The Shining (1980)
One thing to consider about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is that it’s no more a horror movie than 2001 was a science-fiction movie. Past a certain point in his career, Kubrick didn’t make genre films — he made Kubrick films. Kubrick said he was drawn to Stephen King’s 1977 novel because he’d “always been interested in ESP and the paranormal,” but also because he was intrigued by King’s balancing act between what could be the supernatural and what could be merely the product of a faltering mind. Is that truly what the movie expresses, though? Not really — not to me, anyway. Kubrick seems to use The Shining as a jumping-off point to explore a pet theme: man locked into certain behavior patterns, for no logical reason and with no escape. Beginning with, say, Lolita, Kubrick treated each new film as a chapter in his ongoing epic novel about how humans are imperfectly wired machines, programmed to do the same stupid, destructive things over and over. The Shining is just chapter six.
King’s story could be called nervously autobiographical — Jack Torrance is a failed alternate-universe King, a King who wrote anguished Freudian plays and didn’t make it. Jack, who grew up under the thumb of an alcoholic and abusive father, has watched himself helplessly turn into the same thing. Most of the time he has enough self-awareness to stay his hand, though he has a temper, which he once turned against his young son Danny without really meaning to. Then again, I’m sure Jack’s father “didn’t really mean to” beat the shit out of Jack’s mother on a regular basis, either. Such men don’t land here from another planet; they have demons unleashed by the bottle. The metaphysical terrors in King’s The Shining work as a metaphor for the pressures on a man who is trying terribly hard to be a decent husband and father and feels himself inexorably sliding into failure.
It helps to bring the knowledge of King’s book into Kubrick’s movie, because Kubrick doesn’t bend over backwards to establish most of Jack’s backstory. Jack was King’s avatar, not Kubrick’s. If anything, Kubrick’s avatar is the Overlook, the isolated hotel where Jack brings his wife Wendy and their son for the winter so that Jack can make a few bucks as the hotel’s caretaker. It isn’t long — at least in the movie’s compressed timeline — before the family turns and faces the strange. Danny, who’s psychically sensitive, has already had visions of epic gore — the famous shot of the elevator doors opening to pour out torrents (Torrance) of blood. He has a helpful imaginary (?) friend who shows him these things — Tony, who speaks through Danny’s finger and lives in his mouth.
In the early scenes, Kubrick and the actors — Jack Nicholson as Jack, Shelley Duvall as Wendy, Danny Lloyd as Danny — set up the dynamic. Nicholson’s performance has been criticized because his Jack seems not too far away from ax-swinging mania right at the start. But Kubrick, a shrewd man, knew that Nicholson’s persona would serve as shorthand. With Nicholson in the role, we know Jack is smart; we know he’s familiar with darkness. We see Jack trying gamely to play the role of husband and father; we don’t sense much love between him and his family. This Jack is a bit further down the road to damnation than King’s Jack was. We feel that Jack just wants to be left alone to do his writing. He’s doing the husband and father thing because that’s what men are expected to do.
The vast rooms and hallways of the Overlook mock Jack’s narrow imagination. He, too, has a bit of “shining,” but he uses it to generate visions of temptation — to lust (the woman in 237), drink (Lloyd the bartender), and finally murder (Grady, a previous caretaker who butchered his family with an ax). The question: are the “ghosts” real or just psychological projections? This seems to be definitively answered when, after Jack has tried to attack Wendy and she has locked him in a kitchen cooler, Grady visits him and seems to unlock the door — unless Jack also has previously-unknown telekinetic powers (something, of course, not alien to King’s metaphysics).
Kubrick takes his time. Of all Kubrick’s drawn-out late-period films, The Shining feels the longest, though there’s a buzz of strange amusement in all those lengthy pauses, a kind of narcotized fixation. When Jack encounters (or imagines) Grady in a men’s room, their conversation goes on for so long that I think we’re supposed to take it as a mini-play Jack is writing in his head, stopping between every line to think about what each character should say next. The entire massive Overlook is Jack’s head, full of chambers of sin and viciousness, and a maze outside to get lost in. In this meta-universe, the entire movie could be unfolding in Jack’s brain, the real play he’s writing while his meta-self produces nothing but page after page of gibberish.
I said The Shining isn’t a horror film. Rather, I see it as an anti-horror film. Even given that Kubrick tended to explode genre, The Shining confounds expectations at almost every turn, with almost no jump scares — indeed, King complained that Kubrick blows an opportunity for a good seat-jumper when Jack discovers Wendy snooping through his “work.” Kubrick prefers to creep you out in other ways; he lets the music (score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, with needle-drops from Penderecki, Ligeti and others) do a lot of heavy lifting, particularly in the celebrated scene when Danny has his cautionary meeting with the ghastly Grady girls. Penderecki’s “De Natura Sonoris No. 1” shivers and shrieks as the girls issue their invitation: They want him to play with them. Forever and ever and ever.
There’s something formally off about the movie, some indefinable tension between subject matter and style. Kubrick the rationalist doesn’t put much stock in ooga-booga. He stays with the harsh, near-operatic emotions dredged up by the frustrated, cooped-up Nicholson and the cowed, insecure Duvall — it seems unlikely that such high-strung parents could produce a son like Danny, who as played by Danny Lloyd seems to have popped a Valium before each take. There’s soothing warmth in Scatman Crothers’ performance as the avuncular Dick Hallorann, the hotel cook who shares Danny’s powers, and even Barry Nelson as the Overlook’s manager Stuart Ullman is much more affable than the “officious little prick” King described. Even Anne Jackson in a brief bit as the doctor who gives Danny a check-up is a calming presence. Once the family is isolated from all these outside people, they’re thrown back on themselves. Jack gets weaker, succumbing to the Overlook’s promise of power, while Wendy gets stronger.
I always find it amusing that Kubrick, like a boy with a new toy, uses the then-recently-developed Steadicam to follow Danny on his Big Wheel, riding across carpeting and hardwood floor alternately, making that unaccountably satisfying brrrrr-clunk brrrrr-clunk sound. Danny glides around the mazelike Overlook halls naturally — a boy knows what to do with a maze. For Kubrick himself, The Shining is a maze, a series of technical problems to be mastered; it’s gorgeously lit and composed. Pauline Kael, in her bewildered review, asked “Who wants to see evil in daylight, through a wide-angle lens?” Well, evil doesn’t always abide by the clock.
Kubrick the perfectionist allowed a lot of disorienting details and contradictory information into the movie, as if the narrative were as jumbled and untrustworthy as Jack’s perceptions. Kael refers to a jarring cut to a television in Hallorann’s Miami bedroom, “as if the projectionist made a mistake,” but such a jarring transition is part of the design. Kubrick obviously knew it would have that effect; The Shining is loaded with such what-the-fuck? moments, including, legendarily, the contextless shot of a man in a dog suit preparing to fellate a man in a tuxedo. In the book, we’re told who these men are; in the movie, it comes so far out of left field that I can’t fathom how it plays for those who haven’t read the novel. (Maybe it’s creepier if you don’t know.) Some of the film’s mysteries can be traced back to King; some can’t. I’ve seen The Shining read as a metaphor for everything from the Holocaust to the genocide of Native Americans; in other words, eternal evil, endlessly playing itself out. Jack, or man, has always been “the caretaker” (murderer).
The Shining is an intense and not always ingratiating experience, a natural bookend to 2001, which also took a simple story and expanded its concerns far beyond narrative and even conventional “entertainment.” I’ve never watched Kubrick’s shorter version, which comes in at under two hours, as opposed to the 142-minute cut familiar to American viewers. But my guess is that the film loses much of its odd, arid gravitas at a shorter length. (Most of the scenes Kubrick took out had to do with the outside world.) The Shining is a perverse epic in which Kubrick dawdles over his beloved “phatic dialogue” and short-shrifts the stuff most viewers want: easy, “relatable” ways into characters, consistent story logic (the backstory we’re given changes according to the teller), catharsis. Kubrick just throws us into the deep end and expects us to swim. Many will get out of the pool resentfully; others will dive deeper to see what they can see.
Is the movie “scary”? In an interiorized headspace way, yes, but also in a maximalist philosophical way. The tiny humans blundering around in Kubrick’s maze are insignificant to the design. Murder, or redrum (booze as lifeblood?), flows eternally. Sometimes brains and courage can ward it off. Most often, not. The weirdest thing about this exceedingly weird movie is how the Overlook seems to be a microcosm and a mindscape at the same time, but then this is a film full of doubles and mirrors, so everything in it is something and something else, including the film itself. It is a horror film and it isn’t.