Kubrick’s “The Shining” at 40
Visually awesome, emotionally distant, and remorselessly sober in its view of human evil, The Shining is Stanley Kubrick’s first and only foray into the realm of horror.
His previous film, Barry Lyndon (1975), was an innovative historical epic that was a box-office failure, despite its achievements (it won four technical Oscars and was nominated for two Golden Globes, Best Drama and Best Director). As a result, Kubrick then realized that he needed to make a film that would be commercially viable, but also artistically fulfilling.
Adapted from the 1977 novel of the same name by the writer Stephen King, The Shining deviated from the book, which displeased King. The rift represents a classic case of a literary author versus a cinematic auteur.
Kubrick made London his home in the 1960s, where he lived a reclusive life. He seldom talked to the press and hated to explain his work. Yet, in a rare interview, he made a most revealing remark: ‘There’s something inherently wrong with humanity, there’s an evil side to it. One of the things horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious. We can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.’
In his ingenious version (co-written with Diane Johnson), The Shining is less concerned with the supernatural forces lurking inside a hotel, which are central in the book, and less reliant on special effects, a staple of the horror genre. Instead, it focuses on the ‘enemy from within,’ human beings’ inner demons, and inherent capability for evil.
Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as the off-season caretaker of the large, isolated historic Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. He is later joined by his loyal wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their prodigal son (Danny Lloyd), who possesses ‘the shining,’ psychic skills that enable him to see into the hotel’s horrific past.
In casting Nicholson as the alcoholic novelist who suffers from writer’s block, Kubrick defied King’s preference for a more ordinary, less eccentric actor (Jon Voight was his choice), and assigned the actor, already an Oscar and Golden Globe winner for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one his most iconic roles that elevated him into the realm of superstardom.
A perfectionist to a fault, Kubrick chose Lloyd from a pool of 5,000 boys, tested over a six-month period, to make sure that his accent fell in between Nicholson’s and Duvall’s speech patterns.
The eerie way in which Kubrick turned an enormous house, with endless corridors, into a cramped and claustrophobic space, emphasizes the film’s central motif, the effects of isolation and confinement on the emotional and mental welfare of the characters, who are already shaky when they arrive at the hotel.
The film’s most famous scene, when Jack places his face through the broken door and says, ‘Heeeere’s Johnny!’, is taken from Ed McMahon’s introduction to ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.’ Nicholson is credited for improvising the line, as Kubrick, living in England, was unaware of its significance.
One of the film’s most talked-about shots is the eerie tracking which follows Danny as he pedals at high speed through corridor after corridor on his Big Wheel tricycle. The eerie soundtrack explodes with noise when the wheel is on wooden flooring and is abruptly silent as it crosses over the carpet. Extensive use was made of the newly invented Steadicam, a weight-balanced camera support that allows for smooth hand-held camera movement in scenes where conventional tracking is impractical. Garrett Brown, Steadicam’s inventor, has praised The Shining as the first picture to fully realize the potential of that camera system.
Common critiques of the film concern its slow pacing, its deliberate mise-en-scene, its long static sequences, which are atypical of the horror genre but are most suitable for exploring its central subject of writer’s block – Jack writes obsessively on his typewriter, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’
Moreover, unlike most horror films, The Shining lacks a reliable observer, a trustworthy narrator, and none of its characters is relatable, which makes it more remote but also disturbing. The tale unfolds as Jack’s chillingly baroque journey into erratically irrational, abusive behavior, turned not only against others but also against his own family.
Rich in ideas, The Shining addresses issues that were not part of the public discourse, such as patriarchy, sexism, and racism. On one level, it is a disturbing domestic drama, depicting the disintegration of a nuclear family, with its patriarch experiencing a ‘crisis of masculinity,’ before plunging slowly and inexorably into sheer madness. One doesn’t need to be a Freudian psychologist to detect the Oedipal father/son conflict. Envious of Danny’s talents, Jack admits to having dreamt about killing him (‘I didn’t just kill ya, I cut you up in little pieces’), which later on, he actually does in one of the film’s most visually haunting sequences.
The movie contains indirect references to the genocide of Native Americans. Early on, Wendy is told that Indian attacks had to be fended off since the hotel was constructed on an Indian burial ground. There are Amerindian logos on the baking powder in the kitchen, and the presence of Amerindian artwork in the palatial resort is unmistakable.
Kubrick may be one of a few directors who recut their pictures even after they’ve gone into theatrical release. He deleted the final scene, in which the hotel manager Ullman visits Wendy in the hospital, which seemed unnecessary and anti-climactic, after witnessing viewers’ reactions in the theaters. The Shining ends with a disturbingly ironic visual puzzle: The camera moves down a hallway, then zooms in on one photo among the 21 posted on the wall, each capturing a previous event. The photo shows Jack at the head of the party with the caption reading: ‘Overlook Hotel, July 4th Ball, 1921.’
The movie can also be seen as an allegory of American imperialism, manifest in Jack’s reference to Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ which some viewers perceive as a comment about his alcoholism. But the origins of the poem are significant: It was written and used to advocate the American colonial capture of the Philippines, justifying imperial conquest as a mission-of-civilization.
Released on Memorial Day Weekend in 1980 on 10 screens, the movie received mixed reviews. However, with the passage of time, the movie’s stature was elevated, and critical opinion has become more favorable. The Shining is now considered a great horror thriller – director Martin Scorsese places it on his list of ‘the eleven scariest horror films of all time.’
The film was selected in 2018 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’ In 2019, a 4K remastered version, from a scan of the original 35mm negative, was screened in the Classics section of the Cannes Film Festival.
Going beyond cinema, The Shining has become a staple of pop culture. Jack Torrance is one of the greatest villains on the AFI’s ‘100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains,’ and the eerie, blood-curdling line, ‘Here’s Johnny!’ is ranked 68th on AFI’s ‘100 Years…100 Movie Quotes list.’
With each successive viewing, The Shining continues to redefine itself as a seminal work of the genre, a horror movie that’s cerebral, artful, and truly disturbing.