The Shining (1980), Lookback/Review

Yes, it's a Christmas movie.

I occasionally go on Kurt Vonnegut jags. I’ll reread his entire catalogue. I do that with several artists, Stanley Kubrick among them. You can’t do that with Stephen King, the best you can hope is to join the Stephen King new-book-of-the-month-club and try to keep up. I love what Kubrick did with The Shining and I understand why King was exasperated, seeing the brilliance of the film, but nonetheless finding that it failed. As King tells the story: Kubrick called early on a weekday morning and said that he believed that all ghost stories were ultimately optimistic because they assume that people survive death. Kubrick’s view of the supernatural thriller began with the evil that people do as individuals, a madness that comes over the characters from within. King had written a book about an external, malevolent force that infected the energies that encountered it. Kubrick wanted to reimagine The Shining as a Christmas parable. Kubrick’s vision is ultimately optimistic, with a lesson to be learned by the whole family. It may not look like a family picture, but when I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to watch The Brady Bunch because it set up unrealistic expectations, I was encouraged to watch The Addams Family. So The Shining is perfectly reasonable family fare to me. 

Stanley Kubrick is well known for the symbolism, metaphors and allegories in his works. He is a master craftsman who explored subversive filmmaking while never losing sight of the commercial side of film. No Kubrick movie is a single film. They all work on the audience on two levels. There is always an entirely different film being told through subtext. Kubrick reveals mysteries and shares secrets. The cockpit of the bomber in Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb caught the attention of the CIA because it was so close to the real thing, which was highly classified. The space shuttle in 2001: A Space Odyssey, looks like it is a replica from the future. Thousands of words have been written explaining how his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, subliminally told the story of people manipulated by the cult of the powerful elite, the Illuminati and the ritualistic orgies and indulgences that their wealth and status allowed them to perform with impunity. There are people who believe Kubrick was killed for exposing these secrets.  Rumors persist, thirteen years after his death, that Kubrick was recruited by NASA to fake the televised broadcasts of the Apollo moon landing. Kubrick includes references to the moon landing in The Shining. The kid who shines, Danny, wears an Apollo 11 sweater and there’s enough Tang in the Overlook Hotel storeroom to provide powdered interstellar mimosas to astronauts for light-years.

The Shining begins as we follow a yellow VW Beetle going over a river and through some woods to the secluded summer vacation hotspot The Overlook Hotel, where Jack Torrance is interviewing for a job as the winter caretaker. Jack, his wife Winifred and his son, Danny, will have to spend the entire holiday season sequestered away from the rest of the world. Winifred isn’t a Winnie or a Freddie, her family and friends call her Wendy, like the best friend to the eternal child, Peter Pan. The head cook at the hotel, Dick Hallorann, notices that Danny shines like the Star of Bethlehem. Hallorann explains that the hotel has a shine of its own. Danny is an imaginative child and he has more than visions of sugar plums dancing in his head. Danny might be stuck in the hotel with nothing to do, no friends to play with and no stockings to unstuff, but as he explores the massive building on his Big Wheel, he finds that every room has a gift he can unwrap and that he is not alone. There are two girls around his own age who want to play with him, forever.

Jack Torrance could use some Christmas cheer. He took the job at the Overlook so that he could finish a novel without distractions, but he’s getting nowhere in his writing. He has lost that spirit of imagination. He laments that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Jack’s frustration mounts and he begins to take it out on his family. The Overlook, while well stocked with food and eggnog, has no rum or other spirits, of the liquid kind. Jack is visited by three ghosts: the seductive, though scaly, woman who lives in the past of Room 237; Lloyd the bartender in the persistently present Gold Room; and Delbert Grady, who offers Jack future possibilities. Wendy is hopelessly lost as she tries to put the best possible spin on their bleak circumstances. She tries to bridge the growing gap between the Ebenezerly father and his Tiny Tim son. Danny meanwhile has his own run-ins with apparitions from the past, gets injured and retreats to an inner world while the imaginary friend who lives in his molar, Tony, takes on the role as his mouthpiece. Tony is very respectful towards Danny’s mother while Danny is withdrawn. 

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Danny, as Tony, writes REDRUM on the bathroom door with his mother’s cheery, bright red lipstick and stands over Wendy like a kid on Christmas morning waiting to wake the parents, itching to see what Santa left. Jack bursts into the room with the axe fresh from chopping wood for the fireplace. Wendy slips Danny out the bathroom window that she herself can’t fit through, skinny as she is, because she’s no St. Nick and couldn’t fit down a chimney no matter what she put up her nose. Danny flees from his father like Mary and Joseph took off to Egypt after the Magi told them that King Herod didn’t see a future for their son. The young sisters who were killed could represent the children killed in the Massacre of the Innocents. Dick Hallorran, representative of the Zoroastrian Magi, who became extinct after the rise of Christianity, sees the call of Danny’s shining star and cuts his holiday vacation short just in time to be dispatched by Jack, who hobbles off to spread his cheer with his son in the massive property’s hedge maze. The Scroogey father dawdles too long in the snow and becomes a Jack Frost lawn ornament. In the book, he roasts on an open fire.

Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance with an over-the-top Dr. Seuss animation. Nicholson even resembles The Grinch, looking down on Wendy and Danny as they frolic like he’s looking down on Whoville. Stephen King has commented that he never wanted Nicholson in the role because the world already saw him as more than a little nuts, after his performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. King preferred an actor along the lines of Jon Voigt, who could pull off a slow burn and really surprise an audience when he goes crazy. Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance is a walking Disney cartoon, with her big eyes, Song of the South accent and Goofy smile. She even dresses in the same color coordination as the Goofy toy Danny has in his room. Danny Lloyd’s performance as the creepy Danny Torrance is a wonder of concentration. Scatman Crothers had inhabited memorable animated characters such as Curly in the Harlem Globetrotters Cartoon and Hong Kong Phooey before taking the role of the chef with something extra, Dick Hallorann. Barry Nelson, who was the first actor to portray Ian Fleming’s secret agent James Bond, plays Stuart Ullman. Philip Stone revels as Delbert Grady, the former caretaker of the Overlook who instructs Jack on how to best correct his family. Joe Turkel mixes it up as Lloyd the bartender. Anne Jackson plays Danny’s doctor. Tony Burton plays Larry Durkin. Barry Dennen portrays Bill Watson. The Grady girls are played by Lisa and Louise Burns. The Overlook Hotel is a major character. It is a winter wonderland awash in reds and surrounded by the lush evergreens of a Christmas tree forest. Green and red are universally accepted as Christmas colors.

Christmas is a co-opted holiday. It took existing holiday dates and adopted joyful festivals from pagan traditions, like those that celebrated the ancient god Mithra. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a feast named for Saturn, the original supreme creator. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick had to change the setting of the obelisk from the moon of Saturn to the moon of Jupiter because he couldn’t film the rings of Saturn to his own exacting standards. The Shining also won the Saturn award for best horror film. The pine forest that surrounds the Overlook property reflects the Yuletide celebrations of the Druids, who used evergreens during their winter solstice rituals. Medieval Christians weren’t happy with the joyous, secular celebrations that were becoming tradition. They felt that Christmas should be a somber day of religious reflection. The revelers in The Gold Room look like they’re at a New Year’s Party, but we know that the party was actually a July 4th Ball. This is a sly reference to Christmas in July, the question Barnaby asks Tweedles Dee and Dum in The March of the Wooden Soldiers (Babes in Toyland), the holiday perennial starring Laurel and Hardy, Henry Kleinbach and Charlotte Henry, itself influenced by English Christmas pantomimes.

There is no Santa Claus in The Shining. There is no tinsel, lights or ornaments on any tree. There is no menorah. Hanukah candles are represented by the anti-Nazi melodies of The Night Music, from Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Kubrick hides his season’s greetings beneath a corridor of blood. In other films, Kubrick hid menace beneath perfectly framed settings. In The Shining, he subverted the ghastly goings with eggnog and red rum.


Den of Geek Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

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