This is part one of a retrospective series on the work of director Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999).
Whether you buy into “The Shining’s” tag of the first “epic horror” film, or believe it to be a very dark-humoured situation comedy, or even a live action cartoon, one thing is for certain – here Stanley Kubrick looked at the genre manual for horror and ripped it up.
Of course, all of the classic elements are still present: secluded setting, psychic child, rampaging axe-murderer; but they are manipulated by the most demanding of auteur directors into something that continues to haunt our cinematic experience.
“The Shining,” as a rule, shouldn’t work.
In 2.5 hours, only two characters are killed. Nicholson’s psycho is a buffoon on a scale last seen in Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell in “Night of the Hunter.” The climax is preposterous; Scatman Crothers’ psychic cook has to travel by plane, car and snowmobile in order to finally meet his grisly end. Surely he was better off staying in Miami?
So what makes the Overlook Hotel linger in our collective memory nearly 30 years later? It is at once a steadicam treat to be explored by the young son Danny and yet, at the same time, a building of dread to be feared by him. As a lone (ly) child his environment is everything to him; playmate and confidant, bully and terroriser. Danny is mesmerized by the sound his trike makes on both carpet and floor, but like with every explorer, this fascination will eventually lead to more unwanted discoveries.
Danny’s ability to “shine” may or may not be real. It could be a defence against his violent father, an attempt to block the real evil, which inhabits his family, rather than the imaginary evil that lurks outside it.
Danny’s creation of a fantasy world epitomized by “Tommy”, his imaginary friend, is the same defence employed by Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s “Fire Walk With Me.” The key difference is that Laura retreats into a childlike state when confronting her father’s evil whereas Danny adopts a more adult persona when dealing with his. Danny knows for certain that his dad will turn violent again, it’s just a matter of when. The “shine” he possesses simply allows him not to believe it.
For Wendy and Jack, Danny’s parents, The Overlook Hotel offers the key to marital bliss, but for very different reasons. Wendy the eternal optimist sees this break as an attempt to repair her damaged relationship. Her family seems isolated in more than just location. There is never any mention of any other relatives or friends throughout the film, from which we can conclude that Wendy needs this to work. Not only from the perspective of a mother protecting her son, but also due to the fact that in Jack, she has put all her eggs into one basket. She comes off as dowdy and not particularly bright, and perhaps Jack was the best offer she was ever going to get. His rejection of her (violence aside) seems all the crueler, because of her doubly vulnerable position.
Jack views The Overlook as an opportunity to rid himself of his own horrific situation; his family, or more accurately – Wendy. He blames her for all of his ills and uses his writing to deprive her of what she craves most; a happy and cohesive family unit. The androgynous Wendy could never meet the needs of this would-be Hemingway – a boozing, womanising, literary dwarf.
Kubrick’s real genius in “The Shining” lies in exploring this relationship. Whenever the musical score indicates a sense of horror, it is often open-ended as to what that means to the characters. To Wendy it indicates Jack’s growing psychosis. Wendy, meanwhile, appears to Jack as a monster as horrific as Captain Howdy, Freddie Kruger, and Michael Myers all rolled into one. His attempts to kill Wendy are really a desperate bid to save himself – surely a reasonable action when faced with a life-threatening situation?