The Shining



WHEN I was in my very early 20s, and still single, I lived away from home, but on the odd Friday winter night, when not much was happening, I’d pop back home to house-sit when my parents were out at some bistro with pals.

It must have happened on a few occasions, and I remember being ‘left’ to watch Friday night tv alone (though agreeably so) in a largish house , which overlooks a spectacular view, at the head of a valley.

The wind would whip up on such occasions, striking a sub level garage, causing the carpet to rise and the log fire to flare. A pair of candleholders against red velvet curtains might splutter and gutter, casting shadows on the wall.

Sat in my David Mitchell-style smoking jacket and cravat, in a large arm chair, I’d switch on the TV, looking forward to a film. The fire might have been drawing a little overzestily, for whatever reason, and a strangely unfamiliar owl might have been hooting against a cloud-scudded moon.  

There were only four channels then – and invariably I would find myself drawn to the so-called ‘horror’ channel on BBC-2.

It seems almost quaint by today’s standards, but in the very early 90s, BBC-2 would show a series of classic ‘spine tingling’ movies, presumably as an ‘alternative’ for those poor souls who had no squeeze on a Friday night - just as BBC2 today shows ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ ‘as an alternative to sport’ on BBC1; or as an alternative to James Martin these days, as good as he is.

Such ‘horror double bills’ might have included a classic Hammer film, featuring either/or Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing, both bastions of charm and gentlemanliness in real life.

(Can you imagine Peter Cushing ordering a breakfast in America –‘Good lady, if I might, eggs over easy  - but hold the sides. But, if you will, an extra bloody tomato juice with a demi-tasse of the Worcestershire….)”      

Ingrid Pitt would invariably have been involved or perhaps the equally luscious Caroline Munro, she of the Princess Deia role in At The Earth’s Core, featuring the slightly rotund Doug McClure. (God must have misplaced the 70s ‘action hero’ mould after creating McClure and Shatner).    

Such films might have been Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, The Night of the Lepus (a film about killer rabbits), or Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, etc.

The latter might have featured either Madeline Smith or Valerie Leon, the type of girls, who, typical of 1970s movies, would dress in those dowdy horn-rimmed glasses and over-gaudy floral prints dresses, but who, at the flick of their hair, and a slight shimmy, would turn into the type of woman who would invite a long slow ‘WHA WHA-WHA,WHA-HAA’  on a saxophone.

Curiously, It didn’t tend to happen with men –  I can’t recall Charles Hawtry ever turning into anything that would invoke the appeal of any instrument! Nor does it tend to happen today. Women are now so self-assured compared to the Carry On stereotypes of the 70s that one Kenneth- Connor-like  ‘coo-ooor’ or ‘Wha-ha-ha-ha’ from a Sid James type will more likely result in a sharp Jimmy Choos to the unspeakables.

Speaking of unspeakables, by sheer coincidence, on those evenings of yore, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was invariably the BBC-2 movie of choice. I still have difficulty watching such to this day.

I dare anyone, late at night, in a darkened large house, in wintry conditions, not to shiver at the opening music, a synth take on the eerie Witches’ Sabbath by Berlioz.

As Jack Torrance, (Jack Nicholson) approaches Colorado’s ‘Overlook’ hotel with his family, to take the job of caretaker, one senses all might not be well.

Spending time to work on his novel, Jack slowly goes mad and is possessed by the ‘spirit’ of the hotel. In the meantime, Scatman Crothers, who plays the janitor, detects that Jack’s son has ‘the Shining’, a strange sort of voodoo which allows him to see events from both the past and the future.

I won’t spoil the rest of the plot for those who haven’t seen such, but what plays out is perhaps the most spine chilling movie of its time, and which is as much an insight into the minds of writer Stephen King and director/producer Stanley Kubrick as anything else.

But arguably the hotel is the star of the piece.

After having chosen Stephen King's novel as a basis for his next project, and after a pre-production phase, Kubrick had sets constructed on soundstages at EMI Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire.

The set for the Overlook Hotel was then the largest ever built at Elstree, including a life-size re-creation of the exterior of the hotel. 

While most of the interior shots, and even some of the Overlook exterior shots were done on studio sets, a few exterior shots were made on location - Saint Mary Lake with its Wild Goose Island was the filming location for the aerial shots of the opening scene.

The Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon was filmed for a few of the exterior shots of the fictional Overlook Hotel, and notably absent in these shots is the hedge maze – a non-existent feature at the Timberline Lodge.

Nicholson was Kubrick's first choice for the role of Jack Torrance; other actors considered were Robert De Niro (who has reportedly claimed that the film gave him nightmares for a month), Robin Williams and Harrison Ford.

Perhaps the most famous scene is the one in which Wendy discovers Jack has been writing the same phrase over and over again on his typewriter. The English version is ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’.

As a director, what do you do for the international audience?

For each language, a suitable idiom was used: German (Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen – "Never put off till tomorrow what may be done today"), Italian (Il mattino ha l’oro in bocca – "The morning has gold in its mouth"), French (Un ‘Tiens’ vaut mieux que deux ‘Tu l'auras’ – "One 'here you go' is worth more than two 'you'll have its'", the equivalent of "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" etc.

The Shining has become widely regarded as one of the greatest films of the horror genre and a staple of pop culture. Like many Kubrick films, it has been described as "seminal".  It was once  named the all-time scariest film by Channel 4.

Certainly the scenes in which Jack walks into the ballroom of the hotel to speak to a barman, against the backdrop of a 1920s style ball, and the one in which he finally appears in an eerily zoomed-in close up of a photograph on a hotel wall from the same period, leave many questions to be answered.

Some have even speculated that the whole film might be a revenge study on behalf of the trials and tribulations of the American Indians, as subtle as this seems.

The hotel, we are told, is built on an American Indian graveyard; when Jack kills Scatman Crothers, his body is found lying on a rug featuring Indian motifs; the final picture of Jack at the Overlook in the 1920s features the date July 4, which some have argued would have no significance for the early American Indians; American Indian motifs are also featured throughout the hotel.

A little like Poltergeist which features the plot strand of a whole community being built on graveyard.

Others have speculated that Kubrick’s Jewish background might have an influence not just on The Shining, but on all of his films, arguing the Holocaust might have been a subliminal influence.

Perhaps this in an analogy too far – and as with most artists, the best people to ask about the motive behind the film might be either King or the late Kubrick.  

But perhaps a little like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut, and other Kubrick works, part of their attraction is actually trying to puzzle what is the meaning behind them all. But perhaps that’s true of all the best art.