“The Shining” may have been released thirty-six years ago, but it occupies as much real estate in our cultural imagination as when it first rolled in on a wave of blood and geometric wallpaper. 2012’s documentary “Room 237” explored the myriad theories and rumors surrounding the hotel horror flick to a groundswell of ballyhoo. Earlier this year, mainstream news outlets reported that a paranormal expert claimed he’d seen two ghostly figures in a photo taken at the Colorado hotel where the film was shot. And a pivotal moment in this season’s finale of “Girls” referenced the film’s classic “Heeere’s Johnny” scene. There may be no clearer indication of zeitgeist status than a hat tip from Mz. Dunham.
Unlike many cult favorites (hello, “Lebowski”), “The Shining” knocked most everyone’s socks off from the get-go – even when they acknowledged its flaws. It was that rarest of things: an improvement, rather than a shoddy adaptation, of a Stephen King novel, not to mention a Stanley Kubrick film that eschewed the director’s characteristically icy elegance for over-the-top violence. The film vibrated, really, with a red, red rage. Or was that red rum?
As an ‘80s kid, I knew about “The Shining” for years before I ever got to see it: You only had to growl “red rum” at a slumber party and no one was going to sleep a wink. But when I finally saw the film, it was on a small television and its grandeur got lost in the shuffle. Only when I had the opportunity to ogle it on the enormous screen of the Hudson Valley’s Bardavon Theater in the late 1990s did I understand the scope of achievement.
Apart from “The Shining,” I’ve never drunk the Kubrick Kool-Aid. It’s generally too tart for this girl. My disconnect doesn’t stem from the misogyny of which he’s rightfully accused so much as his overall misanthropy – an apparent distaste for the muss and fuss of bodies and emotions. Such blanket rejection of humanity has always rendered his social observation too much of a piece for me– it’s too smooth, if gorgeously rendered; too unexamined. But in the context of horror, this beautiful savagery roars to life at a scale and sonic range never before conceived.
It helped that he placed Jack Nicholson and forever-Olive-Oyl Shelley Duvall front and center. Though this was the vehicle that transformed Nicholson into a star – cinema’s first rockstar, really – he was still the nebbishy menace that made him a plausible louse in “Carnal Knowledge” (1971). This made him perfect for Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and flailing writer who moved his wife Wendy (Duvall) and extra-sensitive son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to caretake a Colorado hotel during its perilous off season. You could feel the man’s barely masked irritation with his domestic scene – whiny wife, weirdo kid – even before the building’s evil spirits invaded his consciousness. And Duvall’s wheedling tones and pale, boneless limbs helped connote the most loathsome of helpless femininity; I used to say only directors who secretly hated women cast her in their films.
One of Kubrick’s wiliest moves may have been to suggest Torrance’s lurking anger and unsatisfactory home life made him receptive to possession. The pure genius, though, lay in how visual that psychological exploration was. Style, not substance, was the director’s strong suit, which made him a perfect foil for King, whose themes of the supernatural lurking in the banal (and the banal in the supernatural) were often eclipsed by the breathless redundancy of his prose.
Swooping above these characters via Kubrick’s expert film work, we felt rather than merely saw the scope of the horror at hand – the soaring ceilings and staircases, the swelling crimson of the sumptuous décor, the room after room after room containing God knows what. By the time we were eye level with young Danny pedaling his tricycle down the wrong carpeted hallway, we were primed for the horror of Room 237 he’d been warned about by hotel chef and fellow intuitive Hallorann (Scatman Crothers, falling prey to the “black character gets offed” curse though Halloran does not in the book. Oh, Stanley.) Rest assured nobody has ever viewed a twin the same way again.
At heart, this is not a film about metaphysical horror so much as it is about the horror within us. It is about space and intimacy – about the ties that not only bind but blind us, and the vast structures that dwarf and drown us, too. This was the perfect match of men and material, and its well-appointed fury only grows more relevant as we skulk alone together in the cozy aggression of online isolation.
This was originally published on Signature.