The Shining Programme Note

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All work and no play makes Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson - the caretaker of an isolated resort - go way off the deep end, terrorising his young son and wife (Shelley Duvall). Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, who’s come to the elegant, isolated Overlook Hotel as off-season caretaker. Torrance has never been there before or has he? The answer lies in a ghostly time warp of madness and murder.

Master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s visually haunting chiller, based on the bestseller by master-of-suspense Stephen King, is an undeniable contemporary classic. Newsweek called The Shining “the first epic horror film,” full of indelible images, and a signature role for Nicholson whose character was recently selected by the American Film Institute as one of their 50 Greatest Villains.

Accompanying the film is Work and Play: a short film about The Shining (2017), directed by Matt Wells for Park Circus. This short documentary brings together new personal reflections from Kubrick’s collaborators and unseen materials from his personal archives to shed light on this unique cinematic achievement. Featured in the documentary are: Lisa and Louise Burns (The Grady Twins), Garrett Brown (inventor and operator of the Steadicam), Diane Johnson (co-screenwriter on The Shining), Katharina Kubrick (Stanley Kubrick’s daughter) and Jan Harlan (Kubrick’s producing partner and brother-in-law).

There was a six-month campaign of teaser ads before The Shining came out in 1980. The elevator doors opened and the blood poured out to discordant Modernist music. That was it. Kubrick, one of the greatest directors then living, had been locked on set with Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall for over a year. He promised ‘the scariest horror film of all time.

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Many people now agree with that claim, but when it opened the film was ridiculed. Sight and Sound judged it “immensely trivial.” Kubrick didn’t understand horror film, Brian de Palma, the director of Carrie, said. And Stephen King utterly loathed what had been done to his novel, loudly voicing his complaints in an onslaught on the film. King remained so incensed he even scripted his own TV mini-series in 1998.

After the opening weekend reaction, Kubrick went in and cut some scenes. When it was released in the UK, he cut another twenty minutes. The result (the film you’ll watch) is tighter and weirder than the original cut, with back-stories pared down and the drama more overtly mythic. The minotaur and the maze. Oedipus and his dad. Pure Freudian family romance.

The star of the film is the set of the Overlook Hotel, the labyrinth they built on the studio lot in Elstree, west of London. The interiors were based on the Navajo designs of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. None of the spaces inside, though, quite seem to work. Internet obsessives have tried mapping the corridors and point out that the vast golden ballroom doesn’t seem to fit with the Timberline Lodge hotel in Oregon that Kubrick chose to represent the exterior of the building.

But of course this space doesn’t work: the film operates by dream-logic, the spaces weirdly shifting around, subtly ensnaring the doomed characters and disorienting the viewer, slowly and surely driving you mad as the story unfolds. The family bedroom seems to lie at the centre of a spider’s web or a labyrinth, and there poor Danny sits like a sacrifice to the angry gods, trapped between the mirror images of his father, suffering appalling visions of the violence to come.

The volumes of the corridors and rooms rear up and dwarf the actors. This was one of the first films to use the Steadicam, a new device that freed the camera from static tripods or movement on dolly tracks yet kept the camera steady and free of hand-held shakes. Where it was used for sinuous point of view in the first Rocky film, Kubrick turned the device upside down so that it could creep along the floor. Because he favoured wide-angle lenses, it means the corridors or the maze loom up above the viewer like canyons. It was a radical new way of seeing the world, and it has freaked us out ever since. After The Shining, nightmares unfold in single-take Steadicam shots, the glide towards the terror that lies at the turn of the passageway. If you have never seen the film before, you are in for a wild ride – a cunning trap built by a master technician.

Roger Luckhurst

Roger Luckhurst is Professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck College, a writer on gothic and science f iction, and the author of the book The Shining (BFI Film Classics) from 2013.

Programme Note reproduced courtesy of Park Circus.

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