The Asheville Film Society booked Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in part to tie in with the opening of the documentary Room 237 (opening locally on May 3) — a film that looks at different readings of The Shining that make some…interesting conclusions. (Room 237 is an eye-opener in terms of overanalyzing that makes critics look like amateurs.) But mostly AFS booked The Shining because it was available in a new digital print. That means it’s going to look as good as or better than it did on its first release in 1980. (Now, 35mm purists will tell you that the digital print is still not as good, but that’s working from a basic fallacy that supposes a perfect and brand new 35mm print will be projected and framed perfectly. The probability of any of that — let alone all of that — falling into place is realistically nil.) Not having seen the film on the big screen for 33 years, I’m personally excited by this prospect.
I clearly remember seeing The Shining on its first release. It was in an Orlando multiplex and my wife and I were seated just behind a couple (in full uniform) from the Naval Training Center. The girl spent a significant amount of the movie covering her eyes — less from anything on the screen and more from the anticipation of what might be on the screen. That’s the kind of feeling the film has. While Kubrick was by no means reticent to deliver more overt horror moments, the film is mostly driven by the fear of what will happen next — what’s around the next corner of the hotel, what’s behind that door to Room 237, what we’ll see at the next cut. And Kubrick put the film together in a manner that plays the audience like a violin. This, after all, is a long movie — at 146 minutes it’s probably the longest horror movie ever made — and that makes it be more about building a mood than presenting cheap scares.
Not everyone appreciated that in 1980. Critic David Denby called it “the world’s first pompous horror movie,” and I’d be lying if I said I immediately recognized The Shining as a masterpiece. In fact, I was originally disappointed by the film. Warner Bros. wasn’t all that happy either. At one point, they edited it down and tried it as a double bill with Ken Russell’s Altered States — another 1980 release that did well on the coasts and withered fast in middle America. But there was something about the film that had hooked into the moviegoing public’s subconscious — certainly into mine. I couldn’t put my finger on it — and maybe I still haven’t — but it kept drawing me back to watch it again and again. It was like the film contained some secret that you needed to dig for.
Some things became clear pretty early on. The key one was that the film really had little to do with Stephen King’s haunted hotel novel— apart from the basic story and characters. In Kubrick’s hands, a simple, but admittedly effective ghost story had become something else. In fact, it’s at least almost possible to read the film in a way that the hotel isn’t haunted at all. If you look at the film as Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) descent into madness, you can make a case that Wendy (Shelley Duvall), who only begins to see anything horrific at the very end, is simply a victim of Jack’s own communicated insanity. There’s only one catch to that: Who lets Jack out of the pantry near the end of the film? (Both Kubrick and his co-writer Diane Johnson said it was the ghost that the film depicts.) I suspect that catch is a deliberate one by Kubrick. I think he wanted a film with a mystery that could never be quite satisfactorily solved — something that you could never quite get away from. The deeper you go into the film, the less it adds up. Even aspects of the very layout of the Overlook Hotel don’t make sense. Things simply can’t be where they are (like the windows in the manager’s (Barry Nelson) office), but that’s where we see them.
Myself, I think the film is supernatural in content. I think the film works on the basis that the demonic force in the film is a character — and the character is the camera itself. Think of the film’s opening with the camera — or the demon, if you will — gliding over the lake. It then comes up as if it senses something about to happen—that something being the approach of a car. The camera the follows the car and then moves in to get a better look at the occupant of it and then flies off — with a sound on the soundtrack that might well be a triumphant cry over having found a suitable vessel heading to the hotel. To me, this is the only way the opening makes sense — unless we reduce it to a mere stylistic flourish, which I’m not ready to do. Then the camera/demon follows the characters around — possibly even directs them — throughout the film. It may not all fit, but as I said, I don’t think any single reading quite fits all the film. I think that’s the point — that Kubrick wanted a film that was like the Overlook Hotel itself — a movie that would hold onto a lingering trace of something evil that happened, but that that trace would always be in the viewer’s mind.
The Asheville Film Society’s Big Screen Budget Series will show The Shining Wednesday, April 24 at 7:30 p.m. in one of the downstairs theaters at The Carolina Asheville. Admission is $5 for AFS members and $7 for the general public.