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A Brief History of The Shining

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A Brief History of <i>The Shining</i>
Jack Nicholson in The Shining (Warner Bros./Fandango Movieclips/via YouTube)

Like all great films, The Shining is built not so much to be watched as to be re-watched.

Thud. Thud. Thud. Stanley Kubrick was interested in making a horror film and had a stack of scary novels in his office. He would make it through a few pages of one, then throw it against the wall in disgust. Thud. Thud. At some point the assistant sitting outside his office (who tells the story in Vincent LoBrutto’s excellent Stanley Kubrick: A Biography) noticed that she hadn’t heard a thud in a while. Kubrick had discovered Stephen King’s The Shining.

Did Kubrick ever make a more hopeful film? Let’s look at death counts. Only two in The Shining, and one by natural causes. Compare to Paths of Glory (hundreds in battle plus three men executed in a show trial), 2001 (four astronauts get murdered by a computer, one computer gets murdered by an astronaut), Dr. Strangelove (hundreds of millions) and Barry Lyndon (everyone in the 18th century is now dead, we are reminded mordantly in the epilogue). More people die in Lolita (three, one murdered) than in The Shining.

You think I’m kidding. But Kubrick was an atheist, leaning toward nihilism, and like many in those groups he was attracted to the supernatural as a possible exit from total despair. Practically the first thing he said to King, whom he called out of the blue, was, “The whole idea of a ghost is always optimistic, isn’t it?” Recall that Jack Torrance is smiling in the final shot of The Shining. Ghosts are immortal. Behold, Stanley Kubrick’s idea of a happy ending.

Kubrick’s shoot, in England’s Elstree Studios where The Empire Strikes Back was being made concurrently, was typically grueling: Actor Scatman Crothers, who played Dick Halloran, recalled that a wordless scene in which stars Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd simply cross a street required 87 takes. Camera operator (and Steadicam inventor) Garrett Brown said, “I quickly realized that when Stanley said the crosshairs were to be on someone’s left nostril, no other nostril would do.” The actress who played the doctor who examined Danny became increasingly despondent as Kubrick demanded she repeat her scene scores of times — yet the version that he finally used was the very first take. Kubrick was especially harsh on Duvall (as is apparent from daughter Vivian Kubrick’s half-hour BBC documentary Making the Shining, which can be found on YouTube and on some editions of the DVD), who said clumps of her hair would fall out as filming dragged on for nearly a year, but she concluded he was rattling her in order to help her get in character and largely forgave him. Nicholson, in that documentary, seems fairly sanguine. He had fallen into the habit of choosing his projects by the respect he held for their directors. “I want to be out of control as an actor,” he told Vivian Kubrick. “I want them [the directors] to have the control — otherwise it’s going to become predictably my work and that’s not fun.”

Among Hollywood horror films, The Shining was exceptional in nearly every way, and those exceptions are why it frustrated initial viewers but also why it became a classic. Kubrick’s organizing principle was that everything must look real instead of dreamlike and fantastical, which is the reason he didn’t use the hedge animals featured prominently in Stephen King’s novel: he believed no special effects in existence could make them look anything but fake. The movie’s bright lighting was a conscious rebuke to the spooky shadow-drenched look other horror directors favored. Kubrick said he was thinking of how Kafka used a matter-of-fact, journalistic style to describe bizarre events; eeriness would be enhanced by ordinariness. His film is also tightly limited in its violence, with just one murder taking place, and that one long delayed. The only unexplained, hence apparently supernatural, act is one we don’t even see — the unlocking of the pantry door. The film’s ghosts aren’t visually identified as such, and it’s not even clear that they are present. Every time Jack speaks to a ghost, there is a mirror or reflective surface in front of him; the film is precisely engineered to be equivocal about the existence of the ghosts.

As someone old enough to have seen it in July of 1980, I can tell you: Most of us didn’t know what to make of it. We thought it was dull. Where was the excitement? “It isn’t very scary,” opined Bob Thomas for AP. “A bore,” declared David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor. “The worst disappointment of the year . . . lacking logic as well as chills.” Ernest Leogrande of the Daily News derided “the sense of pointlessness and even distaste that is left at the end.” An unsigned review in Variety says Kubrick and Nicholson combined “to destroy all that was so terrifying about Stephen King’s bestseller.” “Ponderous, lackluster . . . elaborately ineffective,” wrote Gary Arnold in the Washington Post. Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader said Kubrick’s “imagery — with its compulsive symmetry and brightness — is too banal to sustain interest, while the incredibly slack narrative line forestalls suspense.”

Banal! Slack! I thought this too, but I was 14. When the film hit HBO, though, something strange happened. Everybody watched it again. And again. And everyone kept talking about it. At some point we all realized that we couldn’t resist this movie we thought we hated. Like all great films, The Shining is built not so much to be watched as to be re-watched.

Few reviewers grasped how the film actually worked, how penetrating it would prove to be over time, how it anticipated that ambiguity can be more frightening than certainty, how it shook something deep in the cortex rather than relying mostly on cheap surprises of the kind that work only the first time you see them. Instead of creating a carnival ride of scares, as virtually every other horror director sought to do, Kubrick instead aimed to connect with some submerged capacity for unease via a gallery of disturbing images that brand themselves on the mind’s eye. Only a handful of films ever made can rival The Shining for its wealth of searing tableaux — the discovery of the typed pages, the ax attack, the twin sisters, the “REDRUM” scrawl, the blood erupting from the elevator, the climactic maze chase, those final two pictures of Jack Nicholson. The word “iconic” is overused, but when it comes to Kubrick’s postcards from the Overlook Hotel, what other will do?

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