Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) often described as a cinematic masterpiece wasn’t always met with this kind of praise. Kubrick having already cemented his status as an acknowledged master filmmaker; a god like auteur, (Oscar nominated for best director for four of his previous films (Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon)) expresses his true style and creates a rather unusual horror narrative within The Shining, however for this film he received more criticism than praise and this time was not nominated for an Oscar but rather nominated for the ‘Razzie.’ (a joke award for he worst performances and films of the year.)
This seems unlikely now given its ‘classic’ status; a “one-of-a-kind horror film and a great artistic accomplishment.” (-Joseph Byrne, 2013)
The Shining is atypical of its genre, it doesn’t necessarily fit into the typical horror conventions that the audiences at the time were used to seeing. (The Exorcist (1973) William Friedkin, Halloween (1978) John Carpenter, The Hills Have Eyes (1977) Wes Craven.)
The Shining did not operate as a traditional horror film, one example of this is that it refuses to reveal a specific singular source of horror. The dichotomy between the threat of ghosts and Torrance’s psychosis instead force the audience to find the source themselves. There are the supernatural forces that live inside the Overlook hotel, and the emotional instability and demons that live inside Jack Torrance. As the plot develops, the film almost operates as both a ghost story and a family melodrama.
The film ensures its horror status with the inclusion of the supernatural components from King’s novel, however Kubrick chooses to examine the evilness of the human psyche (Jack’s descent into madness) rather than focus on these typical horror conventions. He deliberately directs the audience towards a psychological explanation for the apparitions, the viewer wonders if they are actually present or if they merely manifest from Jacks mind. Its not until Grady’s ghost frees Jack from the freezer that there is no explanation other than that the Overlook is truly haunted. Often times its as if the supernatural aspects of the film serve as a welcome breath for the audience as the supernatural forces seem like an irrational fear where as Torrance’s outbursts are a rational fear. It contrasts the known and the un-known and plays on the audiences fears.
From the start it is hinted that Jack harnesses the possibility of being the films key threatening figure. There are brief mentions of his alcoholism and past violent behaviour, the audience is taught early on in the narrative to fear Jack and later becomes the films key villain where we may have suspected this role to belong to the ghosts of the Overlook.
The Shining doesn’t necessarily come off right away as a horror film. The ariel shots of the title sequence shows a picturesque mountain scene and there is the unusual choice of blue credits, a colour not usually associated within the horror genre, however the music choice makes this rather beautiful shot seem ominous and frightening, and highlights the vastness of the surroundings which completely overpower the characters.
Following this we enter the Overlook hotel where the entire film takes place.
The ‘Interview’ scene is mainly a medium shot of the two characters (Torrance and Mr Ullman.) The
nature of the dialogue and the somewhat exaggerated performances hint at the film as a horror, we get brief mentions to horror themes (mentions previous caretaker tragedy and the Donner party/ cannibalism) and the scene with Danny at 10 minutes where he has a vision of the twins and the blood filled elevator. However there is no actual supernatural activity in the hotel till around the half hour / 40 minute mark, here the narrative picks up and the audience are introduced to the hotels other guests.
Isolation is a key theme in The Shining and the mise-en-scène often highlights the insignificance of the human figure especially in the overwhelming surroundings. The opening shot immediately shows this as the camera follows the car only to move in another direction once it reaches it. Other examples of this can be seen in the camera work specifically in the maze and in the hotel lobby, where the surroundings shrink the character and there is a feeling of helplessness. This complies with the horror convention of helpless characters in supernatural settings. (Examples shown below.)
The design of the Overlook is very important to the horror element of the film. The unusually well lit stylised hotel is where the audience will spend the entirety of the film, much like the characters we are trapped there. The hotel itself is a maze, everything connects together in a continuum that we really get to see when Danny rides through the corridors on his tricycle. The vastness and connectivity of the space frustrates the viewer and causes an entrapped sensation. This could be reflective of Jacks mind; Richard T. Jameson wrote in his 1980 review, ‘The Overlook’s spaces mirror Jack’s bankruptcy. The sterility of its vastness, the spaces that proliferate yet really connect with each other in a continuum that encloses rather than releases, frustrates rather than liberates – all this becomes an extension of his own barrenness of mind and spirit.’ – ‘The film comment’ July 1980.
The insinuation that the Overlook Hotel is haunted serves as the primary horror convention and helps identify the film into the horror genre. Carol Clover, 1992, argues that since Psycho Alfred Hitchcock (1960), contemporary horror films pay some ‘tribute, however brief to the ancestor – if not in a shower stabbing, then in a purling drain or the shadow of a knife-wielding hand.’ She finds that The Shining pays homage through the idea of the ‘terrible house.’ (The Shining also fits into the traditional horror sub genre of ‘haunted house’ / ‘ghost story.’) Both films take place in a hotel/motel and the central psychotic characters are feminized (Jack is feminized by his status as housekeeper.) Another similarity between the films is in the musical score, Psycho is perhaps most famous for the infamous screeching violins, The Shining uses similar techniques in its score creating stingers at crucial moments, e.g. Danny meeting the twins, the old lady in room 237 and the bloody elevator.
Dissimilarly the performances in The Shining, mostly from Jack Nicholson and Shelly DuVall are very exaggerated and deliberately over the top, this is an example of stylised acting. This isn’t necessarily what you might expect from a film of this nature. Perkins performance in Psycho is extremely contrasting to Nicholson’s approach as the cool calm Norman Bates, up until he grabs that knife of course.
The lighting of The Shining is also abnormal of its genre, there are not much use of shadows or chiaroscuro lighting which we would expect. Rather than presenting a cold, cramped dark environment, it is instead often clinical and sterile and the usual use of shadows and darkness are not exercised by Kubrick. There are exceptions to this however where Kubrick delivers a more traditional approach to horror lighting, this can be seen when we see Jack in a silhouette during the climactic maze chase scene where we see Jack as a threatening black figure.
It could be argued that like the maze like design of the hotel the lighting also reflects Jacks growing insanity. One of the most well lit scenes of the film is Jacks first encounter with Lloyd in the Gold Room, this is shot in low key lighting which lights Jacks face from below, only highlighting his crazed facial expressions.
Low key lighting is mostly used in old school horror flicks (e.g. Frankenstein, James Whale (1939)) and is easily recognisable as a horror convention. The lighting here also accentuates the red colour scheme of the room, a colour widely associated with the horror genre, and the connotation of blood and murder.
Kubrick uses light to define characters and settings rather than to locate the film into a specific genre. It is a refreshing approach and is rather unsettling to watch, the horror could happen at any point, we are not forewarned by a gloomy corridor and a shadowed figure.
Kubrick’s camera techniques are a particular achievement of The Shining, he was praised for his development of the Steadicam, particularly during the scenes in which we follow Danny through the hotel. The camera is extremely close to the ground where as previously the Steadicam had been confined to the operators waist height.
Kubrick often prefers to shoot characters from the front and sometimes the audience shares the characters point of view. In one instance in the Gold Room the audience is put in the position of Lloyd before we actually meet him, it is a strange choice but works well and causes an uneasy feeling for the audience as Jack, clearly crazy talks directly to us, and we are confused and ultimately scared. Kubrick uses a number of techniques such as this to disorientate the audience, another example of a different technique is the scene in which Wendy brings Jack breakfast, the audience is unaware that it is being shot through a mirror until closer inspection, it disorientates the audience and confuses them for a moment on what is real and what is reflection.
This is a common theme in The Shining , the film poses the question what is real and what isn’t?
Kubrick presents us with a horror narrative, however the audience isn’t entirely sure what to fear. By looking at The Shining in terms of genre; analysing the narrative, style and overall themes, it proves to be atypical of its genre and doesn’t explicitly tell the audience what to fear but rather underlies a constant sense of tension and danger, which only leaves the audience with more questions after the credits roll. “The Shining leaves a residual effect that is uncharacteristic of its genre specifications. Rather than being haunted by the memory of horrifying images, the audience is haunted by the question of “what initiated those horrifying images?” Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a revisionist work because it challenges the viewer to find the evil within the film; it’s there somewhere, but he doesn’t show us where.” – (Mike Thorn, 2012)