“Kubrick’s final project of the decade reflected an astute understanding of the change that had taken place in the American marketplace…The Shining was conceived as blockbuster horror…along the lines of Jaws.” – David A. Cook
Stanley Kubrick was a filmmaking machine, which is not to say he was prolific by any stretch of the imagination. Over a career that spanned 46 years, he only directed 13 films, a fact that many consider a sign of high artistic integrity. He received accolades by innumerable critics and scholars for his compositional perfection, obsession with detail, and virtuosity as a technician. In the American cinema, he very well may be the greatest master of the long-take. But it is precisely the above qualities that give his films a cold, mechanical, often machine-like feeling. There’s very little in the way of romanticism or humanism in any film that bears his directorial signature. The cinema of Kubrick is brooding, intellectual, and fatalistic—sometimes laughably so as in the case of The Shining.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Producers: Robert Freyer, Jan Harlan, Mary Lea Johnson, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Richards
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson, Steven King (novel)
Cinematographer: John Alcott
Editor: Ray Lovejoy
Music: Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barty Nelson, Joe Turkel, Anne Jackson, Tony Burton
US Theatrical Release: May 23, 1980
US Distributors: Warner Bros.
Like many of Kubrick’s pictures The Shining has been a cult favorite and a staple midnight movie since its release. Though neither are necessarily prestigious classifications for the likes of Stanley Kubrick, it’s not entirely surprising that The Shining resides in a genre of critical disrepute. It’s important to contextualize the film to fully understand Kubrick’s reactionary intentionality. His previous film, Barry Lyndon, not only went way over its budget but was also a devastating commercial flop. After the disaster of Lyndon, it’s no accident that Kubrick selected a best-selling horror novel by Stephen King for his next project.
Between the time he made Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980), the American film industry had also undergone seismic changes. The allusive, elliptical films that had defined the Vietnam era had all but vanished by 1980. In the wake of Jaws and Star Wars, the industry began to morph into a blockbuster-pumping machine, and the audience demand for such spectacle had increased almost beyond comprehension. Kubrick was clearly aware of this: the leap in subject matter from Barry Lyndon, a leisurely paced period piece, to The Shining certainly reflects this. If the blockbuster had become a cinematic “monolith” by the end of one of the greatest eras in American Cinema, Kubrick was not about to sidestep it.
If we look back at the cinema of the 1970s, alienation and isolation are the two most recurrent motifs running throughout the decade. Kubrick not only parodies these motifs with his tale of madness but seems to be making a dark commentary on the great decade that preceded this film. The anti-heroes, drifters, and psychotics of the 70s were entrapped by an overwhelming sense of alienation from the world, but they tried to escape from it. Nicholson's Jack Torrence embraces it; in fact he seeks it out in order to write a novel. But from the very outset of the film, his character seems a little too unhinged, and it's more comic than frightening. As he and his family set out for the Overlook Hotel, where they’ll be secluded from the world as the caretakers of the ghostly hotel, they discuss the Donner Party and cannibalism. With his devilish grin and eyebrows characteristically raised to his hairline, Nicholson’s Torrence already seems ready to gobble up his family. And as the film unfolds his performance descends more into self-parody than madness. Kubrick’s certainly never been known for being an actor’s director, and in The Shining, it’s clear he’s more interested in exploring the gorgeously haunting hotel than any of the characters. Despite this, Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers both turn in memorable performances; they’re the only two actors in the film that convey any genuine emotional and psychological conviction. Ultimately, it’s the Overlook Hotel that’s the true star of the picture and Kubrick gives it all the attention he thinks it deserves.
On purely visual terms, the film is magnificent and earned Kubrick the moniker “steadicam Stan.” Its long tracking shots are mesmeric, and if the film fails dramatically, it’s an absolute triumph visually. Back in the ‘60s, auteurist film critic Andy Sarris picked on Kubrick for his so-called “misapplication of Ophulsian camera movement.” Perhaps Sarris thought Max Ophuls had patented the long take, but the camera movements are applied masterfully in the picture. The shots in which Danny trundles through the hotel’s long, labyrinthine corridors on his tricycle are the highlight of the film. Though most of the film isn’t particularly scary, the hallucinatory quality of these sequences is truly unsettling. We're never quite sure if the horrors Danny sees in the corridor are in fact real or imagined. This is a ghost story, after all, which not only presupposes a suspension of disbelief but also demands to an extent that we revel in the mysteries of the supernatural. However, for those whose reverence for The Shining knows no bounds, there seems to be more than meets the eye in those ghostly corridors and the film in general, which has given rise to some extraordinary interpretations of the film.
The documentary Room 237 is a case in point. The film attempts to explain the many hidden meanings of Kubrick’s “misunderstood masterpiece.” The results are wildly imaginative, paranoiac, and idolatrous. But the film is less unsettling for what it reveals about The Shining than what it reveals about the critical opinions held by its commentators. It seems like it’s utterly unimaginable to Kubrick fanatics that he could’ve quite simply conceived a blockbuster horror film and then turned the model on its head by introducing serious themes like alienation and isolation to the genre. The theories presented in Room 237 are incredible, and I mean that in both senses of the word. Rather than dissecting the film proper, the commentators take their critical microscopes to the very margins of the frame and unearth all kinds of theoretical ghosts. While it would be impossible to discredit their creativity and imagination, the ideas presented are farfetched and don’t hold much weight. Who would’ve thought that The Shining is really Kubrick’s convoluted confession for faking the Apollo Moon Landing, or a metaphor for both the Holocaust and the genocide of the Native Americans? And this is just the tip of the iceberg. To say that the picture was both a product of its time and a reflection of Kubrick’s desire for a commercial success seems too simple an idea for his fervent worshippers. The end result of The Shining is a Kubrickian blockbuster that’s more a fascinating failure than a success. Madness may be the ultimate horror, but because Nicholson’s character seems like a walking time bomb from the beginning, it’s no surprise when he turns into a full-blown crazed monster.
The conventions of Hollywood horror have always dictated that the monster must die, and The Shining is no exception to this rule. However, to Kubrick’s credit, the last shots of the film give it an ambiguity that’s both fascinating and frustrating. The kind of slick closure that ends most blockbusters is utterly lacking, but I’ve still always had ambivalent feelings about the film’s end. The quiet elegance in which Kubrick closes his film is deliberately off key, and there’s a lingering tone of ominousness as we gaze upon the photograph from the 1921 4th of July Ball. How exactly did Nicholson’s character end up in that portrait? Is this an oblique cop out meant to stump us? Or, seeing as this is indeed a ghost story, has the haunted hotel absorbed Jack Torrence, where he’ll forever reside as a fixture like the other grotesques that haunt the hotel? Yes, it seems very likely that The Overlook Hotel—the true star, character, and monster of this film—has digested Nicholson’s Torrence into it’s ghostly belly; and we’re left with the feeling that it’s just a matter of time before Torrence emerges from the woodwork, like the other grotesques, to torment the next caretaker. Ultimately, the film becomes less and less interesting the more its ambiguity is tried to explain. Long after the credits have rolled, it’s the imagery that is stuck in our imaginations, whether it’s the creepy-cute twin girls holding hands, the immensity of blood that undulates from the hotel’s elevator, Scatman Crothers’ sagely face as he first “shines” with Danny, or the eerie opening credit sequence, which ranks as one of the best in movie history.