Many great and talented people think The Shining is wonderful. Despite the gush The Shining is not a masterpiece. Flaws notwithstanding, it is worth the two hours of attention that its running length requires. Kubrick, who was far less cerebral than he pretended, had the knack of always adding an innovation in his films. Not all his films succeeded but his fame was deserved. He became an icon because his films belonged to the future. Radicals are needed for change but they can be inspired by banal thinking. In Kubrick this is evident in the muddled philosophy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the inept symbolism of A Clockwork Orange, the slapdash satire of Dr Strangelove, the corny ending of Paths of Glory, and the clichés of Full Metal Jacket.
The Killing, Barry Lyndon and Lolita are his best films and are major achievements. All three deal with shallow people. The Killing provides simple-minded criminals, Barry Lyndon has bigoted aristocrats, and the people in Lolita are defined by narrow obsessions. There is a pattern. Not quite an existentialist, Kubrick failed as a humanist.
In his three classics the photography is sumptuous. Film is a visual medium, and Stanley Kubrick understood cameras. If Kubrick had not been a film director, he would have been the cameraman of his generation. He used special lenses so that he could film his masterpiece Barry Lyndon by candlelight. He neither invented the Steadicam, as is often assumed, nor did he introduce it into Hollywood cinema. Instead he added a bracket that allowed the Steadicam to operate near the floor. In The Shining a small child pedals his cycle through the corridors of the hotel. The eyes of the audience follow the child and his quaint vehicle at ground level. The image resonates in the memory. In the labyrinth we are all tiny.
Kubrick had exceptional talent as a cameraman, and this gave Kubrick power and influence, which enabled him to make unusual films. His imagination helped but somehow Kubrick always found the money. The opening to the The Shining is as breath taking as the low level tour around the hotel. The audience luxuriates in crisp landscape photography. The images are worthy of Ansel Adams, and the sequence is complimented by a well-chosen musical extract from Lontano by Ligeti. The landscape is mystery and glory, and the music, even without the images, suggests something that exists out of sight.
Danny Torrance has the gift of seeing events in the past and the future. He is the son of Jack. His father either goes crazy in the film or is destroyed by phantoms from the past. As Danny has a psychic gift and Jack is unstable, it is possible to assume that the mild horror is inside the head of characters. Kubrick said that he liked this ambiguity and that it inspired him to make the film. It is an ambiguity that is undermined by the supernatural events that occur in the final phase of the film. The final shot of the photograph could be considered crass but by then the damage to the integrity of the film has already been done. The photograph creates confusion about what particular tragedy haunts the hotel and characters. The photograph is dated 1921 but the previous warnings from the hotel owner are about a slaying that occurred in 1970. The shot might be crass and lazy and it might not but the confusion in the film that exists about the past is welcome. From the beginning the film emphasises human isolation. In 2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick suggested that the solitary destiny of each human might define the cosmos. In The Shining he hints that we are isolated from a lot more than we understand. Fate and destiny, because they are beyond understanding, have to be regarded as malevolent.
Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, the vulnerable father who cracks when left to supervise a large empty hotel in winter. Choosing Nicholson for the role made sense. In his personal life and film roles Nicholson has a reputation for defying convention and responsibility. In the job interview scene Nicholson is convincing as someone trying too hard to convince others that he is normal. The suspense in this encounter is that we do not trust the hedonist and supercilious Nicholson to do his job and maintain the hotel. As it happens, this is a red herring. Maintaining the hotel is not time consuming, and his wife will do the little work that does exist. Kubrick is ironical about the work ethic. There is a sense that a job that consists of no work will turn everything, including play, into work. His wife discovers that the novel that Torrance pretends to write is nothing but one sentence repeated, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ The opposite is true. Without work Jack has no idea how to play.
When the family drive to his new job and their temporary home, Torrance is a man irritated by his family and the demands for conversation that they make. He thinks that without them he could be an accomplished writer. On the journey the family discuss the nearby tragedy of the Donner Party that occurred in 1846. The settlers were trapped in the snow at Springfield and resorted to cannibalism to survive. The Torrance family need to be afraid. They will be isolated, and there is strength in numbers. People feed off each other, especially if there is no one around to notice.
If Nicholson is fine in the initial scenes, credible insanity, as he proved in Batman, is beyond him. Nicholson can act. His performances in Chinatown and The Pledge prove that. But Anthony Perkins in Psycho and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight expose his limitations. Both The Shining and Psycho mix horror and humour but in The Shining the comedy and the excess of Nicholson dilutes the terror. The thrills are tame. His cry of ‘Here’s Johnnie’ is meant to herald the split in the personality of Jack. Instead it revives knockabout Chaplin farce. His wife Wendy does look terrified but the actor Shelley Duvall had to be bullied by Kubrick to achieve that state. Duvall was not responding to Nicholson.
In the film there are three people who have visions. All are men. Head Chef Halloran and the troubled Danny Torrance have second sight. Jack is sampling schizophrenia. Wendy is important because she has to help her son Danny not to become Jack. Both father and son have an imagination and are remote from others. Danny is happy to go and live in the hotel because he has no friends at home. Jack wants to be left alone to write, or thinks that he does. Wendy fights and resists Jack. Little Danny needs his mother yet the child still has to make his own way through the labyrinth and mystery of existence. Both Jack and Danny confront each other in the labyrinth garden that is outside the hotel. It becomes clear that the only way out of the labyrinth is to retrace the steps that led there. Survival requires the ability to not just face the past but relive it through memories. Only one will survive. The defeated that perishes is frozen in the snow. He is a preserved relic from an unconquered past.
The design of the film is impeccable even though there is plenty that is faked. The front of the hotel was a special set created in England. The snow is also phoney. The excess snow emphasises the fairy tale connections but mitigates suspense. More impressive is the interior of the hotel, which is the opposite of the old dark house cliché. The hotel is spacious, well lit, clean and modern. It is a bright cosmos, which in the summer will welcome travellers.
Much has been said of the lack of a reliable narrator in the film. This gives the film an underserved excuse. The problem is that the ambiguity is undermined by the desire for effect. Because the climax is flat and fear starved, scenes have been added that are not consistent with the possibilities that have previously been offered. The final shot is mysterious and has appeal but it follows the extra supernatural scenes, and its meaning will be interpreted as an explanation. Kubrick understood that the reach of the cosmos and the mystery of the past are beyond us and that both confirm our profound isolation. Confusing existential mystery and narrative explanation, as happens in the ending of The Shining, is not ambiguity, it is an absence of clarity.
Kubrick made The Shining five years after his masterpiece Barry Lyndon flopped and lost money. Kubrick was looking for commercial success and, like Hitchcock with Psycho, he settled for horror. There are similarities between the two films including a warrior female, an ineffectual male rescuer and a surprise ending. Kubrick is good at detail, and his painstaking approach adds ideas. For example the turned over page corner in the book that Wendy reads indicates that she is making slow progress and disorganised. The paintings on the walls of the winter flat of Halloran reveal a racial consciousness missing from his conversations with white people. Both The Shining and Psycho are essential films but Hitchcock had thematic grip. More important he knew how to scare the hell out of an audience.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.