The Shining (1980)

Jack and Danny Torrance (Jack Nicholson, Danny Lloyd) comfort each other in a tender moment from "The Shining."

Directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson; based upon the novel by Stephen King. Music by Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind. Photographed by John Alcott. Edited by Ray Lovejoy. Production designed by Roy Walker. Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Phillip Stone, Joe Turkel.

There are several things that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining does expertly, the most crucial being the way it remedies a fundamental weakness that ghost stories typically have. By definition, haunted house tales could be very frightening, but so often they are burdened with explanations: for who the ghosts are,  for why the house’s occupants cannot leave, etc. And they frequently attempt to amp up the drama by supplying logical motivations for the ghosts themselves—as if it’s really possible to venture to the great beyond and back, and yet still be defeated by first-year Psychology. And–forgive me–but usually ghost stories have small stakes, since all too often spirits are prone less to frightening displays of power, and more to showy special effects sequences that fail to convince us that our heroes are in danger. You would think that ghosts would have more ambitious plans to terrorize folks than by turning on the stove, opening doors, and playing with clock radios, but apparently a lot of them do not.

The Shining adjusts (and improves) this template by grounding every turn of its ghost story in twisted psychology. It puts its characters into play at an unnerving remove from each other. Frightening events always happen when the characters are alone. The plot is airtight, not in its sense, but in the way it creepily suggests that each character has sole viewership of a horrific event, with plausible explanation given to how the others cannot or will not see what they see. While there are several scary moments in The Shining, we cannot be certain if the paranormal plays a part in any one of them. As a matter of fact, we can’t really be sure if there is anything supernatural going on at the Overlook Hotel at all.

That aspect was probably made more clear in the original novel by Stephen King. The genius of King is the way he cornered the market for mainstream horror fiction, by marrying traditional elements to a pop sensibility that caused believable characters and situations to spring to life. But only recently has he written stories that discard the supernatural–in his early days (like when The Shining was written) he was resigned to hold onto his horror traditions tightly, sometimes at the expense of subtlety. At the time of the film’s release, King disliked Kubrick’s film so much he lobbied to get his own TV miniseries made from The Shining, which was made in 1997 and, reportedly, hews much closer to King’s book. I am impartial to the matter, since I have never read the King version, but I have seen both film adaptations and prefer Kubrick’s film.

Whether or not I like Kubrick’s film on its own merits is a more complex question. Certainly I admire The Shining, in the same way that it is difficult to misplace admiration for any Kubrick piece (even the sole Kubrick movie I genuinely dislike, A Clockwork Orange, I still respect). And I enjoy its value as an instructional exercise in the whims of different creators: there is probably no better contrast to the differing values of Kubrick and King then to see the way the two different films diverge almost immediately. King’s story of Jack Torrance is about a good man who succumbs to evil, while Kubrick’s vision of Torrance is a man teetering on the edge who requires a small push. King’s novel was inspired by his own battle with alcoholism (Jack is a recovering alcoholic, and his imagining a relapse is what propels the third act), so it makes sense that King would lash out at Kubrick’s mishandling of his themes. King once said that Kubrick, as an artist, “thinks too much and feels too little,” and while I don’t know about the “too much” and “too little” part, as a general statement about the balance of Kubrick’s sensibilities, I think that’s apt.

Kubrick’s film, as befitting someone who thinks before feeling, finds in the Torrance family intriguing subjects, but perhaps not sympathetic people. Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is photographed harshly, always acts with demure passivity, and explains away the nasty history between her son Danny (Danny Lloyd) and her husband Jack (Jack Nicholson) in a naïve fashion that makes us, as viewers, nervous. She seems in denial for much of the film, not really interacting with her surroundings in an immediate way. Danny, for his part, is a kid in a horror movie who witnesses unspeakable things…but Kubrick is in no hurry to make Danny cute or lovable: his psychic abilities that are channeled via his “imaginary friend who lives in my mouth” are filmed to look mundane rather than precious, and his shrieks of “redrum!” are borderline-irritating, pointedly so.

With Jack, Kubrick establishes him immediately as being on the knife’s edge of…something. In an opening that features one of those great little moments that Kubrick was always good at, Jack meets with Mr. Ullman (Phillip Stone), the manager of the Overlook Hotel. Jack is given the outlines of the job, states his enthusiasm for getting some quiet time so that he can finish his book, and is gradually told of the hotel’s grisly history (Indian burial ground, murderous caretakers, etc). The dialogue is all plot-heavy, and in a way their discussion is barely important, and so we can be forgiven for letting go of it and focusing on the behavior. The way Jack seems ingratiating, but seems to be hiding something. The way he speaks almost condescendingly of his family. The way Mr. Ullman seems a little too nice when discussing the hotel’s violent past. In a subtle moment, Mr. Ullman brings an assistant into the room for no real reason than to provide one cutaway reaction shot: to illustrate that this man is watching Jack with an off-key intent. Something is wrong, but not in a way we can truly put our finger on.

As the Torrances move into the Overlook, Kubrick subtly increases the themes of claustrophobia, of an anxious something. The spacious interiors of the hotel are contrasted with the Torrance’s cramped apartment that they move into. On moving day, Danny has passing words with the exiting chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who recognizes a psychic gift (a “shining”) within the boy, while the hum of the hotel’s kitchen provides an unpleasant rhythm. The only trip outside that Wendy and Danny are seen taking during their long stay at the hotel is into the backyard hedge maze. Danny sees visions that confuse and disturb him, and his parents pay him little mind. All the while, Jack writes, and stares, and behaves like a man who is in desperate need of a breakthrough, and will find one, although not the one he claims to be looking for. Kubrick’s camera is composed and lovely throughout, making extensive use of then-revolutionary Steadicam photography to make the hotel feel like an eerily elegant, floating menace.

Of the things that give me pause about The Shining, the one that feels the most blasphemous is the Nicholson performance, because I think it is wrong, or perhaps it is simply handicapped by the parameters that Kubrick draws around this story. Kubrick’s film operates in slow scenes with underlying, slow-burn psychological turns. Because of that deliberate pacing, he moves the goalposts forward, introducing us to Jack when he is, it seems, already in the middle of a spiral that will end, of course, in madness. Of course the ghosts enable him to break, but even in the early scenes he’s growling and masking a budding hostility. Jack’s final lowering into insanity is never contrasted with him once being a good father or loving husband, since we never see that. I am reluctant to criticize this, since it is clearly part of Kubrick’s intent, and a natural extension of his own well-noted pessimism, which I value. It seems correct to state that seeing even a flash of uncorrupted Jack Torrance did not interest Kubrick, and while this choice stirs the notion that such a thing never existed, it nevertheless keeps us at arms-length from the drama.

Even so, Nicholson digs deep into his bag of actor’s ticks in The Shining, some of them more successful than others. His final attack has become so much the stuff of parodies that it is difficult to take seriously, but I think my inability to find it scary speaks less to that fact and more to the notion that we’ve seen “crazy” from Jack before, and will again, (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Batman, etc) and every time he does it, it feels mannered and showy. For all the iconic moments in The Shining, the ones from Jack that I like are all small, like his encounter in the men’s room with the spirit of the old caretaker (Phillip Stone) who persuades Jack that his family must be dealt with in gradual steps.

I think Kubrick’s approach is helped if we regard The Shining as not just Jack’s story. Of course, Jack is the one who changes the most, but the movie perhaps makes the case that Jack, Wendy and Danny are all responsible for what happens. Jack and Wendy neglect Danny and don’t take his frightening ability seriously, which maybe enable the evil spirits to use Danny’s gift and concentrate their power. Wendy, for her part, is shown committing no greater crime than being slow on the uptake, but look again at the early scene where she explains that Jack hit Danny once, and I think you can intuit that Jack has done the same to her, and she is ignoring that warning sign under the delusion that Jack is repentant, and it won’t happen again. Indeed, when you re-position Wendy’s arc as a battered wife who tries to repair her family and ends up in a place she always suspected she would, her character makes a lot more sense. As for Danny, the question of what he manages to do under his own free will is up for grabs; the one thing we know he does achieve is getting Dick Halloran to come back to the hotel, and that is an avenue that is quickly closed down.

But there are still questions. What exactly does Wendy witness in the hotel room before she finally exits for the hedge maze, and what does it mean to her? Did Jack actually see what he thought he saw in room 237? Did Danny? Does it matter, even? If Jack was sane when the family first moved in, then why does his manuscript turn out the way it did? And what about the final shot? There is a deleted scene that perhaps provides an explanation (and uses the words “his body wasn’t found”), but that’s cheating. Kubrick obviously removed for a reason, so it doesn’t count. So what does it mean? Is Jack a reincarnated spirit? Is he imagining himself as part of the past before dying? Have the hotel ghosts accepted him as one of their own, and that’s why he is now in a photograph from the 1920s? It’s a chilling notion, that the Overlook Hotel exists entirely to turn people mad, kill them, and collect their spirits, and it is one that the film may or may not support.

I suspect Kubrick sees a lot of himself in Jack Torrance. Not in Jack’s alcoholism or history of abuse, but in the disturbing way that Jack opens up his creativity in a manner that destroys him and those around him. Kubrick, a recluse and director’s director was known for his difficult shoots, and zealous perfectionism. That instinct comes hand-in-hand with the nightmare of looking into Jack’s manuscript (“all work and no play make Jack a dull boy”): that one’s life’s work is nothing but meaningless gibberish. Both Nicholson and Duvall did not get along with Kubrick, with the former being constantly frustrated at the endless rewrites, while the latter argued with the director about dialogue, her performance, and just in general what the hell he was doing. When you read that and go back to see the scene where Jack first obscenely tells off Wendy while he’s working, and you can see a relationship between the two artists and those who question their art. And also with King, who criticized Kubrick’s butchering of his work. I can’t locate any response from Kubrick to King, perhaps because Kubrick recognized the anger that comes from artistic ownership all too well, and let it be with a knowing smile.

I don’t love The Shining, and I don’t hate it. I refer to it as a film every horror fan should see once, but can sympathize if they do not wish to see it again. Above all, it is an important movie, and a deliberately frustrating exercise from one of the most important directors of the 20th entury. Not only do I admire The Shining more now than I did when I first saw it, I think I admire it more now that when I started writing this review. Some movies are like that, and they get under our skin and influence us even though we profess not to have given them a second though. It makes little sense and goes against what we believe, but it’s a seductive notion just the same. And that’s kind of what The Shining is about, anyway. So there you go.

GRADE: B

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1982 – The Thing

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1999 – Sleepy Hollow

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