When it first came out in 1980, not everyone was happy with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In New York magazine, David Denby called it the “first pompous horror film,” in part owing to its 146-minute running time. That also bothered Warner Bros., which tried to cut it down to 120 minutes in order to find the normal horror movie they just knew was in there somewhere. But audiences flocked to the longer version, and time has kept proving Kubrick right. I freely admit that I found the film disappointing and overlong when I saw it at the time. But, as is sometimes the case with Kubrick, the film kept calling me back, until I finally realized what a tremendous—and tremendously complex—work it is.
On its simplest level—which is the Stephen King level—The Shining is little more than a haunted hotel yarn with slightly better drawn characters than are usually found in genre works. And it can be read and appreciated on this level, even though to do so sells the film short—rather like Warners’ idea of a 120-minute version. Even if you want to take the film strictly as horror, there’s more to it than might be casually assumed.
Consider the film’s opening. Yes, it’s meant to set the scene and the ominous tone of the proceedings (Kubrick makes sure of that with the unadorned “Dies Irae” on the sound track). It’s also designed to induce a sense of vertigo in the viewer (extending to the way the titles move up the screen), but there’s something more. Look at the way the scene is put together. Why does the camera slowly glide across the lake and past the little island and climb up for a look at Jack Torrance’s car heading to the Overlook Hotel? Why does it examine him so carefully? Why does it swoop in close and then fly away out over the ravine? What is that almost triumphant chattering sound on the sound track? Why does the camera then come back and continue following Jack? If we accept the idea that the camera is virtually a character, and that the character represents an evil that has been awakened by Jack’s presence, it starts to make sense. If we further accept that the evil recognizes in Jack the perfect instrument for its purposes, it makes even more sense—and that extends to the tracking shots throughout the film that either follow or lead the characters.
The film can also—at least mostly—be read more as psychological horror than supernatural horror. Nearly everything about the film is grounded in communicating terror that grows with each of the three main characters over the course of the film. Danny (Danny Lloyd) sees—in incoherent flashes—the horror beneath the polished facade of the upscale hotel first. In fact, he senses this before he gets there. And his fears are given a degree of credence by the hotel chef, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), who nonetheless tries to downplay them. These terrors then find a host in the deeply troubled Jack, who could simply be picking up on them as he disintegrates into madness. It’s notable that his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), who is the most mundane and matter-of-fact of the three only sees anything beneath the surface at the very end—and then she (and the viewer) is hit with it all full-force.
The problem with reading The Shining as purely psychological is that it raises the question—in terms of the action—of who (or what) lets Jack out of the pantry after Wendy imprisons him there. I’ve heard the argument that Wendy herself perhaps let him out, but that seems off-base to me, not in the least because at that point she has yet to experience anything inexplicable. When she finally does see the Overlook for what it presumably is, she sees—and hears (there’s an indecipherable chanting on the sound track that might well be some black-magic ritual)—more than Danny or Jack ever did. It’s as if the evil has to completely reveal itself in order to penetrate her less suggestible mind.
Regardless of how you read the film, there’s little denying that it’s a masterful work. Kubrick’s use of a methodical approach has rarely paid such dividends—perhaps because the approach is perfect for the story. The sound track—musically leaning heavily on Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”—is one of his most finely wrought. And though he uses them sparingly—which may be the clue—his images of horror are genuinely unsettling. Indeed, the recurring image of the “bleeding” elevators may be the most heart-stopping moment in any of his films. It is certainly an iconic image up there with any other in his career.