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How Kubrick Still Drives Us Insane With THE SHINING

Jack writes in praise of Kubrick's cult classic.

Nearly forty years after its initial release, there a lot that comes with discussing The Shining. The iconography is entangled within the horror genre, from the twin girls, to the final shot of Jack caught in The Overlook Hotel’s spiritual presence, to the carpet pattern that is instantly recognizable. If what’s considered scary is supposed to be subjective, then how did Kubrick make something so horrifying that it becomes universal? Of course, The Shining doesn’t have to scare everyone, but there is a good enough reason to believe it could, due to the influence it still has on modern horror today (just look at The Lighthouse).

At its core, The Shining is about a man going insane and eventually he tries to kill his family. There’s a sense of dread felt throughout the film like no other before—or since—nor will it ever be forgotten, and one of the many reasons for that is through the design of The Overlook itself. Jack, Wendy, and Danny are the only ones inhabiting the hotel after moving day, of course, but it feels like they’re ants on an anthill. Kubrick has always been an emotionally distant filmmaker, just look at how Hal 9000 is the most human character in 2001, for example. Jack is never made out to be likable and Wendy is never given any agency, and the mix of dominance and helplessness is then heightened by how The Overlook is one big thunderstorm cast upon the Torrances.

The Shining (1980) – source: Warner Bros.

The individual rooms themselves are some of the most recognizable of all time: the gold room, the bathroom in the gold room, Room 237, the kitchen, the lobby in which we witness Jack unleash his inner frustrations, and the list goes on. Yet, it always seems distinct and wrong in every rewatch, like there are too many windows or the ceiling is too high. An example would be during the scene when Jack barks at Wendy for breaking his concentration during his writing—a chair and stool can be seen against a wall behind Jack. They completely disappear in one shot, only to reappear in the next. Before we have set foot in The Overlook, Tony (Danny’s imaginary friend) warns Danny about the sinister roots hidden within the hotel with the shot of the river of blood coming from the elevator at molasses speed. It’s a cliché, but The Overlook is another character, along with the spirits that reside within it.

This is a ghost movie, but not universally thought of as one. Spiritual presence can be found, like with Lloyd the bartender, or Grady, a previous caretaker of The Overlook who faced a similar fate as Jack. Hallucinations are another occurrence, especially towards the end, when Wendy is attempting to escape. She sees a vision of two men, one in a tuxedo and another in a bear costume in one of the hotel rooms. It’s a jarring image that comes out of nowhere (a subplot that’s explained further in the book), but the fact that it does come at a time of emotional distress makes it all the more difficult to believe The Overlook is haunted or if Wendy too is just losing her mind.

Jack himself has slowly morphed into a demon, enacting acts of evil onto his family, making him more susceptible to joining Lloyd and Grady in haunting The Overlook. Kubrick doesn’t bother with delving into much of the lore itself, the prime example being the act of “The Shining,” but it’s more of the implied world-building that seems to have been Kubrick’s approach. It’s fair to make the assumption that Jack was a bad person even before the events that took place at The Overlook—with unchecked emotional outbursts and alcohol that consumed his well being. The Overlook psychologically punishes those who are not worthy of pursuing, and with Jack being a writer and a dad—two things he has never been exceptional at—The Overlook takes away his sanity.

The Shining (1980) – source: Warner Bros.

The Shining is sandwiched right in between two of Kubrick’s war epics: Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket. With Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove also fitting in the war genre, it’s fair to say that Kubrick spends a fair amount of time wresting about the philosophy that war takes on those involved and observing. Kubrick is now regarded as never sticking to just one genre, nevertheless making some of the best in that genre like what 2001 did for sci-fi or what Eyes Wide Shut did for the erotic thriller.

It’s very possible to view The Shining a very different kind of war movie from one Kubrick had previously attempted. While Full Metal Jacket was about the dehumanization of war, Dr. Stranglove becomes about the absurdity of a group of people who had control over entire countries, The Shining is quickly about a war with one’s own self—it’s about how Jack wrestles with both his own past and the past of others. While he is an inherently cruel person, it’s Grady and Lloyd that keep him there, as their actions now affect Jack and anyone else that attempts to look after The Overlook.

Behind the scenes of The Shining (1980)

One of the things that Kubrick understands almost immediately is how creepy Jack Nicholson is. Sleazy but with seduction, Nicholson’s idiosyncratic personality infatuates Kubrick. Jack Torrance is in every scene without coming across as overly sympathetic, so when he’s more shabby later on in the film, it comes off as a more natural progression than a surprising twist. It’s a pretty perfect pairing of actor and character, nobody else could have played Torrance even though Robin Williams, Harrison Ford, and Robert De Niro were considered as well.

Nicholson was in an interesting place in his career when he signed on to do The Shining, with not only coming off a recent Academy Award win with One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, but also a historic run in the 70s with Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, The Last Detail, Carnal Knowledge, and The Passenger. Entering the 80s, working with Kubrick challenged him like he hadn’t been before, showing that he hasn’t been burnt out after having such a demanding decade that lead to several nominations and acclaim. It’s not just that Nicholson made the role his own, but it’s the lead up to The Shining and the uncompromising production that drove him insane with the audience.

The Shining (1980) – source: Warner Bros.

I love Robert Altman, more specifically I love Robert Altman in the 70s, and more specifically than that I love the way Altman used Shelly Duvall. Possessing this dreamy and wholesome presence with a gangly build, she always stood out from the crowd whether Altman used her in a minor or major role. She broke out with Brewster McCloud, re-teamed with Altman again for McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, Nashville, then ultimately winning Best Actress at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival for the enigmatic 3 Women.

Duvall never trained to be an actor, and it was only when Altman shot Brewster in her hometown of Houston that she was offered to be in the film. Kubrick tested Duvall to an almost immoral extent, and while his perfectionism is widely documented, it’s in Duvall’s overlooked work here and loss of sanity that isn’t. Wendy is a thankless role, yet it is made the most of with Duvall’s portrayal of horror, betrayal, and anxiety.

There’s no denying that The Shining has become one of the most over-analyzed films ever made, never mind the scariest or best or any other hyperbolic claim. Kubrick is a very intelligent man, and some would even go as far to say genius—his storytelling is unmatched and at times polarizing. His storytelling is unrivaled, but I’m never sure if he ever meant to make The Shining in particular as enigmatic as it is, considering how straight forward the narrative at its core may-be.

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