The Shining

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a film that needs no introduction. If you’re like me, you were probably exposed to it in one form or another before you even had a chance to see it. Its impact wasn’t immediately apparent on release, but eventually grew to such an extent that it infiltrated pop culture across various media – Jack Nicholson’s infamous catch-phrase “Here’s Johnny” used as a techno sample by Hocus Pocus, no TV and no beer making Homer go crazy on The Simpsons, and Jack Torrance being torn from a drive-in screen by the mother of all tornadoes in Jan de Bont’s Twister – I vividly recall this period in the mid-90s where The Shining seemed to be almost everywhere you looked, and it has since stayed an evergreen horror staple, lauded by critics and fans alike.

In the lead-up to the imminent theatrical release of the sequel to Stephen King’s written work, Doctor Sleep, cinema goers were afforded the opportunity to see Kubrick’s 1980 classic in cinemas with a brand new 4K restoration of the extended cut, including 24 minutes of material originally excised from international versions of the film. I jumped at the opportunity to revisit this seminal work on the big screen, with the intent to put it under the microscope and establish whether it is truly deserving of a reputation that is beyond reproach.

Well. 

It is common knowledge that King was not a big fan of Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1977 novel, describing it as “a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.” Whilst I think King’s take is overly harsh, informed as it is from the viewpoint of an author who’s vision has been compromised, he does have a salient point, and this viewing of the extended cut reinforced it for me. As masterful as The Shining is on an aesthetic level, it’s one of Kubrick’s weaker adaptations of a narrative,  and the more thought invested into the proceedings, the more the cracks begin to manifest. They’re small enough to be barely noticeable in isolation, but added up they become significant enough to detract from what could have potentially been a more harrowing experience.

Case in point: the carded intertitles denoting the passage of time. The film is split into segments, each one marked either by the time of the events or the gap in time since the last demarcation. It does serve a purpose, orientating the audience and signifying the escalation of the events occurring, but I would argue that providing this information is not only completely unnecessary, but the clarity actively undermines the rest of the psychological horror presented in the film and highlights the weaknesses in its character development, particularly that of Jack Torrance. It may have felt more relevant if the final product had stuck a little closer to King’s original vision, but Kubrick’s haunted house needed no clock.

My problems don’t stop there. The titular psychic ability central to all that occurs in the film is barely paid lip service, other than as a flimsy prop to explain Danny’s visions. Granted, translating how this ability works and the effect that it has from novel to film is a difficult task, but Kubrick is uninterested in even trying, and attempts to make sense of it send you down a rabbit hole. Danny’s got it, the cook has got it. Not really sure what “it” is, but I’ll accept it. Does Jack have it? What’s actually up with this hotel anyway? Wait, is this a possession story now? What’s the Indian burial ground got to do with anything? Why are we not talking about this Tony freak that lives in Danny’s mouth? What’s with the bear giving a blow-job? Why is there a black and white photo of Jack in the hotel? Held in the context of the film, it is admittedly spooky but undeniably surface-level schlock, and uncovering a deeper meaning behind it all requires a substantial amount of heavy-lifting from the viewer or familiarity with the source material. 

The additional 24 minutes of the longer cut do not assist in resolving this issue, rather they exasperate it. The attempt to offer more depth to the characters is a futile one, of no real consequence. Nicholson’s performance, as strong as it is, benefits from less of a back-story, not more. The additional skeleton scene feels completely out of place compared to the rest of the visions experienced in the hotel, reducing the effectiveness of the whole though it’s inclusion. The extra content runs perpendicular to many of Kubrick’s creative choices, not in parallel, and throughout its extended course, and in spite of its best efforts, The Shining exposes itself as little more than a pop-up gallery of random psychological horrors. 

But what an incredibly effective gallery it is. Even my finicky complaints about a tale more surface than substance do not detract from Kubrick’s pre-eminent ability to create a truly iconic cinematic experience. The cinematography plays no small part in elevating the scripted material – the stature of the Steadicam exploding after the release of this film (and for good reason) – but it’s the music that is the biggest contributor to the grim atmosphere created. Wendy Carlos sets a foreboding tone in her electronic introduction, but this is quickly overtaken by the shrill wailing of taut violin strings that ratchet up the intensity to unbearable levels. Add in the manic performances of both Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a volatile powder keg.

The reality is that even though there are a number of aspects of this film that I felt were undercooked, I still love it dearly. It is deserving of its horror classic status, and the opportunity to see the 4K restoration on the big-screen was a privilege. There’s not too many films that have the timeless potency that Kubrick managed to bottle here, but there will be plenty that try to follow in its footsteps. 

Retrospective

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