Perhaps even more interesting than The Shining itself is the enormous culture of debate, scholarship, and theorizing that has emerged around the film. At the most extreme edge of this peripheral realm is the insane 2012 documentary Room 237, during which various fans explain their bizarre readings of the movie while director Rodney Ascher employs clips from The Shining, as well as other archival material, as “evidence” supporting the readings. In the most memorable sequence, a Kubrick obsessive says The Shining contains Kubrick’s admission that he helped NASA fake the 1969 moon landing.
Drifting back to Earth, another fascinating byproduct of The Shining is the conflict between Kubrick and Stephen King that even Kubrick’s death could not conclude. King, who wrote the popular horror novel upon which the film is based, famously denounced Kubrick’s movie because of liberties the director took with King’s storyline. For context, it’s important to note remarks that Kubrick made during his lifetime to the effect that only bad novels merit cinematic adaptation, because they can be improved upon. Hell hath no fury like an author scorned, or, for that matter, an auteur.
Why is The Shining the object of so much fascination? Devotees of the movie would attribute its longevity to pure cinematic power—beyond mere scares, the film contains provocative allegories and unnerving ambiguities. The Shining also contains one of Jack Nicholson’s most iconic performances, complete with the famous moment when he hacks through a doorway with an axe, then pokes his head through the resulting hole and hisses, “Here’s Johnny!” Yet The Shining probably lasts simply because it’s so many things to so many people, hence the varied interpretations found in Room 237. The Shining is a horror movie, to be sure, complete with gory murders and unexpected jolts, to say nothing of ominous atmosphere that lasts from beginning to end. Moreover, The Shining is a character study, an exercise in paranoia, a fantasy with supernatural elements, and a tragedy. So even though it’s excessive and frustrating and weird, it’s almost completely unique. Employing King’s novel as a springboard, Kubrick—who cowrote the script with Diane Johnson—embarked on a demented flight of fancy.
As has been endlessly reported in articles and books and documentaries, Kubrick utilized painstaking production techniques, building a gigantic set, shooting innumerable takes, and attenuating production over a reported 500 days. The parallels between this Bataan Death March approach to filmmaking and the storyline are inescapable, because The Shining follows author Jack Torrance (Nicholson) as he and his family occupy the remote Overlook Hotel as winter caretakers while Jack tries to write a novel. Some combination of Jack’s mental problems and unknown forces occupying the hotel transform Jack from a family man into a maniac. Caught in the path of his rampage are his timid wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their psychically gifted son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). Things don’t go well for anyone.
Kubrick shoots the hell out of his remarkable set, creating mesmerizing images with gimmicks including Steadicam photography, while the eerie score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind accentuates the oddity of it all. By the time the film concludes with an epic nighttime chase through an outdoor maze blanketed in snow, Kubrick has generated such a potent quality of claustrophobia and fear that The Shining is more than just spooky—it’s upsetting.
The Shining: GROOVY