clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘The Shining’ Will Turn Us Around and Around, Forever and Ever

Just as Jack Torrance has always been the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, Stanley Kubrick’s classic has always stirred cyclical debate 

Ringer illustration

2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

“If Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is about anything,” wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker in June 1980, “it’s tracking … over and over, the camera tracks the characters, and by the climax, [all] the rhythmic sameness has worn us down.”

For Kael, an early Kubrick booster who’d turned on the director after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey—“a monumentally unimaginative movie,” she wrote in her bristling, dissenting opinion—The Shining’s virtuoso technique represented a talented auteur’s retreat into a technocratic control fetish. What she saw on-screen was evidence not of mastery, but a meticulous methodology prioritizing surface over infrastructure. Reading through her attentive, characteristically well-argued review, the most constant complaint is that Kubrick’s brand of perfectionism is also oddly slovenly, with half-heartedly scattered scares amid all that gliding, precise camerawork. Kael writes that the film “is like watching a skater do figure-eights all night, or at least for two hours and twenty-six minutes.”

Circa 1980, Kael’s critical influence and its trademark, two-fisted contrarianism was at its peak; in the same year, she famously jabbed at heavyweights like Raging Bull (“Scorsese produces banality”) and Ordinary People. But in the case of The Shining, Kael wasn’t shadowboxing against consensus so much as punching upward alongside a series of unimpressed peers. Writing in The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Kubrick’s style before concluding that he’d made “a film that can’t equal the sum of its parts.” The New Republic’s always authoritative Stanley Kauffmann stated flatly that “The Shining doesn’t scare.” In Canada’s Globe and Mail, Jay Scott snarked that “it’s hard to be implicated in horror when there is no horror.”

Throw in the fact that Stephen King famously hated the screenplay adaptation by Kubrick and Diane Johnson—a position he hasn’t budged from ever since—and that Kubrick was ignominiously nominated for the first Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director (“losing,” if that’s the word, to Robert Greenwald for the epic disco debacle Xanadu) and a picture emerges of a massively hyped and accomplished film that received an unexpectedly rough reception.

After beginning his career in the era of word-of-mouth rollouts, The Shining was Kubrick’s first mass-market release, unveiled over Memorial Day weekend by Warner Bros. It was supposed to be a landmark: an apex in the blockbusterization of the Hollywood horror movie. This trajectory was kick-started in 1968 by the A-list credits of Rosemary’s Baby, put together by producer Robert Evans as a designer package pairing a hot young European director (Roman Polanski), a glamorous ingenue (Mia Farrow), and an independent-film hero (John Cassavetes). It was consolidated in 1973 by The Exorcist, a holiday-season release whose R rating—as opposed to the dreaded “X” it seemingly warranted—meant that it could provide two hours of Christmas Day entertainment for the whole family.

From an industrial point of view, The Exorcist’s alchemy of gore and gravitas was a winning formula. The extremity of its violence meant that it could go shock-for-shock with the grottiest grindhouse thrillers produced at the other end of the financial spectrum—Black Christmas, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the likewhile its redemptive religiosity and the presence of recognizable, Oscar-ratified movie stars (including an international arthouse ringer in the noble form of Bergman axiom Max von Sydow) appealed to more bourgeois sensibilities. Imitators followed (chief among them The Omen, which wrangled Atticus Finch himself, Gregory Peck, to glower sternly at its preschool-aged Antichrist) and while none equaled the intensity of The Exorcist, the idea that B-movies could dominate the box office was firmly established—and then launched into the stratosphere by Jaws, Star Wars, and Alien.

In theory, The Shining’s marriage of pulp and pedigree, mounted on a generous $19 million budget (almost 10 times the cost of Brian De Palma’s Carrie) was unprecedented. Stephen King’s source novel was a best seller to rival The Exorcist, building upon the schlockier shocks of Carrie and Salem’s Lot to establish its author as a pop-literary titan—one formidable enough that Kubrick, whose previous cinematic adaptations had been of canon-calibre writers from Vladimir Nabokov to William Makepeace Thackeray, thought his haunted-house saga was worthy of working with. The story goes that after the relative box-office failure of the stately, beautiful costume drama Barry Lyndon, Kubrick was deliberately looking to make a hit, especially in a moment when the younger up-and-comers of the New Hollywood like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg were finding ways to tightly intertwine art and commerce.

In a way, Kubrick, for all of his imperious reputation, was a genre filmmaker, toggling between different kinds of war films (Fear and Desire, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove) and sci-fi (2001, A Clockwork Orange) while burnishing his reputation as a singular, visionary artist.

The close proximity of certain sequences in Kubrick’s oeuvre to the visual language and codes of horror—think of the ghostly long shot of the dead astronaut jettisoned into pitch-black space in 2001—made a project like The Shining oddly logical, even as it superficially represented a departure.

The same could be said for the casting of Jack Nicholson, who by the end of the 1970s was the emblem of iconoclastic movie-star acting, a guy whose greatest performances—Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger, and especially One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—found him raging against the machine, laughing off hypocrisy, and enfolding audiences into his manic, righteous anger. Asking Nicholson to portray a man consumed by rage and battling his demons was by no means a stretch; what made the casting a masterstroke—and to some, including King, a liability—was that the complicitous relationship he’d cultivated with audiences carried over into his role as an abusive, homicidal husband and father. The same radical, anti-establishment charisma he’d brought to his battle against the evil Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was now slyly weaponized in scenes in which his Jack Torrance threatened to bash his wife’s brains “right the fuck in.”

Getting into the finer points of Nicholson’s acting in The Shining, and how it decisively torques the movie’s overall tone away from the po-faced emotional horror of the novel and into the realm of jet-black domestic farce, is the sort of thing that requires its own essay. Suffice it to say that if you believe that one major facet of Kubrick’s genius is his refusal to choose between the humorous and the grotesque, The Shining, and Nicholson’s participation, is something like Exhibit A. The careening, almost operatic intensity of Nicholson’s performance is at once precisely what the director had in mind and what so deeply annoyed the haters. “[Nicholson] is borderline funny, which he isn’t meant to be,” Kael wrote, a subjective assessment that, for all of its owner’s obvious powers of perception, betrays a certain lack of analytical agility. If what Kael calls Nicholson’s “huffing and puffing”—framed explicitly in the film by a droning Road Runner cartoon featuring a lurching, carnivorous Wile E. Coyote—isn’t meant to be funny, The Shining could be seen as a wildly undisciplined movie, or even an accidental camp classic. What if the director who burlesqued the apocalypse in Dr. Strangelove and smuggled deadpan sight gags into the grandeur of 2001 was attempting to simultaneously terrorize and satirize? What if all of the critics who complained that the movie wasn’t scary enough were barking up the wrong genre in their reviews?

In the past 40 years, The Shining has gone from a high-end critical scratching post to one of the most picked-apart American films ever made. Last year, I wrote for The Ringer about how Rodney Ascher’s superb essay film Room 237 examines the obsessive fan culture around The Shining, while the release of Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep—a film adaptation of Stephen King’s misbegotten literary sequel—merely put an exclamation point on the original’s stylistic influence. Pick any contemporary purveyor of so-called “elevated horror”—Flanagan, Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers, Ari Aster—and their work carries echoes of Kubrick’s classic, whether in general formal terms (glacial pacing; compositional symmetry; those hypnotic tracking shots) or direct, undisguised homage. Even the “it’s actually a comedy” rhetoric used to excuse Nicholson’s actorly excesses has been applied strategically to questionable laugh riots like The Lighthouse and Midsommar.

The best recent example of The Shining’s accrued cultural capital might actually be the bit in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One when the characters enter a full-scale virtual-reality version of the Overlook Hotel. Spielberg’s obvious delight in recreating Kubrick’s mise-en-scène down the last digital millimeter is a case of one all-timer bowing to another, which is why the scene’s climax featuring the intrusion of chunky CGI zombies is so jarring and borderline offensive—it breaks the spell of reverence and aligns with Ready Player One’s cluttered, weirdly cynical postmodern mandate. (The opposite is true in Doctor Sleep, which just settles for carefully copying its predecessor’s production design, resulting in a weirdly Xeroxed aesthetic at odds with the more baroque and enjoyable touches of other parts of the story.)

What Room 237 and Ready Player One (and, in its way, Doctor Sleep) have in common when it comes to The Shining is the understanding that it is, above all, a uniquely immersive film, less a story to be followed than a space to be explored. This psychogeographical angle is the explicit subject of Room 237, whose interviewees are preoccupied largely by what’s on the walls of the Overlook instead of what’s taking place inside of them: They can take or leave the ghosts, but they’re obsessed with the decor. The theory that Kubrick came to King’s novel as a way to reverse the downward slope of his box-office earnings post–Barry Lyndon may be true, but the goldbricking pacing—the long, drawn-out tempo of both the filmmaking and the acting, including Nicholson’s trancelike line readings during the first half of Jack’s slow burn—are out of the same proto-slow-cinema playbook.

There’s a fine line between idling and suspense, and a way to interpret The Shining’s sense of drag is as directorial self-indulgence run amok—of Kubrick applying an incompatible style to material requiring a different, arguably more rudimentary set of skills. And yet what’s endured about the movie, beyond even the elemental terror of King’s premise or Danny’s “shining” being a ready-made metaphor to moviegoing, is that same ceremonial, magisterial slowness. The aesthetic is more than just flexing: It’s an attempt by a filmmaker to force an audience to meet him more than halfway on a road leading away from the multiplex and toward the art house.

In that sense, Kael was right to zero in on tracking as the most important feature of The Shining. Turn those “figure eights” on their side and you get an ouroboros, a symbol of infinity perfectly matched to themes of eternal recurrence. Circularity is the not-so-hidden subtext of 2001, with its adult astronaut either regressing to infanthood or transcending human existence altogether after turning into the “Starchild,” and while King’s book imagined the Overlook’s bloody past as an inventory of depravity spanning most of the 20th century, Kubrick’s version at once shrinks the situation and expands it into the infinite, using Jack, Wendy, and Danny as archetypal stand-ins for a family unit in a state of cyclical, perpetual peril. “You’ve always been the caretaker here,” a tuxedo-wearing phantom informs Jack late in the film, a line that puts a fine, sinister point on things without necessarily clarifying them.

That same tension between broad strokes and revelations, written in the cinematic equivalent of invisible ink, accounts for both The Shining’s muted original reception and increasingly beloved status. At first, you could be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t much going on in this spacious movie, but rewatching it (a ritual made possible by the onset of VHS) teaches you how to view it properly—to recognize that the horror lies in the negative space instead of being crowded out by it, or that the lack of conventional satisfaction is what actually hits the spot.

There are a lot of reasons to laugh at the idea of The Shining as a proverbial “summer movie,” beginning with its wintry, frostbitten color palette, which keeps on offering up whiter shades of pale before spattering them with blood. But the most crucial is the way it plays with ideas of setup and payoff, the lingua franca of Hollywood crowd-pleasers. In The Exorcist, when Father Merrin shows up late in the action and turns out, despite his exalted reputation, to be a sacrificial lamb—no match for the demon inside Linda Blair—his death is still cloaked in nobility, and it’s implied that the battle wouldn’t have been won without his efforts. The death in The Shining of Scatman Crothers’s saintly, crotchedly cook Hallorann (who survives in the novel) is nothing less than a wicked riff on the cliché of the cavalry coming in, drawing out his pilgrimage from Florida to Colorado to a diabolical, Hitchcockian degree and then offing him instantaneously on arrival. It juxtaposes our shock and grief at the passing of an obvious good guy through the perverse excitement that the movie has finally registered a body count just shy of the two-hour mark.

If it’s possible to give the audience what it wants while making us wonder why we want it, The Shining pulls the trick time and again; it’s there in the way that Nicholson keeps playing to the camera even when Jack is transforming into an avatar of toxic male violence, letting us in on a joke that isn’t funny anymore; it’s there in the slender, nude female ghoul offering come-hither glances from a hotel shower; it’s even there in the defiantly cheap, seriously unscary skeletons glimpsed by Shelley Duvall as she runs around the Overlook in a state of goggle-eyed terror, as if mocking her—and us—for expecting old-school spook tactics in a movie with a different sense of purpose.

Maybe that willful deflation of expectations was a bit too tricky (and mean-spirited) when everybody was hoping that the combination of King and Kubrick would equal something like the ultimate horror film. It’s also possible that on the eve of a decade when sequels and ancillary spinoffs rerouted the philosophy and economy of horror movie making, an expensive movie predicated on enigmas was destined to be seen as a bad bet. The Shining wasn’t a flop, grossing more than $40 million in North America, but it didn’t come close to the take of The Exorcist, or the much thriftier Halloween, whose then-unheralded director, John Carpenter, beat Kubrick to the creep-out possibilities of gliding, Steadicam-style tracking shots by two years.

Of course, it’s hardly necessary at this point to stand up for The Shining, which has transcended a set of initial conditions that suggest its possible future as a cult movie. Its cult is as large, diverse, and influential as the mainstream itself. That’s because, to paraphrase that demonic butler in the Overlook men’s room, it’s always been a great movie. And, no matter what happens to movies or the world going forward—whether or not The Shining’s evocation of stir-crazy claustrophobia comes to seem more like a documentary than a horror movie—it will always be a great movie. If explaining why The Shining is a great movie in 2020 feels a bit like going in circles, that’s because it really is what the movie is about.