Scott: Many consider The Shining among the scariest movies ever made, myself included, but it’s also among the most mysterious and original in its effects, which are so unusual for horror that it seems at times like director Stanley Kubrick is making a joke at the genre’s expense. How else to explain the red herring that is Scatman Crothers, whose Dick Hallorann answers a psychic distress call that takes him on an arduous trek from Florida to the Overlook, only to have an ax immediately buried in his chest? But really, that’s just the most conspicuous of the odd narrative strategies Kubrick employs here. There are shocks aplenty in The Shining—the blood cascading from the elevator bank, the twin girls, “REDRUM,” etc.—but the overall approach is less about immediate scares than discombobulation. We rely on filmmakers to orient us in time and space, but Kubrick keeps pulling out the rug in both cases, with dread-filled timestamps that are virtually meaningless, and a hotel layout that never coheres: We never know which corridor leads to which room, or what the distance from one place to another might be. Anything can appear around the corner, and it creates a queasy anticipation that goes beyond the standard haunted-house movie.
Keith: One of the scariest moments in the movie is also one that makes me wonder why it scares me. At the height of the climax, when Wendy is running around the impossible architecture of the Overlook toward God knows what, she stumbles into a room filled with cobwebs and skeletons. And it’s terrifying. But why? Is there any hoarier horror imagery than cobwebs and skeletons? (Well, James Wan has managed to make Halloween-style sheet-covered ghosts scary recently, with both Insidious: Chapter 2 and The Conjuring. But apart from that?) And narratively, there’s nothing really pushing the movie along. It isn’t about Jack’s mind slowly unraveling. That seems to take place between date stamps. It isn’t about uncovering the Overlook’s secret. The film lets the Overlook keep its secret to itself. (Native American burial ground? Evil caretaker? None of the above? Take your pick!) It’s mostly about creating a suffocating atmosphere, then pumping in the dread to the point where even the most seemingly exhausted images seem threatening again.
Tasha: The thing that most establishes that sense of dread for me is the way Kubrick uses Danny’s psychic abilities to put him in the middle of everything terrible that happens, even if he isn’t physically present, or it hasn’t happened yet. The way Danny’s silent-screaming terror-face pops up onscreen, edited into the middle of Dick Hallorann’s annoyingly senseless death, changes the sequence from another generic-shock ax-murder in a slasher movie into a primal horror seen from the point of view of a small child experiencing something so extreme and overwhelming, he can barely express a response. Kubrick does the same thing when Danny has the vision of the elevator full of blood: He cuts between the slow-motion flow and Danny’s wide-eyed face and unvoiced shriek. Danny Lloyd’s distorted Halloween-mask expression is phenomenally eerie, and Kubrick makes the most of it in editing, by shoving it in viewers’ faces in the middle of terrible things, as one more form of disorientation.
Matt: It really is rare when plot and spatial inconsistencies work in a movie’s favor, because they heighten the sense of disorientation. We never really understand what drives Jack mad (actually, he seems kind of crazy right from frame one), or who precisely is haunting the Overlook Hotel, or why Grady, the previous murderous caretaker, seems to have two different first names. (Barry Nelson calls him “Charles,” but he later calls himself “Delbert” to Jack.) It’s all so bewildering and unsettling, it suggests these characters are pawns in some cosmic game whose details are incomprehensible to us mere mortals. We truly feel lost and trapped within the film—like Jack, who (maybe?) has always been working at the Overlook—which is why the image of the hedge maze, which wasn’t in the original King novel, is such a brilliant and important addition.
Matt: The vagaries of some of The Shining’s finer points have led some obsessive fans to develop elaborate theories to explain what the film is “really” about, as in Rodney Ascher’s recent documentary Room 237, which juxtaposes their ideas with images from Kubrick’s film. Shots of Calumet Baking Powder cans with the face of a Native American on them must mean The Shining is “really” about Native American genocide; the fact that Danny wears an Apollo 11 sweater in a key scene must mean that The Shining is “really” about how Kubrick helped NASA fake the moon landing, and so on.
Re-watching both The Shining and Room 237 this week, what struck me about both is just how often the theories are used to explain gaffes and continuity errors. When a sticker of Dopey appears on the wall of Danny’s room in one angle and is gone in the next, for example, it’s cited as proof an elaborate buried theme involving Danny becoming less of a “dope” as he realizes the extent of his telepathic powers. If another director’s name was attached to The Shining, we’d assume that was a mistake. But because Stanley Kubrick made The Shining, and Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist, these goofs are treated as deliberate clues, left like buried treasure waiting to be discovered. Do you think Kubrick really planned all these clues, or do The Shining fans give him too much credit? And do any of the Room 237 theories hold even the slightest bit of water to you?
Tasha: 1) No, I don’t. 2) Yes, they do. 3) No, they don’t. I love Room 237, both as a film experience and as proof that the artist can’t control how people take in the art, but it does make me feel like I’m taking crazy pills, or possibly just watching movies wrong. I’ve certainly seen films I thought could be decoded via an understanding of their symbolism, but it’s never occurred to me to watch a movie in frame-by-frame detail, letting something as small as a sweater design explicate the hidden meaning for me. So it fascinates me that there are people who do this, and who think of Stanley Kubrick as a godlike figure who never made mistakes, minutely controlled every aspect of every frame, and made all things equally meaningful. Room 237 isn’t the end of it, either. I recently ran across this YouTube clip analyzing, in fanatical detail, a shape within the torrent of blood flowing out of the elevator, and coming to some highly complicated conclusions about what it really means. And then there’s this fascinating CGI re-creation of the scene, suggesting that the mysterious “shape” is just a reflection. People see what they want to see, and once you have a theory, you see clues everywhere—especially if a stray can or a dimly seen, distorted poster at the extreme corner of a frame counts as a “clue.”
Scott: None of the big, sweeping theories in Room 237 hold much water for me, though certain insights, like the impossible architecture of the Overlook, are resonant. For me, the wrongness of these theories led to two big takeaways: 1) That no director, even one as famously fastidious as Stanley Kubrick, exerts complete control over what goes into his movies or how they might be interpreted, and 2) That The Shining, specifically, has the remarkable quality of inviting speculation about its themes and intent while repelling anything you throw at it. Watching the film again, I was struck by how much it frustrated my attempts to interpret it. Formally and thematically, it’s such a weird, disorienting, elusive vision that for me to offer up my own big, sweeping theory would be akin to speculating about a Rorschach blot.
Matt: As much as I like the film, Room 237 is almost the dark side of another recent Movie Of The Week, Los Angeles Plays Itself. There, Thom Andersen finds all this meaning buried in the corners of the frames of Hollywood movies. Here, I think a lot of the digging for metaphorical gold misses the greatness of the stuff that’s staring us right in the face. The Shining and Room 237 seem like the perfect double feature, but in practice, the latter really distracts from the former. You can become so obsessed with the tiniest details that you can miss the maze for the hedges.
The Book Vs. The Film
Tasha: Stephen King recently published a sequel to The Shining: Doctor Sleep, which provided yet another occasion for King to once again grumble publicly about Kubrick’s adaptation of his work, in interviews and even in Doctor Sleep’s author’s note, which dismissively hand-waves away people who say the film is scary. King’s primary objections over the years have been that Kubrick’s versions of his characters are misguided. “Shelley Duvall as Wendy is really one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film, she’s basically just there to scream and be stupid, and that’s not the woman that I wrote about,” he recently said in a BBC interview. He wanted the story to be about an ordinary man being driven insane, so he feels casting noted cinematic madman Jack Nicholson in the role gave away where the story was going, and robbed it of all suspense. He doesn’t think the film is scary; he thinks it’s cold and clinical.
Here’s the thing: I think he’s right about everything, except Kubrick’s film not being frightening. Duvall’s Wendy is an awfully weak and tractable character, Nicholson seems dangerous from the start, the film is cold in a familiar way that we call “Kubrickian” when we see it in other directors’ work. It’s just that none of this really matters, because Kubrick’s The Shining is its own animal, and it accomplishes enough on its own merits to compensate for its failings as adaptation.
Scott: I completely agree with you on all counts, Tasha. The book and film are different animals indeed, and King’s problem is that he’s unwilling to accept Kubrick doing what filmmakers should do: taking what they need to support their own interpretation and vision, and discarding the rest. But I think it’s telling that King has always picked on The Shining—a film many consider among the best or the very best of the King adaptations—rather than the many, many disgraceful screen versions of his work, like Children Of The Corn, Firestarter, Thinner, and TV miniseries like, er, the King-approved The Shining from 1997. Even if you don’t like it, Kubrick’s The Shining is imposing enough to represent a threat to the book in the public imagination, and beyond that, Kubrick doesn’t treat the material with much respect. King’s themes of alcoholism and abuse, and the torments of the writing process, are deemphasized drastically, and the plot elements that remain are mere grist for the mill. This is Kubrick’s right as a filmmaker, and the miniseries proves it a necessity, too: It’s not enough merely to translate a book directly to the screen without modification. Otherwise, you’ve got hedge animals walking around.
Keith: It’s been years since I read The Shining, but I remember really liking it and finding it extremely scary, in part because of those hedge animals. On the page, the prospect of being terrorized by hedge animals works extremely well. And I’ll hold that a different filmmaker might have been able to make them work. But do I feel like Kubrick’s film is lesser because it gave us a whole, Steadicam-inviting hedge maze to get lost in instead? Absolutely not. That’s case closed on the Kubrick-failed-the-novel argument as far as I’m concerned. But is anyone but King making that argument anywhere?
Matt: I’ve actually never read The Shining [pause for readers to throw tomatoes] but generally in any sort of dispute between author and director over the authenticity of an adaptation, I side with the director. In my mind, if it’s a good movie, it’s a good adaptation, regardless of how “faithful” it remains to the source material. Obviously King, who greatly prefers the terrible Shining TV miniseries to Kubrick’s film, disagrees.
The one place I would actually say King might have a point is regarding The Shining movie’s depiction of Jack’s descent into madness. I disagree that Nicholson was miscast—because Nicholson is amazing in the movie—but the Torrances barely have time to unpack before Jack goes from “Normal guy with some demons” to “Has anyone seen my ax? I have a telepathic son to kill.” The Kubrick diehards will surely defend that decision and argue that it was part of one grand thematic plan or another, but watching the movie this week, it did sort of strike me how quickly Jack turns.
Keith: The Shining has enjoyed a rich afterlife as a reference point for everything from wild theories (which we discussed above) to parody and homage. But its influence on horror films is tougher to pin down. It appeared in the midst of a wave of slasher films, and superficially, it has some elements in common with them. Jack Torrance stalking his prey with an ax isn’t that different from what was going on at the end of, say, Friday The 13th. But subsequent slasher films, or other horror films, didn’t really borrow that much from The Shining, in part, I’m sure, because Kubrick is a tough director to imitate. I’m not sure the influence popped up anywhere all that strongly until J-horror hit its stride in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where films like Cure, Pulse, The Ring, The Grudge, and so on shifted the emphasis back to the supernatural and let old-fashioned ghosts intrude on contemporary settings. There’s more than a little of The Shining in all those stringy-haired, hitch-stepped Japanese ghosts.
“You can become so obsessed with the tiniest details that you can miss the maze for the hedges.”
Matt: The Shining has easily been more influential on comedies than horror movies over the last 30 years. The film was a hit—it made the 2013 equivalent of $133 million back in 1980—and generally anything that successful spawns a legion of imitators, but The Shining never really did (except the ones on The Simpsons, et. al.). There have been a few blood-filled elevators in the intervening years (or, as in Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon, a few blood-filled spaceship walls) but that’s about it. It’s much more common to see The Shining pop up in horror parodies, with goofs on “REDRUM” or the twins or Nicholson screaming “Here’s Johnny!” than straight-up horror films. As to why, I think you nailed it, Keith: There was only one Kubrick, and copying him is not only insanely difficult, it’s an invitation to unflattering comparisons. (Yet another reason why The Shining TV series is such an enormous disappointment to everyone but Stephen King.)
It’s also kind of surprising to look back at his filmography and realize that Nicholson never really made another horror movie after The Shining, with the exception of 1994’s Wolf. Given the absolute brilliance of his performance, I’d think he would have returned to that area of uniquely Jack-ian madness a few more times. But perhaps he felt he couldn’t top himself?
Nathan: I wrote about this in my keynote address, but for me, The Shining is a fairly straightforward allegory about alcoholism in which the symbolic horrors of addiction are rendered grotesquely, nightmarishly concrete. A man scared of accidentally hurting his family through carelessness and loss of control ends up deliberately trying to murder his family to serve his master: alcoholism, more than the spirits of the Overlook hotel. Though, as Scott pointed out earlier, Kubrick cut out a lot of the stuff about alcoholism and child abuse from King’s novel, that core remains, and I think it’s what gives the film its underlying emotional resonance and substance. King is open about the way he battled with alcoholism and addiction around the time when he wrote The Shining, and that firsthand experience informs both the novel and the film on a profound, visceral level. But that’s just one theory. Applying the principle of Occam’s Razor to the situation—that the simplest explanation tends to be the correct one—it could also just as easily be about the moon landing.
Matt: I don’t think The Shining gets enough credit as a really great movie about writer’s block. Strip away the blood and telepathy and ghost bartenders serving whiskey when Jack specifies bourbon (What the hell, Lloyd?!), and you’re left with a disturbingly good portrait of how maddening it can be to spend eight hours (or eight days or eight weeks) at a desk when the words won’t come. In his excellent book On Writing, King talks about how important it is for an author to stay disciplined; to get into a writing routine, and stick to it every single day. The Shining is almost like The Twilight Zone nightmare of that advice. I’m not saying I’ve harbored homicidal feelings after a rough day at the office. I’m just saying a writer probably feels a little more sympathy for Jack as he loses his mind than everyone else in the audience.
Keith: I think part of what makes The Shining so rich and venerable is that it can play host to many different interpretations. Alcoholism is central to it, for sure. But while I don’t want to throw my lot in with one of the Room 237 theorists too heavily, I’m not sure that line about the Overlook being built on a Native American burial ground is just a throwaway. The Overlook is an extension of civilization intruding on a natural space that doesn’t necessarily want it there. Consider the hedge maze: an attempt to tame nature and shape into man-made forms. This is the first film Kubrick made after Barry Lyndon, which is filled with 18th-century attempts to impose rationality and order onto the world via elaborate gardens and other bits of Enlightenment-era passions, and The Shining can be seen as a continuation of that film’s satirical take on those attempts. You can build a hotel on the land, in other words, but the land doesn’t have to like it. If nothing else, The Shining is about how the past won’t stay buried—be it Jack’s alcoholic and abusive actions of a few months ago, or the history of the hotel. There’s more than one sort of ghost roaming its halls.
The Movie Of The Week discussion of The Shining began yesterday with Nathan Rabin’s keynote on the film’s central metaphor about alcoholism, and will conclude tomorrow with an examination of the 1997 TV miniseries.