The Shining (1980)

D: Stanley Kubrick
S: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd

The Shining arrived at the end of a decade of successful mainstream horror films (The Exorcist, The Omen, Suspiria, Halloween, The Amityville Horror, Dawn of the Dead) and promised to be the apotheosis of the genre. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, whose work had redefined the boundaries of the war movie (Paths of Glory), comedy (Dr. Strangelove, Lolita), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey), crime film (The Killing, A Clockwork Orange) and costume drama (Spartacus, Barry Lyndon), and based upon the novel by Stephen King, who had exploded onto the literary horror scene and already had successful adaptations of his work on film (Carrie) and television ('Salem's Lot), the film starred still hot Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and came armed with one of the eeriest trailers and the most panic-inducing publicity campaign horror movies had ever seen. The premise was irresistible: a retired schoolteacher (Jack Nicholson) takes on the job of winter caretaker at an isolated Colorado hotel in the hope that he can devote himself to work on a novel in an undisturbed environment. Unbeknownst to him, his young son (Danny Lloyd) is psychic, and the hotel has a sordid and murderous history which is set to play itself out again as the pressures of loneliness, family stress, and psychic turbulence assert themselves. Promising axe-murder and the visual excitement provided by Steadicam technology, The Shining seemed exactly what Kubrick was looking for; a guaranteed commercial success which would nonetheless give him the freedom to explore the limits of the genre and through which to work his own particular thematic and cinematic concerns.

In the event, the film is an occasionally eerie and not uninteresting yarn which covers all-too familiar territory with relatively little variation on the formula. Much of the detailed horrors of King's novel have been abandoned in favour of a stripped down narrative with far too much cinematic weight attached to lengthy sequences of sustained tension with limited payoffs. Kubrick expends a great deal of film on scenes where characters wander around the impossibly long corridors and fascinatingly empty spaces of the abandoned hotel in what seems more an exercise in cutting edge cinematography than cinema itself. There is a strong story in there, and there are many thematic and cinematic concerns evident, such as family, masculinity in the feminist age and the nature and importance of space in the representation of emotion and psychology. Kubrick invests Nicholson's descent into madness with terrific visual presence, matching his mental state to the labyrinthine geography of the hotel and its all-too-important outdoor maze where the film's misjudged climax takes place (it works as a cinematic concept, but it fails to generate any visceral impact and makes little logical sense). Likewise Shelley Duvall finds herself constrained by the environment, specifically within the domestic space of the servants' quarters, and most famously the pristine white bathroom where the film's most famous sequence takes place.

Unfortunately Kubrick's obsession with space and penchant for painstaking composition has once again resulted an an emotional aloofness which keeps the audience so distant from the characters that they have neither the time nor the motivation to become involved in their plight. The story fails to grip because it cannot get past the direction, and the film becomes as clear an illustration as necessary of the difference between print and cinema in terms of illustrating how the visual imagination can overwhelm the written word. The relationship between Nicholson and Duvall loses focus, and though there are subtle indications of a series of questions about the couple and their lives together in the light of a troubled past (which of course echoes that of the hotel itself), Duvall's character all too quickly becomes reactive, whiny and unsympathetic while Nicholson becomes demented and psychopathic as if his civilised moments were all just a veneer. Scatman Crothers is dealt the worst hand as a psychic head chef who initially communes with the couple's son and then becomes the subject of a bizarre and irrelevant sub-plot which resolves itself with laughable abruptness. The potential depth represented by his character is lost in Kubrick's inability to capture in young Danny Lloyd anything but the most rudimentary feeling of shock and terror. His ESP becomes merely a plot device, and the fascinating possibilities provided by the difficulty his special abilities pose for his parents are completely abandoned to a series of gory and repetitive forebodings of doom.

There are other, simpler problems. The film is just too long, and though each sequence is constructed with typical Kubrickian precision, they add up to a collection of moments which could easily have been condensed if storytelling was really at stake for the director. Nicholson's performance is ludicrous from the outset, with what begins as low-key hostility and ambient family dysfunction quickly descends into low-brow stares and howling histrionics which generate virtually no dread. Kubrick seems again concerned with exploring the disintegration of the American family, a fine theme and one suited nicely to the genre and the setting. But in being so occupied, he has allowed his actors too much latitude and has neglected to ensure that the family is worth preserving. Even if his dystopic vision denies the right to family happiness, Kubrick could at least have had sympathy for his audience, and allowed us to become engaged with them as human beings rather than symbolic puppets dancing on the master's strings. There is no harm or wrong in depicting a desolate world, but when the world and the people are this offputting from the earliest scenes, there is little surprise or catharsis in watching things go from bad to worse. Nicholson's hysteria is the symptom, not the problem, but it is the most visibly harmful element in the film and the one most likely to generate negative public response. This is not Robert De Niro's slow descent into hell in Taxi Driver, nor even Julie Harris' realisation that she is not quite of this earth in The Haunting. It is rather an almost self-parodic Looney Tune performance that the film's producers, Warner Bros., would probably recognise from the cartoons which actually feature early on in the narrative. He's more Wile E. Coyote than Frederic March, and the result is that the centre of the film collapses long before it ends, appropriately, wandering lost in a maze. Duvall likewise elicits little positive emotional response from the audience apart from the most basic generic empathy ("Gee, I'd hate to be locked in a bathroom while an axe-weilding maniac is trying to smash through the door..."). Her hysteria is too complete to be anything but a cinematic shadowplay, with Kubrick revelling in photographing her long, thin, tear-streamed face as she screams and huddles in a corner (the deliberate echoes of D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms and the performance of Lilian Gish do this film no favours).

Intellectually, it is an interesting film. It is not original, being essentially a haunted house yarn with axe murder, but Kubrick has managed to ensure that the audience is aware that 'higher' concerns are evident in generic material. It is hugely disappointing though, and its legacy is downright bad. Far from the capstone of a decade of quite interesting and serious horror films, it became the curtain raiser on a decade of cheap and laughable variants on formula (Friday the 13th, etc.), which unfortunately is what The Shining all too often is. Like John Carpenter before him, Kubrick is guilty of reducing the genre to its essentials at too great a cost. While Carpenter brilliantly manipulated his audience with Halloween, which was practically a textbook on the genre, it paved the way for too many idiot directors to do the same in the name of nothing in particular. Likewise The Shining strips the haunted house film to its structural and thematic skeleton, and fails to put enough meat on its bones to prevent worthless imitators from trying their hand and leaving the genre to die. The 1980s were a bad time for horror, and The Shining was a suitable beginning of its end and virtual nadir. It is relatively bloodless by comparison with what followed (at least in terms of body horror), and it is certainly a startling demonstration of how flexible the Steadicam can be as a piece of cinematographic equipment. Kubrick fans will revel in its ice-cold emptiness and meticulous manufacture, and it is, like the minor, awful works of Orson Welles (Mr. Arkadin comes to mind), as eloquent an evocation of his authorial presence as his masterpieces. But it is ultimately a poor film which also eloquently evokes an intellect (and and ego) out of control. Maybe there's something in that, because it certainly ties in with the story...

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.

Note: The recent DVD reissue (which bizarrely is not letterboxed) features Vivan Kubrick's vaguely interesting production documentary shot in a late cinéma vérité style which adds nothing other than to prove that Nicholson's approach to what he was doing was less than serious and certainly not very admirable.