The Shining (1980) marks an interesting spot in Stanley Kubrick's filmography, one that hardly anyone ever mentions. Most Kubrick films are not appreciated in their own time, but while Barry Lyndon (1975) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) are beginning to enjoy a newfound critical reputation, The Shining -- stuck right between them -- is generally left out of the discussion. Despite mixed reviews (recommendations from Andrew Sarris and the New York Times, but pans from Pauline Kael, Stanley Kaufmann, Dave Kehr and Variety), it was a hit film, grossing $44 million on a $19 million budget (according to boxofficemojo.com). It was based on a young, successful horror writer's third novel, and thus it hardly warranted serious consideration. Only David Thomson, in his "Biographical Dictionary of Film," gives the film a once-over; in an otherwise negative essay about Kubrick, he calls The Shining Kubrick's "one great film," but he also calls it "very funny."

At the same time, horror fanatics find the film extraordinary; and by all counts, they're right. Here was a horror entry from a first-class filmmaker who had succeeded in escaping the "horror" classification. Our other masters -- Bava, Romero, Carpenter, Hooper, Craven, etc. -- started in horror and got stuck there, unable to express their artistry in any other medium, and unable to earn the acclaim of someone like Kubrick. He visited, left unscathed and left behind something truly exceptional. But where do these two sides meet? What did Kubrick bring to horror and what did horror bring to Kubrick?


Before 1980, Kubrick worked in various genres, making crime films, war films, a quasi-erotic film, comedies, costume epics and even science fiction. The great mystery of his career is that he handled these so-called "body" genres with a supreme intellect; he could affect viewers on a physical level while remaining brilliantly analytical. Since horror and erotica are considered the lowest of the body genres, it's probably no coincidence that not even Kubrick's skill could bring respect to The Shining (or Lolita or Eyes Wide Shut, perhaps his three most underrated films). But on the other hand, when it came time for him to explore the horror genre, he was better suited for it than anyone could have guessed.

Based, of course, on a 1977 novel by Stephen King, The Shining concerns a writer, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), who gets a job as watchman for the Overlook Hotel during the long winter months. He takes along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd), but despite the hotel chef (Scatman Crothers) remaining nearby, the enormous hotel is dauntingly empty for three little people. Jack wants to work on his book, but slowly goes bananas. Of course, things didn't look so good to begin with since Danny had been having conversations with a sinister-sounding imaginary friend, Tony, a "little boy who lives in my mouth." Some, like Roger Ebert, have suggested that perhaps all three family members are slowly losing their marbles, and that each imagines terrible things happening to themselves and one another. (This better explains the ghostly photograph that closes the film.)

Kubrick embraces the hotel's giant, brightly lit hallways, rather than the genre's usual gloomy corridors, as a potential source of horror. After all, the scariest things on earth exist only in our imagination and our nightmares, so who's to say what's around that next corner, brightly lit or not? For the movie, Kubrick employed a relatively new invention, the Steadicam, which mounts onto an operator's body and is secured with an elaborate series of balances and counterbalances, so that the operator can walk freely down the hallways without the camera registering the up and down movement of his gait. Though Kubrick occasionally cuts to shots following Jack and the other characters down the hallways, he also provides first-person POV shots, which plunk the viewer right into the horror.

The smooth, gliding movement also provide a sensation of inevitability, like being on a carnival haunted house ride; we're going into that room or around that corner, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. It also suggests the sensation of keeping one's eyes open, and not blinking, rather than lots of cutting, which relates to averting or closing ones eyes. This gliding slowness even applies to the dialogue, which oozes creepy tension in all the silences between words. (Bay Area novelist Diane Johnson, whose best-known work is probably Le Divorce, co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick; it was an odd fit and her only screenplay to date, but it worked.) Some critics blasted the film for its departure from these quiet moments, like the elevator full of blood, but I maintain that these images work simply because -- in the logic of the film -- they're ghostly illusions rather than reality.

Today, the film is probably better known for its behind-the-scenes legends, such as the fact that Jack's typewritten pages were each individually typewritten (no photocopies), or that Kubrick forced Nicholson to re-do the line "That'll be just fine" something like 80 times. The actors later reported that they went through hell, but their performances were worth the trouble. To me, these tales only add to the film's strange power, and the fact that it was one of the most flat-out terrifying films I ever saw. At one point, Jack refers to Wendy as "a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict." I admit to being the same, as well as a fan of Kubrick, and so for me The Shining is a film to be admired, explored, pondered and treasured.

CATEGORIES Features, Cinematical