Dramatic Gaps and Tech Obsessions in The Shining

Stanley Kubrick made a monument to technology when he turned Stephen King’s diffusely creepy Gothicism into a two-and-a-half-hour tribute to the newly invented Steadicam. In elongating shots, Kubrick, the cinematographer John Alcott, and the Cam's inventor, Garrett Brown, who was instrumentally involved on the set, trace technological patterns in mirages of meaning. They follow the lines of motion of Danny Torrance’s (Danny Lloyd) oneiric tricycle ride. They ascendingly inch with Wendy (Shelley Duvall) as she fends off her husband with her cold Raggedy-Anne fingers on that baseball bat. They track the monolithic lines of forced points of perspective reflected deep in a mirror, on the horizon of an agonizingly clean hallway, or in an expanse of frozen hedges. Their devotion to technique is apparent in the film’s ruthless perfectionism for the minutest physical detail of each set piece, with some shots infamously consuming hundreds of takes before the director took a day of rest (or allowed his laborers to). Yet this single-minded devotion to technology results in a film that disregards the simplest pull of its dramatic logic. Despite its hard-won place as a missing link in horror evolution between the sensational and the sensationalized surreal, the emotions slog.

The Shining is at its best in its intro, when Carlos and Elkind’s screeching score sets a mood rather than over-telegraphs an action. The helicopter shots of the winding mountain roads evoke the chilly folklore of the American frontier, accented by Danny’s awkward questions about the Donner Party. Despite being cast for this uneven dynamic, the family rarely plays against each other outside of this opening. A conversation over dinner or by fireside to darkly mirror this initial dynamic looms but never occurs. The screenplay by Kubrick and Diane Johnson does not incite tension through dramatic escalation. It walls the characters off from each other in three separate pairs, each with its own dynamic of tension and over-clarified meaning. The forceful acting in the film has been processed as “perfect casting” by horror history (partly in overcorrecting its initial reception, which included two Razzie nominations), but this reputation betrays how often the film trades dramatic complexity for emotional readability.

Jack Nicholson is doing his best Jack Nicholson impression the whole time, with hardly any transition. It’s like casting Dr. Jekyll as someone who looks exactly like Mr. Hyde (his grin nearly touches his ears on either side). The final transformation is a relief rather than a twist; the film is finally starting. Shelley Duvall seems perfect as his ragdoll housewife, battered by denial, who dresses like she’s about to go on a kids’ show as herself. She has a storybook naivete. But the script steals so much of her agency that it no longer feels like sympathy. As she waddles around the hotel, flaccidly waving a kitchen knife like a disoriented plastic tube man outside a car dealership, squeaking “Danny …,” she drifts too far into a parody of pity to retain any. The essential Duvall, the one that Robert Altman reanimated to dollish perfection in 3 Women and even Popeye, has been buried in mechanical directives in The Shining (the result of which was physical exhaustion and dehydration for the mistreated actress). These characters act as archetypes of mid-century married life, but they’re never allowed to compellingly add to them. It's like Kubrick didn't realize how much like Jack he was acting. The archetypes are the extent of the point.

These characters are the film’s second fiddle, keeping time between technological marvels, including numerous sequences where the Cam drifts down those icy hallways with murderous purpose. The plot insulates these purposely disorienting pieces with unsupported “reveals” that pose as dramatic climaxes despite having no intellectual context. “Redrum” is barely introduced as a mystery before being revealed as “murder” in reflection, as though that's a high-minded revelation. But by the time Wendy learns this, she already knows Jack intends to kill them, despite shrugging it off to go to sleep after locking him in the pantry like a clockwork milkmaid powering down. Only the word, “murder,” somehow drives it home to her that she should do something, a word that the film thinks is so taboo that it suffices as a jump scare, reducing its audience to 1957 terms. This “reveal” is an aspect that gets more baffling on every rewatch. So does the ending, which shows Jack in the 1921 ballroom photo, absorbed into the hotel’s spirit (?) or perhaps reincarnated into an identical body (but in that case, who hired him?). The twist is supported by so little of the film’s information that it reads as head-scratching rather than stomach-dropping. It's a "huh" moment, not a "whoa" moment, only marginally improved by the loss of a scene of exposition, edited from the end of the movie a week after the film had been released. Despite ruthless pretenses of perfectionism, the film still came out unfinished.

Logical explanations for a film about ghosts may not seem like a high priority, but it’s Kubrick’s totalitarian control over the smallest details in some senses and baffling disregard for them in others that makes the film ooze with unearned convenience. It shows numerous placards (Monday, Two Months Later, 4am) to imply the feeling of a ticking clock without building one in the narrative – the scares are either “off” or “on.” When situations are down to the wire, the film snaps its fingers and does what it wants, such as when Jack has Wendy cornered in the bathroom but can’t be bothered to finish her off because the plot still needs her. By similar convenience, Jack breaks the snowplow, but this only forces O’Halloran (Scatman Crothers) to bring another one. The situation is agonizingly specific in its effort to bring Wendy a getaway vehicle, sacrificing its meticulously isolated tension for bizarre cutaway scenes of O’Halloran in his hotel room or plane or automobile, as though his inclusion must be justified with a main role in the plot. Yet, this setup is immensely more complicated than the value of the payoff. Jack could have saved the film 20 minutes by forgetting about the plow altogether.

Even in the simple mechanisms of the main plot, which by the end has devolved to the standard archetypes of slasher-in-pursuit drama, the film’s allegedly tense situations frequently lose their train of thought. Despite being aggressively particular about the snowplow, the film makes Jack break the all-important radio in a series of significant shots showing which parts he takes and where he puts them without ever letting Wendy check it to discover this (if she had, it would have devalued the Scatman cutaways). This reduces an earlier scene highlighting her ability to use the radio to a useless dead end. The audience knows Jack broke it, so she somehow absorbs that knowledge secondhand. During the final chase, Danny is running into the hotel’s yard in one shot, then in a later shot is inexplicably back in the hotel, hiding in the kitchen, because the script needed him to scream and run back outside so Jack could follow him. Wendy can’t “shine” as the film calls the ability to see the ghosts, yet at the end, she inexplicably sees the same ghosts that Danny does, the same that just as bafflingly unlock the door to the pantry because the script couldn’t figure out another way for Jack to get out (maybe Wendy could have opened it to get back the radio pieces?). These scenes are selectively meticulous – they only pay off if they feel like it.

The score is the film’s most devoted servant in the task of forcing feelings of importance in its circuitous slasher tension. The film features a similar modernist approach to movie music as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in the case of horror, it degrades to cymbal players waiting around every corner to use their talents whenever something could be even casually interpreted as needing a crash. This layer of reaction noise drowns the dialogue and even trivializes the action at times, such as when Duvall waddles down a hallway to the sounds of shrieking metal and comes up behind Nicholson as he pulls a page from the top of his typewriter to a *cymbal crash*. It has the over-literal communication skills of the scores of silent comedies, where the onscreen action required constant input to be properly interpreted by a novice moviegoing public. The Shining alternately demands the audience to accept twists without any logical buildup and interpret cymbal crashes as serious sounds of intrigue.

Its best aspect is the decision to shoot in daylight, widening its gothic lens to include the cold, uncertain sunshine of the everyday, where the film suggests that the real human horrors occur. Conversely, Pauline Kael wrote in her critical review of the film, “Who wants to see evil in daylight?” but I think the answer is: those of us who know it already lives there. The problem is not the lighting but that the film over-literalizes the horrors of the hotel into cheap renditions of haunted house mechanisms, such as a beautiful woman who turns into an old hag in reflection as unsubtly as an optical gag in a theme park ride. The cheapness of these horror stunts negates the silent scariness of the concept, which is at its most unnerving the more normal it seems (the film’s most unsettling apparition is the bear man blowjob because it seems mundane rather than jumpy, notwithstanding the score’s overexcitement to reveal it). The script devotes an entire painstaking scene to itemizing the kitchen’s appliances and the contents of the pantry, yet never pays it off by showing Wendy's labor there. The setup itself was the extent of its ambition.

Kubrick culls imagery from the book but often neglects to adapt its context ("The book was warm and the film was cold," King said once). Even if the elevator pours blood for a symbolic reason (the endless cycle of murderous instinct?), it pales in comparison to images in David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a film that broke the family dynamic into its sociopathic parts more effectively just a few years earlier. Despite this, the characters in The Shining are often used to foretell the genre’s trajectory towards surreal illusions, such as the bartender (Joe Turkel), who peers into the frame, predicting Lynch characters like the Pale Man in Lost Highway. These characters are most unsettling by seeming to have a conscience, like a theme park mascot gone sentient. They’re the spectral highlights of The Shining, giving the film its slinky magic whenever it’s taking a break from cymbal crashes and predictable tropes like the crazy husband, battered housewife, scared child, and childlike black caretaker, all writing shortcuts that it may not have even realized it was taking because it was so focused on watching the lens rather than the subject.

The Shining represents the horror genre in transition. It delivers a chilly scope, evoked in every wide-lensed shot, to a genre established on the psychology of intimacy. It’s Psycho or Rosemary’s Baby blown up into tapestry, a bird’s eye view of the tropes of paranoia horror amplified by blockbuster-level technology in direct defiance of the genre’s usually understated mechanisms. Without this change, it’s hard to imagine the existence of the modern mood epic, from Mulholland Drive to Hereditary to The Lighthouse to this year’s stop-motion triptych, The House, which used simulated architectural spaces in a similar way to Kubrick.

Yet as a work of drama, or acting, or tension, or logic, The Shining is riddled with inconstant attention, with devices going unchecked or unresolved constantly, not to build the kind of nervousness unique to ambiguity but to propel its plot without calculating the tempo of the audience’s understanding. In sequences, Kubrick was a notorious dictator on the set of this film, scarier than Jack because his abuse was more calmly accepted as noble. Yet despite his obsessiveness, the overall picture jolts around, teleporting its devices when needed and fudging the rest. In the absence of stable construction, it telegraphs its intended feelings with a score that cannot manage being haunting because it’s so invested in being outwardly horrifying. At such a slow pace, the obviousness of its tropes drains the film of its wisdom, leaving the base genre thrills to be a safety blanket rather than a stepping stone. It’s impossible to deny the scope of the film’s inspiration on its genre. But its argument as a work of complex tension never settles on a guiding vision. Like Jack murdering his family because he wants to take care of them so much, Kubrick made them work so hard for this art that he never really figured out why.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures

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