Were The Shining not helmed by one of the most critically acclaimed directors of the past 100 years, people would probably remember it as a creditable B-horror-movie effort. Steven Spielberg or Sam Raimi would be proud to be responsible for such gorgeously filmed nonsense. But Stanley Kubrick—the genre-defining director of such classics as 2001, Barry Lyndon, and Dr. Strangelove—should not have been. Simply put, unlike most of Kubrick’s other films, The Shining often lacks a vision beyond the visual. Big on razzle-dazzle cinematic showmanship but small on insight, the film’s engine starts to wheeze and sputter long before it reaches its absurdly ambiguous climax.
The story’s plot revolves around a financially struggling writer, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), who takes a job as caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies during the winter months. Along with him for the hibernal sojourn are his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), the latter of whom possesses a preternatural ability to divine the future (an ability called “shining”). Danny’s “imaginary friend,” Tony, hints at the evil past of the hotel, which was, as the hotel manager Mr. Ullman (Barry Nelson) informs the Torrances, built on the site of an Indian burial ground.
The fundamental flaws with The Shining seem largely to result from Kubrick’s butchering of the characters from the Stephen King novel on which the film is based. While King portrays Jack Torrance as a basically good man with a weak will who is battling against temptation, Kubrick grossly oversimplifies the character, treating him as an psychopathic whack job. Nicholson’s demented little smirks and leers may have been appropriate when he played the Joker in Batman or Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but they seem risibly exaggerated here. Perhaps even more over-the-top is the teary-eyed, sniveling “interpretation” of Wendy by Shelley Duvall; even the hyper-vigilant Kubrick apparently failed to see just how out of sync her screams of terror are with the weapons wielded against her. And the confused stares and snotty-nosed deportment of child actor Danny Lloyd hardly seem illustrative of the remarkable maturity and intelligence King’s wee prognosticator Danny Torrance is supposed to possess. Scatman Crothers shines a bit more brightly as the hotel’s head cook, Mr. Halloran, a man who possesses similar powers to Danny’s and bonds with the child. It’s a pretty minor role, though, next to those of the trio of leads.
Kubrick’s choice of actors may very well have been deliberate. By stripping King’s characters of their humanity, Kubrick removes free will from the story and, through his ominously roving camera, becomes the film’s fatalistic force. When Jack Torrance sadistically stares down at a model of the hotel’s hedge maze as he imagines his wife and son exploring it in real time, it is a metaphor for Kubrick’s dictatorial control over his filmic process. Like Zeus in Clash of the Titans, Kubrick sees his actors in The Shining as mere mortal puppets in an amphiteater, manipulated according to the vicissitudes of his god-like caprices.
Yes, it’s the work of a control freak, to be sure, albeit one with a divine talent for using sight and sound to tell a story. Few movie beginnings are as profoundly unsettling as the aerial shots of Jack Torrance driving up the sinuous mountain paths toward the hotel as the dies irae theme menacingly tolls in the background. Through this bird’s-eye view, Kubrick establishes the immensity of the hotel’s wilderness environs and presages the loneliness and isolation that is doomed to beset its occupants. Inside the hotel, his claustrophobic sense of perspective is uncanny, his camera hovering like a pair of spectral eyes behind his subjects. Complementing this sinister atmosphere is a creepily dissonant soundtrack featuring fragments of modern-sounding composers such as Bartók and Ligeti. When Danny feels an attack of “shine” coming on, a heartbeat gradually quickens while a high-pitched siren announces imminent danger.
The question is whether, despite Kubrick’s acoustic and visual prowess, The Shining is nearly as scary as its fan club claims it to be. Even in visual terms, some scenes seem seriously corny in retrospect and not spine-tingling at all, such as the frequently recurring motif of the river of blood that floods the hotel’s hallways, a hyperbolic cliché of murder. I could also do without the “come and play with us forever, Danny!” spiel of the ghosts of the two dead girls, if they are indeed ghosts and not just mental delusions of a young “shiner” (read: schizophrenic). The Shining never quite seems to enter the terrifyingly uncertain realm of the metaphysical. Hauntings are scary, after all, because we imagine real supernatural entities to be responsible for them. The “spirits” Jack meets in the Gold Room—the ex-caretaker Delbert Grady who murders his daughters and the glacial bartender Lloyd—could indeed exist outside his mind, but in that case, Nicholson’s eye-rubbing, squinting, and maniacal affect appear incongruous. Be that as it may, British actor Philip Stone’s performance as Grady is, for this viewer, one of the few truly creepy moments in the film. Grady’s words convey the cool-headed rationalization of a stone-cold killer, dead or alive. “I corrected them, sir,” he says as he explains to Jack how he “disciplined” his daughters.
This goosebump-inducing euphemism for murder might serve as an analogy for Kubrick’s handling of The Shining. The director’s quest for technical perfection comes dangerously close to hacking the life out of the film. But hey, a B-level movie for Kubrick is still easily in the top five percent of movies ever made. And there are doubtless enough campy lines and effects to make you feel you’re getting your money’s worth. How long the film will remain a shining beacon to future generations of horror fans remains a mystery to all but the fates.
Joe’s Grade: B