This Halloween, the greatest horror movie ever made will be back where it belongs: up on the big screen and inside your head. The Shining is getting a re-release courtesy of the BFI, and for the first time UK cinemas will be playing host to the original American version of the film. This digitally-buffed urtext edition of Stanley Kubrick’s waking-nightmare masterpiece is 24 minutes longer than the cut we’re used to seeing on European shores. Unfamiliarity lends it an extra dimension of creepiness, an unsettling sense of déjà vu. It’s the same film but different, and sitting through it is like having an old, bad dream for the first time in years.
There are new characters, such as Danny’s quietly troubled social worker (‘Can I speak to Tony?’), and fresh shocks, among them a glimpse of spookhouse skeletons swilling champagne in the lobby of the Overlook hotel. Crucially though, the film’s final shot remains unchanged: it’s still the baffling black-and-white photograph of Jack Nicholson at a ballroom party in 1921. Three decades after The Shining was first released, to largely hostile and bemused reviews, audiences continue to puzzle over that image. What does it reveal? What is Kubrick telling us? As the camera creeps towards it through the cavern of the Overlook, a far-off echo of Al Bowlly crooning on the soundtrack, it feels like we’re being presented with the final piece of a jigsaw. But the piece doesn’t fit; the bigger picture doesn’t click into place.
The photograph is the ultimate riddle in a film that’s built on mystery, in much the same way that the Overlook hotel was built on that tantalizingly mentioned ‘Indian burial ground’. In The Shining, virtually nothing is explained. Why is the ghost of the caretaker Charles Grady called Delbert? Is Delbert really a ghost, or is he a hallucination conjured up by Jack’s cold-turkey madness? If that’s the case then why can Danny and Wendy see the spectres too? Whose blood is in the lifts? Why do fixtures and fittings move about from scene to scene? And is it really possible to fellate a man while wearing a rubber bear-pig mask?
For the film’s many acolytes, answering these questions has become an obsession (yes, even the one about the bear-pig-mask). Rodney Ascher, director of the new documentary Room 237, has even stitched together a movie from the myriad conspiracy theories that claim to have ‘de-coded’ The Shining. Several of these ideas have been haunting the internet for years, often in bottomless blogs that display their findings in terrifyingly small font sizes, and they range from the plausible (it’s all about the revenge of the Native American) to the crackpot (it’s all about how Kubrick faked the Apollo moon-landings). What they all suggest is that Kubrick was up to something grander and more significant than scaring people senseless.
It’s a very human instinct to search for meaning. If something frightens us then we try to understand it; we want to take the poison of the unknown out of its sting. But I’m not sure Kubrick’s film contains anything so banal and reassuring as a hidden message. It’s a vast, claustrophobic maze of corridors, mirrors and unreliable viewpoints that is frightening precisely because it has no centre. There is no concealed truth at the heart of it, no destination, only the unending sensation of being desperately and dangerously lost. Like the Overlook itself, The Shining offers hints and clues as to what is really going on and then uses them against us; it plays on our deep, primal fear of disorientation. Even axe-wielding maniac Jack Torrance discovers, in his last moments on Earth, that there’s nothing more terrifying than losing your way in a labyrinth.
That said it’s undeniably fun trying to hammer the jigsaw pieces into some kind of coherent vision, especially when watching the US version for the first time. Previously unseen motifs spring into focus. Why do the Overlook managers take all the booze out of the hotel? Were those scrapbooks always on Jack’s desk? And what exactly IS the deal with Danny’s Apollo 11 jumper? New mysteries jump off the screen, but in the end these are nothing more than breadcrumb trails that vanish in the snow. The audience must share Jack’s grim, fairy-tale fate: Kubrick leads us into the dark and leaves us out in the cold. He chills us to our bones.
‘Room 237’ is released 26th October
‘The Shining’ is released 2nd November
This article was first posted on September 13, 2012