial ground, perhaps in the vicinity of where the Donner party got stranded and started to eat each other, a hotel where many guests have died and a past caretaker killed his wife and children with an axe. All pretty good reasons for a hotel to come alive, to become sentient and malevolent. Indeed the hotel over the winter is akin to a ghost ship.
Seeing the film for the first time on the big screen as part of the C4 FrightFest retro stream was a real treat. The opening aerial shots which show the mountainous landscape; following the seemingly tiny car as it winds its way up the roads towards the Overlook Hotel, deep into the wilderness, are beautiful. The colours used throughout the film come alive and for the first time the composition of the shots; their painterly reminiscences really hit home (echoes of Edvard Munch throughout) and I realised how stylish the film looks for the first time. The most striking revelation was the score; hearing it in surround sound in the dark cinema really amped up the pressure, the creeping stress on Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and the visions of his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) are magnified by the at times unbearable strings and clamouring percussion. The score is certainly the standout star of a big screen viewing.
There was a Q&A with Jan Harlan, the producer who worked on many projects with director Stanley Kubrick. It was the usual mix of interesting questions and fatuous statements but he handled all with good grace. He was a little hard of hearing and we were without a microphone but we managed. He reminded us how the film was made before special effects and when he took the second unit to film the hotel on location in Oregon (Kubrick hated flying and wouldn’t go there for filming or for casting) they had to get up in the middle of the night to film the exteriors in order to get the virgin snow. These scenes were all shot well before filming began in England on the rest of the film. The famous corridor of blood scene is still shocking and even more so when 40ft high and Jan Harlan told us it was a “very big mess”.
He told us time and again how Kubrick wanted to make his own film and that is why he deviated so much from the book; pointing out that Stephen King knew he was signing the rights away for Stanley to change the film how he wanted to.
“Kubrick wanted to make his own film; he didn’t want to explain anything. It’s a ghost film, why does Jack go for an interview for a job he already always had? Kubrick felt it was a positive film, it means something happens to you after you die. It is deliberately ambiguous”
Jan also pointed out how The Shining was Kubrick’s only horror, his only film where he didn’t focus on social problems. Although I would argue that all horror stems from social problems – the daily horrors of living and being, the extraordinary intruding on the ordinary.
Lots of people over the years have complained about Jack Nicholson’s OTT performance in the film; how he seems “crazy” from the beginning thereby lessening the build up to his losing his mind for the audience. Stephen King apparently hated it but as Jan Harlan tells us Kubrick loved it and wanted it like that.
Shelley Duvall also got panned for her performance as people felt she was simpering and weak; we have all heard stories of how she went through hell filming the piece but Jan Harlan says there was only one time when Kubrick really went ballistic at her and it was because they had spent hours and hours setting up special effects with fake fog and she wasn’t ready to film and so he threw a total wobbler. Years later Duvall did admit that filming The Shining was an amazing experience but not one she wanted to repeat. Her performance is actually a lot better than I recalled it being. The look on her face when she finds Jack’s writing, in a scene which stretches on and on, we see it dawn on her that he has gone mad, when she knows what we know and she and Danny are in danger is perfect and the famous axe through the bathroom door scene; you can see the moment in her eyes when she is genuinely terrified and it in turn is terrifying for us.
Harlan gave an example of how Kubrick would do whatever he felt was needed to get good performances and make the right film:
“With Full Metal Jacket the actors were all too old, they should have been 19 but we couldn’t find the right amount of good actors so they all ended up being 26, way too old for marines, but he needed the right cast so he did what he needed to”
Understandably Harlan gets asked about all the conspiracy theories and hidden messages in the film:
“It’s complete fantasy, Kubrick wouldn’t make a film like this to tell that story (the holocaust), he was a very serious guy”
But he is happy to entertain other stories and theories and often good humouredly answers with “No idea, but it’s a good story”
Ultimately his stance is “If you make a film with Kubrick you leave him alone or you don’t make a film with Kubrick”.
Jan leaves us with some interesting news that a script has been written of a prequel to The Shining which tells the story of the Overlook Hotel. He has read it and thinks “it is a fabulous script”. Personally that makes me very excited indeed. Because The Shining is a great film; endlessly parodied with good reason because of so many iconic scenes and images. Beautifully shot with a great score; whether subtext junkies (see Room 237 for more on that), horror fans or your average film goer/late night TV watcher, there is something for everyone here. A rightful classic it keeps on giving, if you haven’t seen it in a while you should watch it again soon.