Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining (for it is much more Kubrick’s film than Stephen King’s book which shares a setting and characters, but explores different themes) is a masterpiece of cinematic manipulation, of the centrality of the camera in the film-making process, a bold, indeed too bold, statement of the director as auteur. From the glorious opening sequence, as the camera swoops through the Rocky Mountain passes pursuing Jack’s tiny Volkswagen, to the ground-level chasing of Danny as he pedals his toy car through the hotel lobby and up and down its long corridors, to the much parodied “Here’s Johnny” axe-wielding, the viewer is never welcomed into the scene. We are kept as outsiders, entirely dependent on the director’s decisions on where he chooses to look, unable to contaminate The Vision by making decisions ourselves.
Kubrick’s neurotic need to control (and the pressure he brought to bear on Shelley Duvall in particular) is apparent in his daughter’s fascinating documentary made for the BBC at a time when “The Making of…” films were much more than puff pieces and DVD extras. The question, of course, is whether Kubrick’s intrusive presence – he is like the lettering that runs through a bar of seaside rock: no matter where you stop or start the film, he’s there – detracts from the artistic achievement. Having seen the film a number of times, especially on its release when I worked in a cinema, I’ve reached a firm conclusion. I just don’t know.
Where Kubrick succeeds is in his presentation of the terrible beauty of the location. The external shots of the hotel are spectacular, all the better for being photographed prior to CGI’s dead hand crushing so much ambition in cinematography. Inside the hotel, the metaphorical shining of Danny and Dick Halloran is matched by the artificial light bouncing off varnished floors, off gloss painted walls and off metal surfaced kitchens. This aesthetic reverses the horror genre’s traditional use of darkness to suggest the unknown, the threatening, the other – the relentless brightness of The Overlook ensures that the secrets of its past flow all over the viewer like the oft-repeated torrent of blood issuing from its doorways. There’s nowhere to hide because everywhere is illuminated.
Kubrick’s terrorising of Shelley Duvall – insisting on take after take after take – was brutal, but produced an extraordinary performance in which her fear and desire to escape The Overlook leach from real life into her acting. This toughest of tough love worked, as Ms Duvall recognises today. The approach, much modified, works less well with Jack Nicholson, whose performance I loved back in 1980 on the film’s release, but it now comes across as largely a stitching together of ticks in a two dimensional character (creepily charming / psychotic). No wonder Stephen King was disappointed in the lack of depth in Kubrick / Nicholson’s Torrance – the man in the book is much more nuanced. How much of this judgement is coloured by Nicholson’s free-wheeling by simply being Jack in many later films is impossible to tell – disentangling the iconography of Jack Nicholson from the actor Jack Nicholson is a task beyond me these days.
Kubrick also fails to get much out of Danny Lloyd as Danny, though it’s harsh to criticise a child actor caught in the maelstrom of The Shining’s production. Hindsight again intervenes and, though a very different film, Henry Thomas’ Elliott in ET shows how much more a sympathetic director can coax from a kid acting in a big budget movie.
When the final reckoning is made, does the movie’s flaws outweigh its bravura film-making? On first viewing, the answer is a resounding yes. Thirty years on, people new to the film will recognise plenty that they will have seen elsewhere on television and in movies, demonstrating how deeply the film has penetrated popular culture. New audiences will revel too in the hotel and the maze, in their stunning cinematography and in the attention to detail evident in every frame. But returning to the film after a few years away, the flaws jar – while the soundtrack is remarkably quiet for a film of its genre, the visuals and the acting are just too loud, too keen to fill all the available space, too clean in conception and execution.
So if you haven’t seen it – you really should. But if you have, the memory may be better than the thing remembered – as so much turns out to be.