Kubrick only made one horror movie, but I think one was enough.
The Film: Aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as the winter caretaker for the remote Overlook Hotel, thinking that he’ll finally have time to finish his novel. Jack’s son Danny (Danny Lloyd) hates the hotel instinctively and with good reason; the Overlook has a bloody history and seems to be infested with spirits attracted to Danny’s latent psychic powers (his “shining.”) The isolation and the hotel’s will slowly drives Jack mad. The hotel convinces Jack that Danny must die and, during a harsh snowstorm, Jack takes up an axe and goes on the hunt. Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) narrowly escapes her husband, but it’s Danny who leads Jack out into the snow and loses him in the hotel’s hedge maze. Jack dies of exposure and his family escapes.
Note: The Shining not to be confused with Shining.
The Production: After the financial failure of Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick needed a hit and he wasn’t in the mood to make friends. Hoping to tackle something more commercial, Kubrick agreed to adapt new horror rock star Stephen King’s novel The Shining into a film. It seemed like the perfect choice. The book had been a runaway best seller and the project felt like a great fit for Kubrick’s visual eye. To everyone except King, that is.
To Kubrick, King was just another writer he had to work around. The author watched as Kubrick stripped away all but the bare story from the novel and remade it in the director’s own image, choosing to focus on the family over the scares. Kubrick even inserted his own horror scenes, many of which (the twins, the bloody elevator) would became as famous as any scene from the novel. King disapproved of casting Nicholson, changing the hotel location, and pretty much every major deviation from his work. To this day, King has never fully endorsed the film.
The interiors for The Shining were shot at Elstree Studios in England under difficult conditions. In addition to the usual stories of long days and endless takes, Kubrick also clashed with his lead actress, Shelley Duvall. Kubrick criticized Duvall’s acting and methods, cut most of her dialogue, and forced her into extremely long shoots, even by his standards. There’s some evidence that Kubrick did this deliberately to influence her performance, although Duvall has said that while she wouldn’t trade the experience, she’d never want to do it again. Another big event at the shoot was the debut of the Steadicam, an invention that took Kubrick’s trademark tracking shots off the rails. The Shining was the first major film to utilize the Steadicam, and the shots Kubrick used it for, such as the hedge maze chase, remain among some of its very best applications.
Best Moment: There’s your “Here’s Johnny!” and your “All work and no play”, but for my money there is no better moment in the film than Halloran’s (Scatman Crothers) return to the Overlook.
Halloran’s death scene is a major break from the novel, which depicts the cook as the family’s savior in the final chapters. The change is Kubrick’s little twist to his audience, who was familiar with the novel and expecting Halloran to save the day. In its way, this bit is equally as subversive as Janet Leigh’s death in Psycho, playing off expectations to shock and terrorize. With the expected hero dead on the floor, there’s no one left to help Wendy and Danny. They’re on their own against Jack.
Lasting Impact: Easily the most on the list so far. Is there anyone in the world that doesn’t recognize Jack’s face bursting through the bathroom door, or doesn’t know text of his “novel?” What’s really insane is that the film has been chewed up and commandeered by pop culture over the years, turned into everything from Simpsons episodes to 30 Seconds to Mars songs, and yet it’s lost exactly zero of its impact on the viewer. After 30 years, the movie still gets under the skin.
Overall: The Shining is a ghost story that may not have ghosts. The ghosts certainly exist in Stephen King’s novel and the actors in the film definitely react as if they’re at Grand Spook Station, but Stanley Kubrick didn’t believe in the supernatural and the movie that he made leaves a lot of room for doubt. Jack might be having drunken delusions. Danny might be seeing flashes of the past through his “shining” instead of vengeful spirits. Wendy barely sees anything at all, but when she does it could simply be panicked hallucinations or, as some have suggested, Danny projecting his own mind into hers.
All we know for certain is that Jack is a ticking bomb before he even gets to the Overlook. King’s story was more about an everyman looking for a second chance and corrupted by dark forces, but Nicholson seems so tightly wound that you half-expect him to go axe-happy on the car ride up the mountain. The tension in the movie doesn’t come from questions of what might happen, but from when. This is primarily why King opposed Nicholson’s casting, but I think Jack’s performance exactly fits the movie that Kubrick wanted to make.
The Shining doesn’t just scare, it unsettles. There is power in every frame. The film is one of the last prestige horror films, made back when scripts like these drew A+ talent. Within a few years, campfire slashers and babysitters in danger would convince studios that they didn’t need to spend a lot on horror to make a hell of a lot back. Even today, three decades later, most horror movies feature teenage victims and favor “gotcha” moments over atmosphere. Thrills instead of chills. Sure, teens can make good victims, but they bring so little to the table. No teen characters, and very few teen actors, can hope to bring the kind of baggage that the Torrance family takes to the Overlook, baggage that’s critical to making the movie work. Unpacked and strewn around, the house (sentient or not) twists the proper screws and forces this family to eat itself. They seem like real people, and we relate. How would our parents have held up in the Overlook? How would we?
The Shining retains its power because of a rare alignment of artists at the peak of their talents. Kubrick was at his best during this late period, routinely cranking out masterpieces. King was still in ascension when The Shining hit theatres, quickly becoming a national phenomenon. He’s released reams of material in the years since, but even his detractors usually admit that his earliest work (Carrie, The Shining, The Stand) was his best. And then there’s Nicholson, coming down off a decade of exploding superstardom that began with Easy Rider (1969) and ran through Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) just for starters. By the time he agreed to play Torrance, he was just about the most famous and effective movie star in the world.
I tried to think of a recent film that combined so many peaking stars to such amazing effect. The first to come to mind was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, with its combination of Nolan’s arrival (Nolan is fielding a lot of Kubrick comparisons these days) and Heath Ledger’s mythic performance as The Joker, but maybe the better Nolan example would be the recent Inception, featuring Nolan, Marion Cotillard in her best English role to date, and a score by Hans Zimmer that’s so good it’s hogging a large part of the discussion.
I’m sure there are better examples and time will tell if Nolan’s films hold up half as well as Kubrick’s little horror movie, but that speaks to the power Kubrick captured. Like the Overlook itself, the movie seems capable of soaking up whatever the viewer wants to bring inside. Ghosts or no ghosts, The Shining haunts the horror genre, proving that scares and art can work together and that, in capable hands, even a story about a man and his novel can keep us up at night.
The Stanley Kubrick Project
3. The Shining
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire