For Halloween this year Guernsey’s own small independent cinema, The Mallard, screened horror classic The Shining in what (to my memory) is a first for them of screening an older movie for a specific occasion.
I had seen The Shining before tonight and very much enjoyed it, as I had enjoyed reading the book, but the experience of seeing it in a cinema (admittedly not the world’s largest or loudest) certainly added to the movie, especially in terms of background detail and in the soundtrack.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, from his and Dianne Johnson’s script based on Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, while undeniably a horror movie in the most classic sense, is also something of a mood piece of the sort that Kubrick excelled at in the decade or so following 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This is most evident in his use of long tracking shots throughout the film which give us a wide view of the action and let in all manner of background elements that have led to many theories about the secret meanings behind the film (as demonstrated in recent documentary Room 237). What they do for me is really help to build a sense of the location as a character in its own right, which really plays into things as the film goes on, as well as letting us see things from the perspective of the human characters as well.
The location is the wonderfully realized Overlook Hotel which at once looks like real hotel, but also has an element of a haunted house as its layout seems to constantly change as we see it through different eyes, or it shows us different aspects of itself, which all build excellently with the movies trio of human leads, but most particularly Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance.
Nicholson’s performance is a tour de force as he goes from comparatively mild-mannered ex-school teacher to something very different and, its easy to see why he would be cast as The Joker a few years later (if his performance in Batman had just an ounce of what we see here, rather than the arrogance it seemed to posses, it would have been genuinely excellent). It’s hard to discuss Jack Torrance’s descent without spoilers but, suffice to say, the man who starts the film is not the being that ends it and the transformation, both in terms of physicality and vocalization is astonishing and fits in excellent as the film goes the same way.
The other lead who particularly impresses is Jack’s son, Danny Torrance, played by Danny Lloyd. Much like Nicholson his character evolves with the movie and the hotel in symbiotic fashion to become the real hero of the piece but this is all the more impressive as the performance comes from an actor who was only 6 or 7 years old at the time of shooting. With scenes of utter horror referenced, but never actually featuring young Danny, its interesting to ponder how much he knew of what he was adding to the film and his portrayal of both Danny and his ‘imaginary friend’ Tony is startling and at times, seemingly, beyond his years.
Across the movie Kubrick’s sense of mood creates a creeping sense of horror that builds and develops with flashes of the gruesome and ghastly, alongside manifestations of an otherworldly nature that dig into the mind of the viewer in a way that leaves them sat there for a long time to come once the final frame fades to black.
This is all backed up by a spectacular soundtrack that mixes orchestration with Wendy Carlos’ synthesisers to give a voice to the hotel in industrial style as well as a natural side that combines to work with the creeping imagery to develop the film’s real sense of horror.
This sense of outright horror really comes into its own in the final act as it becomes what could be a stalk and slash sequence but in the deliberate hands of a master like Kubrick is something so much more. This is most evident in the way Kubrick has chosen to show Jack swinging the axe as we follow the axe in suddenly, jarring fashion that really shows Jack is no longer what he once was and is no longer the real focus and so this is much more than a killer hunting a victim.
While the source material and the movie vary greatly from one another, they both tell essentially the same story and the triumph of both is how they use their chosen media to do so. While King gives us a horror story that at once terrifies but compels us to keep reading and builds layer upon layer of supernatural menace, Kubrick creates a sense of fear and dread with a supernatural undertone that is never explicit but builds the layers to create a similar, if necessarily different, effect and leaves different aspects open to the viewers interpretation while at the same being one of the most genuinely intense and disturbing outright horror movies ever made.