The Shining

“In The Shining you’re dealing with a director who is working for the first time in this genre and who seems to have a bit of contempt for it. He is obviously not interested in the conventions of the genre he he’s chosen; in fact, he seems to feel there would be something cheapening or demeaning in drawing from the wellspring of the normal genre conventions. Instead you sense that he wants to revolutionize it and make it something profound or significant. But the result is inevitably heavy-handed because what he has actually done is failed to realize the intrinsic beauty of the basic form per se.

The real trick is not to ignore the conventions but to take them and then personalize them.”

~ Brian De Palma, speaking in a 1980 interview with Ralph Appelbaum

The Shining has become such a significant film in the landscape of cinematic horror that it’s often easy to forget the mixed reception it received upon its theatrical premiere in the United States (indeed, Stanley Kubrick’s films, while generally successful in financial terms, were often met with mixed critical receptions), and during the film’s original run, remarks like De Palma’s above were not entirely uncommon. While I have my own misgivings about Kubrick’s The Shining, I believe that the allegations De Palma makes in that 1980 interview somewhat fail to appropriately diagnose the problems with The Shining (though his allegations are obviously revealing about De Palma’s own approach to genre storytelling).

Despite the widespread view of Kubrick as a kind of mythic mastermind who meticulously planned every feature of his films from the outset, the truth is that Kubrick discovered his films in the process of making them, often clarifying their intentions and effects in the editing room (even to the point of re-editing films after they had begun their theatrical run). I have never been entirely convinced that Kubrick entirely found what he was looking for in The Shining, and believe that the film’s conceptual fogginess is responsible for the number of absurd conspiracy theories that have sprung up surrounding the film (a number of which are memorably explored in the documentary Room 237). Nevertheless, there remain certain clues to what fascinated Kubrick about the material, and I think those who are curious that would do best to look back to the work’s genesis (such as this early treatment, authored by Kubrick himself, which differs from the final film in some key ways, but is also very consistent with it on other key points), and the film’s most final form, the shorter European cut of the film that Kubrick constructed after the film’s initial US release.

It’s evident that Kubrick quite enjoyed playing with the tropes and shock effects of the horror story; certainly, the enthusiasm with which he describes The Shining‘s events in that early treatment would seem to make it quite evident that that was part of what drew him to the material. If The Shining‘s effects are so blunt as to verge on the comical, that stems less from condescension than from Kubrick’s essential style, which often has a “Get a load of this!” undercurrent. After all, The Shining begins with the strains of “Dies Irae,” which is so unsubtle that it must be read as both a dark joke even if it also functions as an ominous effect, and that revelry carries through the film into the film’s famous “woman bathing” nightmare to the climactic hallucinations involving a man in a bear suit and, at least in the US cut, a table full of cobwebbed skeletons that might have come from a William Castle movie.

Structurally, The Shining remains stubbornly odd, though the clearest throughline in Kubrick’s film comes from its resolution, which was Kubrick’s most significant alteration to Stephen King’s source text. Kubrick’s suggestion that Jack Torrance, The Shining‘s primary protagonist, is not a victim of the haunted Overlook Hotel (as he is in King’s text), but an extension of it–that he is, and always has been, the haunted hotel’s caretaker, as one of the Overlook Hotel’s phantoms informs him–radically alters the nature of this haunted house narrative. Note that even in Kubrick’s early treatment, we find a variation of the finished film’s conclusion, in which a photograph reveals that Jack Torrance was once at the hotel in a previous life. Thus Torrance’s arc is less of a descent into madness than an awakening of his true, repressed self. The story of Jack Torrance is the story of the re-emergence of a demon of the dark, disturbing American past.

This adds a new level of emphasis to the way Kubrick’s film opens with Torrance driving to the Overlook hotel: The Shining is Jack Torrance’s journey home. The flickers of menace that occur in early scenes of Torrance with the hotel manager and with his family on the journey to the hotel hint at his unity with the malevolence with which the film presents us. This radically transforms the nature of the dysfunctional familial relationships at the center of the film in ways that author Stephen King has famously resented, but it clues us in to the existential horror that Kubrick sought to locate in this text, in which a legacy of American violence reaches into right into the heart of the American family, connecting historical atrocity with the intimate cruelty of child abuse.

Scholars debate which cut of The Shining Kubrick ultimately preferred, and the record on that score is mixed in ways that prevent us from arriving at any definitive answer. Kubrick left two cuts in circulation: the more expansive American cut, and the considerably briefer European cut, which trims many of the film’s languors, and notably shifts the revelation of Jack Torrance’s past physical abuse of Danny to much later in the film.

While the scope and scale of the American cut has its own level of appeal, the European cut has greater clarity and unity. The film becomes even more exaggerated, more heightened, offering less room for the viewer to reorient themselves between its pulses. The nightmare inundates the viewer like the blood from the Overlook Hotel’s elevator. The European cut offers only brief glimpses of the “real world” outside of the Overlook, reshaping the film’s central trio into almost archetypal figures in the midst of an infernal play.

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