After watching Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237, which offers a depersonalised menagerie of wild theories and interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, I obtained a new appreciation of The Shining. According to various theorists exhibited in Room 237, The Shining is a film about incestuous paedophilia, the genocide of the Native Americans and evidence that Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 moon landing. Some theories made me wonder why I hadn’t observed certain things before; others astounded me with their ingenious accuracy; and others are just plain nuts – but, invariably, all the theories are valid. Even though Room 237 helped me realise that, intended or not, there are infinitely complex meanings bubbling under the surface of The Shining, The Shining is still not a film that I like.
I do not hate The Shining as much as I hate some other Kubrick films, like A Clockwork Orange, or other ‘classic’ horror movies, like Friday the 13th. In fact, I don’t hate The Shining at all. But I do, however, find The Shining to be terribly ineffective – ineffective as a horror movie, ineffective as a portrait of a man’s descent into madness, and ineffective as a film about filial relationships. Writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) spend their winter caretaking the isolated Overlook Hotel. But the horrors of the past infiltrate the psyche of Jack and the supernatural visions of Danny, propelling acts of human and metaphysical violence on the family.
Like the overwhelming majority of Kubrick’s oeuvre, The Shining emphasises precise visual craftsmanship over emotional acuity. This is a fine approach to filmmaking when you’re trying to broadly allegorise the origins of humanity, as Kubrick does in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but when you’re trying to interpolate the audience to empathise with certain characters’ plights, an impersonal and inhuman approach doesn’t work. Kubrick does not create realistic or intriguing characters, and so when the characters change as a result of the Overlook Hotel, it becomes impossible to sympathise with them. The only way Kubrick tries to make us relate to Wendy and Danny is through an occasional scream or a clunkily inserted close-up of a gaping mouth, using histrionic performances from Nicholson and Duvall to show that these characters are human. Why should we care about them when they are nothing but useless archetypes?
This is why The Shining fails as a horror movie – in most slasher movies, the audience is manipulated to align with the helpless protagonists, and thus when these protagonists are massacred, the horror becomes more palpable. Interestingly, Kubrick shifts the focus from the victims on to the eventual perpetrator, which is a clever move on paper, but in doing so, Kubrick makes Danny and his visions inconsequential to the narrative. I would be willing to accept Kubrick’s decision to remove focus from Danny’s ‘Shining’ and his mother’s characterisation if Kubrick characterised Jack more substantially, but he does not. If ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, then we should see Jack working, not playing, and becoming a dull boy – but we don’t.
The incapacity of The Shining to be an effective horror movie is not why I dislike the film. Instead, I dislike The Shining because of its failure to paint an effective portrait of Jack’s gradual descent into madness. Initially, Jack Torrance lacks any values, traits or attributes that we can feasibly grasp onto, except the fact that he is a writer and he seems ‘normal’. Jack clocks over from being ‘normal’ to ‘abnormal’ with hardly any transition, and his burgeoning insanity happens so suddenly. The pacing is all over the place. The Shining is too weird too soon, which makes the events that gradually unravel seem less weird. Because we see the image of the twins and their mangled corpses so early in the piece, we become desensitised to the bizarre imagery that pervades the film. Hence, the impact of such creepy imagery isn’t as greatly felt as the film progresses.
Kubrick spends too long extrapolating scenes that are irrelevant to the core drama taking place, adding to the film’s hesitant and vacillating pace. There are long stretches of conversation between Jack and Grady (the ghost of a previous caretaker) about the hotel’s history, which has become the subject of some fascinating analysis, but all we see between Jack and Danny is a hug here and an axe there. The absence of interaction between Jack and Danny may add to the mystery of the relationship, as it did for Rob Ager, but for me it merely frustrates from a character perspective.
Yet even though I think The Shining is wildly ineffective at achieving the things it ostensibly sets out to achieve, there are aspects of The Shining that are universally admirable. The exactitude of the excruciatingly symmetrical cinematography and set design is beautiful to observe, and the masterful, groundbreaking Steadycam shots that languidly move through the spatially impossible hotel are equally enrapturing. I also admire the final section of The Shining – from Jack’s “I’m not going to hurt you” tirade to the end.
I don’t find the decontextualised images of Grady’s face splitting or man in a wolf costume giving a blowjob scary because of the overuse of decontextualised imagery earlier in the film. However, these do make for some truly jaw-dropping set-pieces. The relentless, soporific rhythm of Jack’s axe penetrating the door of the bathroom where Wendy is hiding is a tremendously well-directed and tense set-piece; but unfortunately I don’t find it as horrifying as I would if I actually cared about the characters and if there were any tangible stakes. Likewise, the image of a blood-spewing elevator is meticulously crafted, using miniatures and almost one hundred takes to perfect the shot, but if there were any stakes to the blood-spewing elevator – like Wendy drowning in blood, for instance – then I would be more enthralled and terrified. Thus, many of problems with The Shining lie in Kubrick and Diane Johnson’s screenplay, and don’t entirely lie in Kubrick’s direction.
Room 237 is a far more intriguing film than The Shining, and the popularity of The Shining is predicated on the analysis of themes that I have barely picked up on. Perhaps this is because I am a pleb, and perhaps this is why I have never been a fan of The Shining. The Shining is such a disappointment because it could have been so much more. It didn’t always have to be a film that relied on postmodern, retrospective, arbitrarily detailed analysis to be appreciated.