This is my second time watching this movie in the past couple weeks. I can’t get enough. I generally really hate scary movies, but my fascination with the way this whole movie was put together overrode my fear. Because it is terrifying. But it’s also a pretty amazing work of cinema.
Premise: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd) move into the large, empty, and isolated Overlook Hotel to look after it during the winter months. Supernatural forces within the hotel begin to drive Jack into madness, while his son Danny experiences visions of the hotel’s violent past and future.
One of the first things that stood out to me upon my second watching of the film was the use of mirrors. There are several significant scenes that involve mirrors throughout the film: Danny’s “imaginary friend” Tony shows Danny his first vision of the hotel while Danny is at home looking in the mirror. Jack’s glance in the bathroom mirror in room 237 transforms the slender, beautiful woman he is kissing into a decaying old woman. Wendy, Jack’s wife, does not realize that Danny’s chanting of “Red Rum” is actually “Murder” backwards until she sees his lipstick graffiti reflected in the bedroom mirror.
In one scene in particular, Wendy brings Jack breakfast in bed. Instead of following Wendy as she walks out of the frame towards her husband, the camera zooms in on Jack’s reflection in the bedroom mirror as he talks and eats his breakfast. The camera then cuts to a close up on Wendy’s face, and when it cuts back to Jack, it has switched to real-life Jack, flipping the image for the viewer. It’s a subtle trick, and I didn’t even notice the flip the first time I watched it—but once you pick up on it, it’s profoundly disorienting.
On a related note, there are a few scenes where the camera crosses the axis of action. Generally in films the camera will not cross a 180 degree line when shooting a scene of dialogue, so the whole scene is shown from the same general perspective. However, when Jack and Delbert Grady meet for the first time in the bathroom, for instance, the camera arbitrarily crosses this line, cutting to shoot the scene from the opposite end of the bathroom and then switching back.
I saw all of these choices as connected. There’s a sense that we’re stepping into the mirror world, where everything is backwards and uncanny, and where none of the ordinary rules hold. These visual tricks—focusing on reflections, crossing the axis of action—are cues of this shift, and I think it’s significant that many of the moments of discovering truth and gaining information (Danny’s vision, Jack’s grotesque realization, Wendy’s comprehension of “red rum”) occur only when the character looks into the mirror.
The descent into chaos is certainly a theme of the film, if not the theme of the film. The structure of the film seems to rip apart at the seams as we go deeper and deeper into the chaotic and terrifying world of the hotel.
The film is divided into sections by title pages that show up intermittently. We start off with “The Interview”, which prefaces Jack’s interview with the owners of the Overlook Hotel. Next is “Closing Day”, in which the Torrances move into the hotel and all the workers move out. The story then jumps to “One Month Later”. As the film progresses, these time markers become more and more vague and arbitrary. Next we have “Tuesday”, “Thursday”, “Saturday”, “Monday”, and “Wednesday”, and finally “8 AM” and “4 PM”. By the end, the title pages are more disorienting than they are helpful, because the time periods that they mark hold no bearing over the events of the story. Why give us the days of the week in a story where every day is the same? Why tell us the time of day when significant things are happening all day?
These title pages end up providing a mock sense of structure in the film. Kubrick is giving us time markers as if the story is progressing in a structured and organized way, but these time markers hold no bearing on the story that is spinning out of control.
And I would argue that in general, any semblance of structure and stability in the film has an insincere quality to it. There is always a sense of chaos lurking just below the surface, even in the early scenes before the Torrances settle into the hotel. We are never really comfortable with Jack as a sane man from the first time we see him. And indeed, the film is incredibly heavy-handed in priming us for his ultimate breakdown. The owner of the hotel tells Jack that the “tremendous sense of isolation” in the hotel might be troublesome (“Not for me,” says Jack, smiling), and he recounts the story of the caretaker in 1970 who killed his family with an ax (“You can rest assured, that’s not going to happen with me,” says Jack, still smiling). The plot is essentially laid out for us in those few lines of dialogue, in a way that makes it feel frighteningly inevitable. It’s as if Jack already knows everything that is going to happen.
Another thing that stood out to me was the use of visual symmetry and patterns throughout the film. The hotel is full of symmetrical hallways, rooms, patterned rugs and furniture, and Kubrick’s cinematography works to emphasize that symmetry. I saw this as another nod to a pointless sense of order and meaning—this symmetry seemed to me to be not a comforting sense of order, but rather a manic patterning or repetition (not unlike the manic repetition of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”). I think this visual symmetry also connects to the idea of the mirror world, and a sense of the uncanny.
Perhaps the strangest part of the film is the bizarre use of comedy that Kubrick throws at us every once in a while. There are several scenes with haunting, suspenseful music that builds and builds, until reaching a climax at a new title page (“Tuesday”) or at Jack pulling a sheet of paper out of the typewriter. Jack also has his moments of comedy. There is an insincerity to him and a subtle sarcasm. “Cozy!” he says, pressing down on the bed and beaming at the hotel owners. “It was almost as if I knew what would be around every corner… whooooo,” he says to Wendy, describing his first moments in the hotel. Even when he is chasing his family around with an ax, he is dropping one liners (“Wendy? I’m home!” and “Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in!” and “Here’s Johnny!”). It’s almost as though in making the film, Kubrick is also mocking the horror genre. Or maybe he is mocking us, the viewers. We don’t know whether to laugh or scream. I find myself doing both.
It’s certainly not a perfect movie. There is a little too much going on. There is the ESP plotline with Danny. There is Jack’s burgeoning insanity. There is the actual supernatural presence in the hotel. There is the idea of Jack’s reincarnation as the caretaker of the hotel over the years. I think the film is a little bogged down by all of these aspects, and the viewer isn’t sure what to focus on—but I haven’t read the Stephen King novel, and perhaps this is a fault of the novel itself.
I think for me the appeal lies in the fact that something as base and gruesome as a horror movie can also be beautiful and intelligent and complex. It is beautifully shot, the characters are rich, and I’ve found that after watching it twice I still have questions.
I love this movie. The end.