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The Shining is a beloved and chilling 1980 American psychological thriller directed and produced by acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut). The film was adapted from the 1977 novel of the same name written by the ever-prominent and illustrious author Stephen King. The film follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a hard-working family man and aspiring writer, with a history of abuse and alcoholism shadowing him in his hostile, shaky and impersonal relationship with his timid wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young and psychically gifted son Danny (Danny Lloyd). When Jack accepts a caretaker position during the Winter off-season at the isolated Overlook Hotel, Wendy and Danny follow suit with a false sense of optimism and spend their days traversing in the daunting and imposing gloom of the unsettlingly normal hotel (or so it seems). As the unnerving patterned carpets and harrowing cream corridors twist and turn, the viewer is set to watch as the Torrance family sink into the beckoning arms of insanity.
Kubrick is reputable for his subtle but recognizable film form – walking a thin line between order and disorder. “Kubrick’s great obsessions were: the relationship between the artificial and the natural, the constrained and the unleashed, the civilized and the base, the man and the machine.” However visually, Kubrick’s works tend to be individual autonomous examples of his cinematic brilliance – worlds within themselves, with no underlying features or aspects that unite them in a “Kubrick style”. This is entirely evident in The Shining, the biggest contributor to the meaning within the film (or any film) being the stylistic mise-en-scène Kubrick has formed. The mise-en-scène, put simply, encompasses the visual aspects of a film. It is everything that appears within a frame – all with a specific purpose that contributes to the film as a whole. “Mise-en-scene includes those aspects of film that overlap with the art of theatre: setting, lighting, costume and the behaviour of the figures. In controlling the mise-en-scene, the director stages the events for the camera.” Throughout The Shining (1980), every scene implements elements of mise-en-scene in order to create a thorough and distinct meaning for the audience to take in and analyse. The Shining’s (1980) mise-en-scene is particularly unconventional in comparison to other horror films and aims to contradict the viewers preconceived vision of a horror flick through mise-en-scene, and specifically through the distinct use of complimentary colour psychology that contributes significantly towards the film’s magnificent integrity.
A spectacular example of the film’s eerie and infamous mise-en-scéne is at the very beginning. The film begins with grand sweeping shots of the Colorado Rockies, isolated in the icy peaks and jagged troughs of rich greens, cool shades of blurred blues and the pure white of the snow. The viewer is introduced to an exhibition of purposefully placed, sloping scenes of beauty and solitude: remote and bitter isolation that masks itself as splendour – the blues that swallow the landscape reinforcing the aspects of detachment and unfamiliarity that we later see in the demeanour of Jack Torrance. The long shots trail above Jack Torrance’s car as it curves further through the desolate mountain scene, a gloomy sense of the complete unknown hanging heavy over the viewer as the shot hangs over Jack Torrance. The audience gazes down at the little old car, the Torrance’s oblivious to the leering sense of danger that awaits them. From the very beginning, the audience is purposefully positioned through the shots to leer over the Torrance’s like the untapped sense of fear that sits in Wendy and Danny Torrance’s stomach, and the deep and ticking rage inside Jack Torrance. The foreboding and grand music only reinforces this sense of unadulterated dread. The deep notes intend to sink deep into the viewer’s pitted stomach and provoke a profound sense of unease. Kubrick’s chosen music for this scene is eerie and striking and can almost be described as animalistic at times. As Jack Torrance snakes his way further up through the scenery to his awaiting interview at the Overlook Hotel, the music thrums with wild, daunting calls and echoed screeches – and the viewer becomes increasingly aware of the hostile environment, the grisly intentions of the imposing hotel, and the unfortunate events edging on the horizon. From the very beginning, the viewer is positioned in a cat-mouse like place – similar to the position of the wolfish Jack Torrance.
However, the perilous and magnificent drive is met with the juxtaposition of the warm and inviting hotel: dripping in soft and humble shades of reds and golds, gentle muzak, and a patterned lobby littered with a few guests and bellboys. The Overlook Hotel, as it seems, is the antithesis of the traditional horror movie trope of the ‘haunted hotel’. Kubrick himself stated: “We wanted the hotel to look authentic rather than like a traditionally spooky movie hotel. The hotel’s labyrinth layout and huge rooms, I believed would alone provide an eerie enough atmosphere.” This use of set design and colour scheme purposefully and subtly further places the concept of a façade. The hotel is deceiving in its looks, and has sinister intentions underneath, just as Jack layers his dark underbelly of violence and anger under ice-thin niceties and casual jokes.
The stunning use of the colour red throughout the film is certainly what truly marks The Shining’s mise-en-scene as wonderous and recognizable. The colour red is clearly defined throughout the film, a pattern subconsciously hinting at the viewer, coaxing you in with brilliant and striking shades that particularly aim to warn. The colour is littered throughout the film – from minor props and costumes to major scenes that utilise the colour as a tremendous sounding-of-alarms and can be recognized as an associative colour scheme. According to Mary Risk, a notable freelance writer and producer, an associative colour scheme is “when a recurring colour or scheme represents a theme or character in a film, thereby visual spectacle with emotional storytelling.” Throughout The Shining, the colour red becomes associated with danger, often a precursor to bouts of tension or violence. The use of the colour red so simply but tremendously emerges as a motif of menace: a subtle sign of the supernatural that breaths down the Torrance’s necks as they trudge through the months in the Overlook Hotel. It is this consistent repetition of the colour red that reveals to the viewer the slow changes that affect Wendy, Danny and especially Jack – the imposing obscurity of the mysterious hotel peeling away their layers of sanity before our very eyes. According to well-known film theorists and authors, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, “repetition is basic to our understanding of any film. For instance, we must be able to recall and identify characters and settings each time they reappear.” The repeating motif of the colour red not only serves the narrative but provides The Shining (1980) with exposition that intends to leave the viewer in a state of dread – fear of what’s to inevitably come.
Throughout The Shining (1980), the hotel is set up to be seen as a maze, with its twisting walls and unsettling, warm geometric carpets that beckon Danny onwards in his childish venture of the hotel and represent his weaving and unfurling of the puzzled mystery of the hotel. Danny winds through the hotel, dressed accordingly to his young and playful nature, but there is a further use of red which subtly notifies the viewer of a possible impending danger. The viewer trails behind Danny on his tricycle, lowered to his height and perspective as he winds through the incoherent hallways of the Overlook Hotel. Danny slinks through the eerie and harshly lit kitchen hall, the pale greens reinforcing his sense of childlike-wonder with an overlaying sense of inauspicious and unnatural danger. This sets the viewer to grow weary of what’s to follow. The unpredictable and shrill music juxtaposes the ordinary and innocent activity that Danny is doing and further promotes a profound sense of unease. Kubrick distinctly chooses to gnaw at fear in the midst of innocence. Danny swerves obliviously into new territory; high pitched screeches of music drawing in the viewer who is lost to the unknown – waiting for the shot to catch up. The music heightens to a thrumming and still beat, accompanied only by the inconsistent pedalling clicks of Danny’s plastic bike. In a sickly yellowed, but well-lit floral hallway with a shriek of booming and deep music, Danny is met with a pair of twins. The young twins sway ominously at the end of the hallway – pinkish and pale and embellished with an overbearing and contradicting sinister innocence in the form of identical baby blue dresses, pink bows and knee socks. The twins stare blankly at a terrified Danny and echo an unnerving call to him. “Hello Danny, come play with us.” A vision flashes before Danny’s eyes – the twins sprawled in the same hallway, their innocent bodies lying drenched in their own blood besides an axe and blood-stained walls – a further motif of the colour red signifying the impending danger of the hotel. This grotesque vision visibly rattles Danny, who stares in shock at the resumed shot of the girls holding hands. They chant at him incessantly, accompanied by shrill runs of music that dance up the viewer’s spine like an icy chill until Danny clasps his hands over his eyes in terror. Once they have unfathomably disappeared, Danny seeks his “imaginary” friend Tony for reassurance, but despite Tony claiming it isn’t real (“just like pictures in a picture book”), the viewer has been positioned to know the dangers that follow will be terrifying real as the crimson of Danny’s sweater reinforces the motif of impending danger.
Ultimately, the mise-en-scene of The Shining (1980) successfully attempts to subtly convey the underlying meanings behind the film itself. Kubrick intends to portray the ghastly horror of the hotel and the distinct concept of a façade through minor details that illuminate and amplify a cohesive cinematic world that leaves a guttural dread sitting in the viewer: flashes of colour that don’t overbear, but rather sink into the audience – trickling through the jagged Colorado mountains, seeping through the dreary and distorted hallways of the Overlook Hotel and shadowing the Torrance’s in their imminent descent into the icy depths of lunacy.
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