Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Shining (1980)

It's quite a sharp shift, going straight from Ed Wood to Stanley Kubrick. Regarded as one of the few true geniuses who found themselves putting their ideas across through the medium of cinema rather than in some great philosophical thesis, Kubrick had a knack for adapting his source material into a film with depth usually well surpassing that of the book. He would take the basic story of the novel and reform it around the messages he intended to pervade.

Perhaps the best example of Kubrick's reanalysis of a work is his 1980 film The Shining, which I watched for the second time a week ago today. Stephen King was far from happy with Kubrick's adaptation of his homonymous seminal 1977 horror masterwork. He disagreed with the casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, saying Nicholson's previous role in Milos Forman's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest would suggest to the audience that Torrance would go mad before the film had even begun. He disagreed with many of the new aspects of the story that Kubrick had introduced. He mistook a drastic new take on his story for a badly beefed-up interpretation. King's Shining and Kubrick's Shining are two explicitly different works. Many adaptations struggle as they simply put the words from the page onto the screen, without exploiting the opportunity for making a unique film from a framework that has already been created.

The trouble with (or greatest thing about?) The Shining is the fact that Kubrick buried the true message behind the film so deep within the plot, script and photography that no one knows for certain what it is.  While most fans agree that there is some metaphorical depth beneath the surface tale of a man being driven to kill his own family by the ghosts in a hotel he is looking after over the winter, they can't agree about what it is. The recent documentary Room 237 (which I am desperate to watch) explores the many theories behind The Shining, with a group of hardcore fans tossing their suggestions into the ring. These range from the film being about the persecution of native Americans (the hotel is built on an ancient Native American burial ground; a can featuring a Red Indian profile is strategically placed in one shot), the Holocaust (a subject that fascinated Kubrick for much of his life) and, most strangely, the authenticity of the Apollo 11 moon landing footage. One man believes the film is Kubrick's admission that he actually directed the fake moon landing film. His sole proof for this seems to be, Danny wears an Apollo 11 jumper in one scene.

It's fair to say that Kubrick hardly hands it to you on a plate, though. At times, The Shining can feel like a drug-induced nightmare, a surreal, Dantean hallucination that confuses you more than scares you. Nearly every shot contains some odd incongruity that could be read into as representative of a certain idea. Some may not be intentional. It wouldn't be difficult to choose a random message before the start and find a fair amount of evidence for it. Even more interesting is trying to find the answers to the film's many mysteries that remain unaddressed at the end. If the ghosts are all in Jack's mind, how does he escape from the larder? And what is that photo at the end supposed to mean?

And when it's not being wonderfully perplexing, a good chunk of The Shining is simply terrifying. The first act is deeply ominous and full of foreshadowing, stretching the tension to breaking point, before Jack snaps in the second half, trapping his wife and son in the hotel during a snowdrift, and letting the spirits of the hotel take over his fragile mind. Jack's famous axe-wielding assault on his family's room as they frantically try to escape through the slightly-too-narrow bathroom window is the most frightening few minutes of cinema I've ever watched, above all the crappy modern exorcism movies I've been subjected to. The suspense as Jack chases his son through the hotel's maze is palpable. 

With one of the most spectacular manipulations of tension of any horror film, and one of the most startling final shots ever filmed, The Shining is a fantastic film to get your teeth into. Far from being ruined by repeat viewings, they are almost necessary. It's near impossible to only watch The Shining once. Every time you watch it again, it gets even better, as you notice more details and begin to form your own opinion on what it is actually about. I myself have no idea. The Shining is a cerebral masterpiece, a film beyond most others, so it shouldn't be much of a task to keep watching. Forever and ever and ever.

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