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How an Old Jazz Song Pays Homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

on July 31, 2014, 10:00am

Sound to Screen is a recurring feature at Consequence of Sound where our staff talks crucial and iconic uses of music in movies. Previously, Dominick Mayer showed how The Shins changed Zach Braff’s life forever. This time, Killian Young examines how an old jazz song reveals a detailed homage to a classic horror film.

cos on filmWith The Shining, Wendy Carlos and Stanley Kubrick created one of the most unsettling soundtracks in horror movie history. Kubrick saved the most haunting shot for last, which memorably depicted Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson)—after his death in the film—in a photo labeled “Overlook Hotel July 4th Ball, 1921.” The camera tracks toward the wall and shows a picture of the well-heeled crowd before zooming in closer and closer on Torrance’s smiling face. Kubrick impeccably paired the scene with Al Bowlly and Ray Noble & His Orchestra’s “Midnight, The Stars and You”, which will forever have creepy connotations despite its romantic lyrics. (The track also plays in the extravagant party scene in the Gold Room where Torrance accepts a drink from Lloyd.) Bowlly’s emphasis on the line “I surrender all my love to you” feels eerie in the context of Torrance being seduced by the ghoul in Room 237 and submitting to his dark urges at the bar.

“Midnight, The Stars and You” also appeared in Bong Joon-ho’s fantastic sci-fi dystopia/survival horror film, Snowpiercer. (Seriously, if you haven’t seen it yet, track it down in a theater or rent it.) Snowpiercer, loosely adapted from a French graphic novel, tells the tale of apocalypse by global cooling, where the only human survivors live on a constantly moving train dominated by its brutal class system. Curtis (Chris Evans) leads the working-class revolution against the train’s powerful overseers: Mason (Tilda Swinton), her two thuggish enforcers, Franco the Elder and Franco the Younger (Vlad Ivanov and Adnan Haskovic, respectively), and ultimately Wilford (Ed Harris), the eccentric creator of the train.

The Shining and Snowpiercer share a couple notable similarities on the surface: Mother Nature (in both films, the brutal cold prevents the heroes from escaping) looms large in the background, and the final scenes depict a woman and a child escaping into the harsh environment, hoping for a better life. But Marco Beltrami, who scored Snowpiercer, reveals this connection with his choice to include “Midnight, The Stars and You”.

In a pivotal scene, Curtis leads his comrades through a steaming sauna (the incredibly creative train car environs become more and more opulent as the group moves from the slums of the back toward first class), with Franco the Elder in hot pursuit. The near-indestructible Franco knocks Curtis out, only to be distracted by (and eventually killing) two of Curtis’ best soldiers. Franco then turns his attention to finding the security expert Namgoong (Kang-ho Song) and his assistant Yona (Ah-sung Ko), who have been opening all the doors for the rebels. Franco methodically fixes his suit and slowly begins to search the sauna for Namgoong and Yona. As he does so, “Midnight, The Stars and You” plays faintly in the background.

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Although Franco the Elder receives very little characterization in Snowpiercer, his character serves as a crude homage to Jack Torrance in The Shining, which is first hinted at during this scene. Franco shares a weapon of choice, the ax, with Torrance, and even the way the sweaty strands of gray hair fall upon his forehead resembles Torrance. Namgoong and Yona surprise Franco, with Yona eventually incapacitating him by stabbing him in the side. As this happens, the camera pans upward to focus on Franco from above, as he reveals a maniacal, toothy grin—almost identical to Jack Torrance when he breaks down the door in the iconic “Here’s Johnny!” scene. The framing of Franco’s face, accentuated by the yellow slats of wood beneath him, resembles Torrance’s demented smile as he peeks through the broken door.

The sauna scene also effectively uses color. In Snowpiercer, there’s significant tension between the drab grays of the lower-class cars and the endless tones of white in the frozen outside world. As the heroes move forward in the train, the colors become more vibrant. The sauna’s warm, yellow tones resemble the hazy Gold Room in The Shining, with both directors using camera angles and having their actors walk toward the camera to establish a sense of constraining space in the corridor. The AV Club recently ran an exhaustive analysis of how Joon-ho created a sense of claustrophobia throughout the film. The Shining features a similar sense of entrapment, even though the Overlook Hotel is so vast in its grounds. In Torrance’s case, the shot shows Torrance as a small man in a cavernous hallway, yet trapped nonetheless. In contrast, Joon-ho uses a really tight shot of Franco the Elder, increasing the feeling of claustrophobia as the large man moves through the small confines.

The use of “Midnight, The Stars and You” in The Shining is technically anachronistic if you take its use at face value. (According to Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, he modeled the Gold Room party to resemble “the roaring twenties,” and the July 4th Ball image is supposedly from 1921.) Because Kubrick had the reputation for insane attention to detail, it’s more likely that the song, recorded in 1934, also represents the mysterious time dynamics of the Overlook Hotel. Its use seems to act much more as an homage to theThe Shining in Snowpiercer because according to the film’s lore, the global cooling occurred in 2014, so, although not entirely implausible, an old-timey jazz song would be a curious choice to play in a sauna. Also, the first-class passengers don’t dress like people in 2014 do; the costumes in the front cars have a strong flapper-meets-steampunk aesthetic (think similar to how the wealthy people dress in the Hunger Games films). In fact, when the weary rebels enter a train car with a bar, the patrons look similar to those in the Overlook Hotel’s Gold Room party.

The filmmakers of The Shining and Snowpiercer made “Midnight, The Stars and You” so effective because its sound and lyrics are jarring in the context of both films. In The Shining, the song uneasily bookends Jack’s descent into madness and his ultimate demise. In Snowpiercer, it soundtracks a brutal fight for survival.