THE SHINING (1980)

  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Writers: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King
  • Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Philip Stone, and Joe Turkel
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

There are many, many enduring images in The Shining, several of which have gone down through our popular culture. Its director, Stanley Kubrick, has an effortless command of what he wants out of every frame. Yet, considering it as an actual movie, it has more of a puzzle box than a plot. There is an entire cottage industry devoted to figuring out what it actually means, heading off in directions like “the subtext is the slaughter of the Native Americans” or that the movie stands as Kubrick’s elaborate apologia for secretly helping NASA fake the moon landing. There are some bits of the movie that are explained, sure, but there are lots of other things that aren’t. The recent documentary Room 237 allows academics to expound many of these theories, and though many of them are easily debunked, it goes to show how this movie has been dissected over the years.

The story might seem easily summarized in a logline. Man (Jack Nicholson) volunteers to become the winter caretaker at a hotel way up in the mountains, goes crazy, tries to axe murder his family. But also the hotel is haunted, or something. Also his kid (Danny Lloyd) is psychic, or something. Also he’s “always been there,” or something. There are no reliable narrators, and thus you can say very little in this movie definitively “happens” or “doesn’t happen.” The hotel chef (Scatman Crothers) (who, like the son, has “the shining”) spends most of the movie trying to get back to the hotel after he senses the son psychically telling him something is wrong (at least that’s the explanation that makes the most sense, nobody explains anything). He is the closest thing the movie has to a reliable point of view. But as soon as he arrives back at the hotel, he immediately gets murdered. You’re not getting any lifelines here.

Perhaps because of the ubiquitousness of some of its imagery, it’s hard for me to find The Shining actually scary. There are several sequences, for example, where very dramatic “horror” music is grinding away on the soundtrack, but nothing particularly ominous is actually happening, as far as we can tell. There were those, particularly around this period, who accused Kubrick of being more interested in style than in actually making a movie, and here they may actually have a point. He reportedly decided to make a horror movie because he wanted to make something more likely to be a box office success after the relative financial failure of his previous movie, Barry Lyndon. But he didn’t slack off any in making a more “commercial” movie. Kubrick had a reputation as a perfectionist who cared more about getting things exactly as he had pictured them than anything else, certainly more than his actors’ sanity. In one famous scene, Shelley Duvall’s character Wendy discovers that the “book” her husband has been working tirelessly on for months consists solely of hundreds of pages reading “No Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy” over and over, then is confronted by him and holds him off with a baseball bat. If Duvall seems incredibly hysterical in this scene, it may be because Kubrick forced her to re-do it over 150 times. Even extremely short scenes were re-run over and over. And many of the scenes are not short. Duvall describes shooting the movie as a year plus of torture, in which she’d have to scream and cry and Nicholson would have to act angry and crazy for months on end. Which in a way contributes to the movie’s sense that these are characters that have been trapped with each other for too long, and just can’t take it anymore.

This is a movie constructed like a maze with multiple literal mazes in it. Contributing to this sense of disorientation is Kubrick’s use of the steadicam, a new technology at the time, which allowed the camera to move smoothly and freely over uneven surfaces. The camera spends much of the movie following the characters around corner after corner, either in the hedge maze outside or in the corridors of the hotel, and neither we nor the characters ever seem to quite know where we’re going or what’s around the next bend. In fact, if you pay very close attention you’ll realize that which parts of the motel connect to which actually change over the course of the movie, with those bright red elevator doors showing up in the background even when it doesn’t make any sense. This isn’t a continuity error, this is on purpose. 

What we have here are three characters, even the son, having their own version of a nervous breakdown simultaneously. Something actually happens, but what exactly? Are the characters seeing ghosts? Psychic visions created by the hotel? More observant viewers than me noted that there is a mirror prominently placed in every scene where Nicholson’s character has conversations with the ghosts. Does that mean it’s all happening in his head, and his conversations are actually with himself? Duvall’s character sees ghosts too, as does their son Danny, but none of them are the same ghosts. They each seem to be having their own experiences. The Shining, in the end, seems to be less about a haunted house than it is about madness.

I think the reason I’ve always been enamored of Kubrick is that he seems to have more control, more confidence in his frame than any other director. He is the master of the tracking shot, as in this movie where his camera follows behind Danny on his three-wheeler through the hallways of the hotel, an inch or two off the ground, but he can also hold a frame when he thinks its more effective, or get his movement from the characters in the frame. A shot that has not become famous from this movie, but is in some ways the most powerful moment, comes immediately after one character gets murdered, and Nicholson rises into frame, an insane look on his eye and blood spattered across his face. It’s a shot we’ve seen versions of over and over in movies over the decades, certainly, but this movie pulls it off more effectively than anywhere else.

Kubrick’s actors are drilled so hard that the actors themselves sometimes disappear under the weight, but that does not happen with Nicholson. If you’re thinking of “Crazy” Jack Nicholson in your head, this is the absolutely peak of that aesthetic. You might think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (where he was really supposed to be the sane one, for the most part) or Batman (where he’s mostly under the Joker makeup), but this is the real Crazy Jack. He spends the whole movie arching his eyebrows, sticking out his tongue at strange moments, and wildly gesticulating. He plays his character (also named Jack) not so much as someone who goes insane but as someone who was already insane but did a pretty good job of hiding it for a while.

When The Shining was made, it was still early in the career of Stephen King, and this movie was only the second in a long string of Hollywood adaptations of his work (after the 1976 adaptation of Carrie). In the end, King’s lack of involvement may have been a blessing. He may be a spectacular author of page-turners, but his assessment of how good a movie of his work is seems to be entirely based on how faithful it is to his original book. He hated Kubrick’s version of The Shining, because Kubrick was far more interested in making the movie he envisioned. About a month or so ago we watched Doctor Sleep, a recently-released “sequel” to this movie, starring Ewan McGregor as an adult version of Danny Torrance. That movie’s stated goal was to “reconcile” the Kubrick and King versions of the story. In the end it is perfectly fine as a movie, but it doesn’t work with the original film. The entire point of The Shining is that it resists being wrapped up in a bow. Any attempt to make it make sense will never be more than one person’s version of that truth.

One thought on “THE SHINING (1980)

  1. I’m sure Shelley Duvall could have done without the Tippi Hedren treatment during the making of this film. I think I read somewhere that she nearly had a nervous breakdown and didn’t work for a long time.

    Liked by 1 person

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