The Shining (1980)

Rating: B

Dir: Stanley Kubrick
Star: Jack Nicholsona, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers

I’m not a huge fan of Kubrick, who to me feels like the Michael Bay of the art-house crowd. By which I mean, both men have a great grasp of the technical aspects of film-making, but haven’t a clue about how to connect emotionally with an audience. 2001, for example, is among the most over-rated films of all time. 2010 is a better, more coherent film. There. I said it. A Clockwork Orange has a great first half, then goes completely off the rails in the second. And Dr. Strangelove may be the least amusing “comedy” in cinema history. Yet, he has his fans. Boy, does he have his “fans”, in a cult perhaps surpassed only by Tarantino, who endlessly discuss and debate the meaning of his work.

But if it’s not clear what a movie means, could this be… bad film-making? Just a thought.  Which brings me to The Shining, perhaps the most (unnecessarily) analyzed horror movie of all time. There was even a documentary made, Room 237, in which cult members variously claimed it was a metaphor for Native American genocide, or an apology for Kubrick having faked the moon landings. Kubrick’s PA on the movie, Leon Vitali, said “I’m certain that he wouldn’t have wanted to listen to about 70, or maybe 80 percent of Room 237, because it’s pure gibberish.” I tend to agree. This is a film about a man who spends the winter alone, save for his family, as caretaker of a remote hotel, and goes stir-crazy. As such, it’s perfectly fine, and like most Kubrick films, has some startling imagery.

Like the other most frequently proclaimed Greatest Horror Movie of All Time, The Exorcist, this falls some way short of perfect. Here, it’s partly the director’s desire to throw too much on top. As well as the innate psychoses of Jack Torrance (Nicholson), the place may be haunted by previous inhabitants and their crimes! It was even built on top of an ancient Indian burial ground! Not something found in the Stephen King novel on which this was based, that may be Kubrick’s idea of a joke, though it preceded Poltergeist, the archetypal Indian burial ground horror movie. But it will make any genre fan roll their eyes at the sheer obviousness of it all, and helps weaken the narrative.

The casting feels like another issue. Nicholson was one of King’s main complaints, being too “obvious” a choice; the actor was already well-known for playing a “madman”, a stereotype which only deepened subsequently, with his portrayal of the Joker. Then there’s Duvall as Jack’s wife, Wendy. She’s so damn weird-looking, it’s frankly distracting, and Wendy is such a complete wuss, she’s not allowed to enter the tree-house occupied by horror’s Final Girls. At almost 150 minutes, it’s too long; you can understand why Kubrick was able – and unusually for the film-maker, willing – to cut 25 minutes out for the European release, at the request of the studio. Stylistically, the director clearly fell passionately in love with his (then new toy) Steadicam. The results contain so many tracking shots, it would make a challenging drinking game for Charles Bukowski.

Yet, it still works, mostly due to the technical aspects. The massive set used to depict the Overlook Hotel is a disorienting maze which is physically impossible (as was discovered during an attempt to create it as a Duke Nukem level!). The sense of mental disintegration triggered by isolation is palpable, and enhanced by a soundtrack which mixes classical avant-garde with electronic noise, especially during the second half when the near-relentless heartbeat kicks in. I also like the performance of Lloyd, as Jack and Wendy’s son Danny, who possesses the double-edged gift of the title. He and Crothers, as hotel cook Dick Hallorann, give the film the closest thing it has to an emotional heart, something not provided by his parents.

Finally, I may be reading too much into this (those Kubrick cultists must be infectious), but couldn’t help feeling this influenced John Carpenter’s The Thing. Both have a small group, trapped in a remote, wintry location, who are menaced by an unthinkable evil which takes on human shape. Okay, that may be a stretch – but no more so than a theory which requires you to mistake a poster of a downhill skier as a minotaur…