“The site is supposed to be located on an ancient Indian Burial Ground…”
Is The Shining a scary film? I don’t know. It certainly sticks with you and comes back to you, not always at the best of times. I think it’s because Stanley Kubrick has seared a few incredibly disturbing images onto our collective consciousness – an accomplishment that stands up just as well as if he had made a great film. Or maybe that’s the same thing.
The movie was not well received in 1980. But it would have taken a visionary critic to have foreseen the lasting impact of this film, and there is a lot to criticize even if someone had been such a visionary. Roger Ebert gave it a “Thumbs Down” initially, and then in 2006, he reconsidered and included it in his reviews of Great Movies.
To get the plot out of the way, because that is the least important thing about The Shining, Jack Torrance (a revved up Jack Nicholson) agrees to become caretaker of a haunted hotel and almost instantly loses his marbles and tries to kill his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd). Though he is pretty much off-the-deep-end after the first snowstorm, his madness is fairly directionless until a couple of experienced ghosts counsel him on the finer points of axe-wielding and wife-hacking. The breakneck speed of Jack’s descent and the ultimately useless side story of the telepathic son and chef (Scatman Crothers) are poorly draped around some of the spookiest and most indelible images from the entirety of horror-film history:
The winding mountain road.
Danny’s ever present Big Wheelish Trike.
The blood in the elevator.
Jack’s demonic facial contortions.
Lloyd the bartender.
When I think about The Shining, I think about that tidal wave of blood, and all these disturbing images start washing over me, one after another, in a cascade of discomfort. And Kubrick is less interested, I think, in telling a good ghost story than he is in creating an endurance-testing exercise in discomfort. Every single scene in this film informs you that something is not right and, eventually, that something terrible is going to happen. Sometimes it’s the piercing music, sometimes the dialogue. Often it’s the framing of the shots composed by Kubrick and Director of Photography John Alcott. The shots are often symmetrical – can anyone remember those twins in any other way? – and impose a sense of claustrophobic control and a heightened sense of isolation. The control of the film is Kubrick’s, yes, but it’s also the evil force controlling the characters in the story.
(For those of you who are into this sort of thing, check out Steadicam Operator Garrett Brown’s amazing behind-the-scenes account of filming The Shining. It was not the first film to make use of the Steadicam, but it was the first film entirely conceived around the possible–a relative term when Stanley Kubrick is the director–uses of this technology. According to Brown, the climactic maze sequence could not have been filmed using other existing methods.)
Outside of the technological and artistic exercise of control, The Shining differs from other horror movies in the small bit of control it gives back to the audience. So many other horror films withhold the exposition or the rationale for their characters’ scary predicaments and that mystery adds to the suspense the audience feels. “What happened that night?” “Why is this guy wearing a hockey mask?” “What the fuck is going on here?!”
In The Shining we learn everything immediately. A previous caretaker went bonkers and killed his family. The place is built on an Indian Burial Ground. There is an elevator filled with blood that keeps the local carpet cleaners in the black. Hallorann the chef warns Danny about all the crazy shit he’s about to see. And the music, from the first note over the first shot of the winding mountain road, instructs us that something is already terribly wrong and that it’s only going to get worse.
Thanks to all these cues, we know exactly what is going to happen and why, and if there is ever any doubt, Danny’s steady encounters with the Doubledead Twins keeps us safely on track. Jack is going to try to kill his family, just like the other caretaker. So naturally, we wonder, “When the fuck is this going to happen?” And that’s a subtle but important distinction for the viewer. There is constant tension and loads of suspense, but there is no nagging need for any of it to make any sense.
Instead of frantically searching the film for clues about what is going on, instead of craving that typically withheld exposition, Kubrick’s audience is just waiting and watching. We’re in a much better position to absorb the nightmarish imagery he unleashes because we are less distracted. Though reactions vary widely to the film, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have near total-recall of these images.
Jack also obliges this end by losing it so very rapidly. There’s never any cause to attentive energy rooting for Jack to defeat his demons. Would it have been a better film if Jack resisted more? I think so, but that wasn’t the narrative tension Kubrick wanted to explore. Stephen King’s novel is the source material, and though I’ve never read any King, I did read that Jack’s violence towards Danny is based upon King’s fear of losing his temper and becoming violent with his own children. Whether or not that speaks to you, I want a father and husband to at least try to resist the urge to kill his family. I think you can tell this isn’t what interested Kubrick because Jack never shows any affection for his family even before he becomes possessed.
Nicholson is at times noticeably over-the-top. He jolts you from the narrative with his bombast. His demeanor in the bar scenes seems forced. And in a few exchanges with Wendy around the typewriter, he seems a verbal bazooka. In an alarmingly honest interview with Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall (below), Kubrick’s daughter Vivian gets them to open up about what a struggle this shoot was for them. Jack remembers Kubrick’s critique of some of his takes: “Yeah it’s real, but it’s not interesting.” An interview like this would never see the light of day in modern Hollywood, much less make it to special features section of the DVD.
Balancing Jack’s violent madness is Wendy’s sobbing protection of her son. Though she wields a baseball bat like a tear-gassed Felix Millan, she proves surprising effective for a puddle. I thought it was a little unfair that the ghost let Jack out of the pantry; Wendy had really earned his captivity. As hard as Kubrick must have been on Nicholson, it seems he was even tougher on Shelley. Nicholson was such a big star already that Kubrick couldn’t bully him the way he bullies Shelley in Vivian’s short film. And Shelley’s performance has a weary streak running through it, which plays well considering the circumstances, and maybe was the point of him treating her like crap.
I wonder if Kubrick was at least a bit flummoxed by how to integrate Danny’s telepathic abilities into the film. Not that he couldn’t handle the notion, just maybe that he was not that into it. As Pauline Kael noted, we waste a lot of time and energy following Hallorann from Florida, to the airplane, to the sno-cat, to the front door, to the lobby… only to see him take an axe in the chest before he even takes his coat off. It’s one of the great dead-ends in movie history. Why on earth did we waste so much time on this “Shining” when it has zero impact on the story?
Maybe, just maybe, because it helps the audience with our question of “when.” Time is not right in this film. Jack dislocated Danny’s arm five months ago, or is it three years ago? The previous caretaker killed his family in 1970, or was it 1920? By plotting this very conventional “rescue sequence” alongside the wackiness in the hotel, perhaps Kubrick is providing the audience a kind of tether to a standardly predictable film within a film. And he’s deploying the one remaining trick up his sleeve – will Danny and Wendy survive? When Hallorann goes down, the tether to the conventional ending is severed. The audience can’t really know what to expect, and thus maybe it gives the ending an extra kick of suspense. (Ebert’s 2006 review also gives an interesting read on Danny’s telepathic ability and how much credence we should give it.)
After watching The Shining, we aren’t necessarily scared, but we don’t want to go to right to sleep either. Maybe we don’t want to be alone in those places where human beings can confront their own savage, deeply-buried instincts for murder. The Shining doesn’t ask us to be scared of Jack Torrance. After all, he’s not even Jack Torrance, is he?
When the ghosts go to work on Jack, Grady tells him, “You’ve always been the caretaker.” They’re hoping that he’ll give into the violent psychopathic urges they’ve stirred by plotting murder as the inevitable extension of his destiny. And if he worked us correctly, Kubrick has us picturing that lonely mountain drive to the hotel, facing a stark, ever-expanding solitude, and maybe even fearing the madness within ourselves.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge The Simpsons, who successfully paid tribute and laid waste to The Shining in their fifth Halloween Special. The Simpsons writers pulled the loose threads of The Shining until they were left with a six-minute reduction that at once skewered and adored the original. I have to admit, I knew The Shinning by heart before I ever sat down in the dark to watch The Shining, and I’m not sure that’s what Stanley had intended (though he was a big fan, according to Michael Herr’s Vanity Fair piece).
And if, like me, you were frantically trying to fit in some work around the World Cup and the tennis match cum epic poem yesterday, you might have missed Cliff’s great take on Paths of Glory. Check it out today, if you get a chance.