Halloween is quickly approaching us, so it’s that time yet again when people cower in the darkened corners of their homes, watch a series of classic horror films, get roaring drunk, and tut disdainfully at the plethora of skeleton, clown*, and vampire-clad youths and ruffians through the safety of the various cracks of their hastily drawn and deliberately unwelcoming curtains – or is this just me? (*You also get the feeling that clown costume manufacturers, who shake their heads so disapprovingly to local news cameras due to recent events, then proceed to rub their hands gleefully during their finance and profit meetings with dollar signs in their eyes)
What better way to start your Halloween horror movie/drinking “sesh” (yuck) than with Stanley Kubrick’s psychological slasher masterpiece The Shining? And why not push the proverbial boat out from that boring dock you’re moored to on bland island by having a see-look at the extended edition? Basically, Kubrick released a 144 minute version for America, but due to lacklustre reactions at the time, cut 25 minutes from the film, and released that version to European audiences. But now with this Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD download “Premium Collection” release, we can finally see the director’s cut.
It needs to be noted at this point – and apologies for the filibustering – that when I watched the DVD for review, I was slightly perplexed because I had expected to see various scenes that were excluded from the version I had seen throughout my life, but I was left disappointed since – although enjoyable – not a single scene was unfamiliar to me. After digging around online, I found out that the DVD included in the Premium Collection just included the regular European version of the film, whereas the extended version was on the Blu-ray disk. Unfortunately I don’t have a Blu-ray player, however, luckily, the Digital HD download code provided a streamable and downloadable copy of the extended version.
Now let us get on with this palaver.
For those who have been living under a Dwayne Johnson, The Shining is a 1980 film adaption of the Stephen King novel of the same name, depicting the gradual psychological deterioration of teacher/writer Jack Torrance as he, his son, and his wife are snowbound looking after the Overlook Hotel for the winter. What with the cabin fever, the hotel being built on a Native American burial ground, a history of an axe-wielding maniac murdering his family, and various other spooky doings, things don’t go so swimmingly for the Torrance Family.
The movie is a joy to watch. But whilst we could discuss the visual mastery of Stanley Kubrick till the cows return to their private domicile, one forgets to appreciate The Shining as a sonic masterpiece too. So much of the anxiety and tension one feels throughout the film is caused by the overwhelmingly ominous soundtrack; from the freakishly eerie Music For Strings, Percussion, & Celesta by Béla Bartók, to the menacing and imposing Main Theme by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. You are just constantly put on-edge; the music builds, and builds, and builds throughout relatively normal sequences – such as Wendy walking through the corridors towards the Colorado Lounge for example – until it reaches a loud crescendo without an equally abrupt or violent thing happening at the musical piece’s conclusion, thereby giving you no sense of security due to lack of – or deliberate subverting of – traditional auditory horror cues. When a movie can make you feel tense and scared with an uneventful walking sequence, then that’s when you know the director knows what they’re doing.
Stephen King, writer and creator of the original novel of The Shining, famously disliked Kubrick’s film adaption; his main gripe being that the Jack Torrance in the novel is a regular guy that is slowly driven to insanity by the evil spirits of the hotel, whereas the movie – and Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance – didn’t reflect this deterioration. Whilst I’m a fan of the movie, and as grouchy as Stephen King can be, he does have a point. As soon as Jack Nicholson steps into Mr. Ullman’s office for the interview, he already looks as mad as a box of cats.
The film heavily explores insanity, hopelessness, and – most importantly – objectivity versus subjectivity. As pointed out in an episode of Wisecrack’s witty and original film analysis Youtube series Earthling Cinema, the film constantly shifts the audience’s understanding of reality; you are rarely sure whether the supernatural occurrences you are witnessing are actually happening, or whether they are simply the imaginings of a decaying mind, or whether they are just visions or nightmares – but even when some evidence of someone’s ghostly experience can be presented to a third party (e.g. Danny’s bruises around his neck), there’s a suspicion that Jack Torrance did it during one of his fugue states, or that Danny maybe did it to himself whilst having one of his “shining” fits.
Kubrick even utilises the set design to further confuse the audience, making the Overlook Hotel seem like some sort of constantly shifting, sentient labyrinth – utterly determined to keep Wendy and Danny from escaping and, by proxy, freedom . This motif is not only implied by the geometric patterns of the Overlook Hotel’s carpet, but is outright exemplified by the literal hedge maze outside. The scene wherein Jack Torrance stands over a miniaturised version of the maze further strengthens this idea, as the maze that Jack’s POV camera zooms in on – containing tiny versions of Wendy and Danny – is far bigger, more complex, and bears no resemblance to the toy-maze that it’s suggesting we’re looking at:
Also, the juxtaposition between the Torrance family (consisting of just three members), and the vast, empty, and complex hotel in which they reside, seems to imply – or at least emphasise – how utterly small, feeble, and helpless they are when compared to the demonic forces that are acting upon them – further demonstrated in the shot above.
Kubrick plays with our perceptions even further by manipulating the layout of the hotel, putting in place impossible windows, apartments doors that go to nowhere, and corridors that shouldn’t exist. This is seen extensively via Danny’s bike/”big wheel” rides through the hotel, during the tour scene near the beginning with Mr. Ullman, and throughout the segments when Wendy is fleeing for her life. For example, the Torrance’s apartment has a row of windows on one wall, plus a bathroom window at a direct right-angle to the others – thereby suggesting that their room sits on a corner of the hotel. During the scene when Wendy is attempting to flee through the ice-stuck window, the exterior shot reveals that they’re not on a corner, and that the only window where it’s possible to be exposed to the outside is the bathroom’s, meaning the other windows of their apartment simply can’t be there. These have been dismissed by many as simple continuity and set design errors, however, in an interview with The Shining executive producer Jan Harlan (not to mention the Stanley Kubrick archive blueprints of the hotel, and interviews with Kubrick himself), it is revealed that Kubrick deliberately included these “errors” since he wanted to disorientate the viewer using confusing layouts, creating this feeling that the Overlook is this evil, ever-changing puzzle-box. Also anyone who knows Kubrick and his oeuvre would know of his obsession with perfection, and meticulous attention to detail – rendering any obvious, accidental “errors” as extremely unlikely.
The extended version contained a few extra scenes, plus extensions of scenes with which European audiences are already familiar. Despite personally preferring the shorter, European version after seeing both (The shorter version also being the preference of Kubrick himself), the extended version did provide much more context, such as revealing Jack’s history of alcohol abuse, more information on Danny’s “shining” ability, and more backstory about the hotel. Although the extended version is well worth seeing, the shorter version seems generally tighter, and more cohesive as a whole – although this is just my personal opinion.
The DVD also contains commentary by Kubrick’s sister Vivian, as well as incredibly illuminating ‘behind-the-scenes’ footage of the film. It is revealed in the behind-the-scenes documentary how tough the shoot was on actress Shelley Duvall (who plays Wendy in The Shining) who, due to constant stress from the role, left her in a perpetual state of exhaustion – resulting in fainting, dehydration from crying, and even hair-loss (Everyone has also heard the infamous story about Kubrick making Duvall do the same base-ball bat scene up the stairs 127 times, although this number is debated). At one point, Kubrick is seen berating Duvall for “wasting everyone’s time” after she took a few moments too long to respond to “action”. We also discover that Jack Nicholson, behind the scenes, is absolutely charming, albeit completely insane (not much of a revelation).
In conclusion, if I had any doubts that The Shining was one of the greatest horror movies of all time, they have now been totally quashed.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Produced by: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay by: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Jack Nicholson
Music by: Wendy Carlos
Cinematography: John Alcott
Edited by: Ray Lovejoy
Production Companies: The Producer Circle Company
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Run Time: 144 mins
The Shining: Extended Edition is out now on DVD and Blu-ray