Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is such an unusual film in so many ways that it almost beggars description. At first, however, it seems normality itself. A big-budget, star-centered horror film, its only anomaly seems to be the spectacle of a director known for his artistic seriousness working in a genre some might consider “beneath” him.
Given the results, it is tempting to snicker “Poor Stanley,” for compared to low-budget horror films like Halloween and Friday the 13th that were frightening audiences at the time, The Shining feels like a self-important clunker, as ponderous as its contemporaries are ruthless. Apart from a few not very frightening surprises and effects, it does not deliver the genre’s cheap thrills. Indeed, to judge from the gargantuan Overlook Hotel set that testifies to the production’s resources, the thrills are patently expensive. (The film was originally promoted as “an epic of horror.”)
So why has The Shining inspired a fanatical following that pores over it repeatedly in confused dedication more in keeping with arty puzzlers like Last Year at Marienbad than exploitation horror? Questions abound: Who is the woman in the bathroom? What is the significance of “Room 237?” How long ago did Jack (Jack Nicholson) injure his son Danny (Danny Lloyd)? What does the final camera move into the photograph of Jack in the Overlook in 1921 mean for the rest of the story? Even given that the film’s supernatural subject requires some logical ruptures, just what is going on? A quick read of Stephen King’s novel provides some answers, but they are disappointingly limited. Besides, no film should require CliffsNotes to be understood.
Such inconsistencies, holes and contradictions are, in fact, the key to The Shining’s success, because it embraces and exploits them to plunge into an emotional abyss way beyond the average horror film. Repeated viewings may feel necessary to straighten out those “errors” but they only confuse things further, like trying to piece together the image in a fractured mirror. Enough is present to sense what the image should be, but it never adds up properly because of the lesions. Put simply, the more one tries to make sense of The Shining, the less sense it makes.
Few films so deliberately confound expectation. Rather than relying on our childish fear of the dark, for example, as most horror films do, The Shining is brightly lit. Such denial of convention and Kubrick’s notoriously fanatical control combine to produce an experience that haunts well beyond contrived ghouls and goblins. The film’s famous trailer, consisting of a single shot in which torrents of blood erupt from an elevator, is a perfect example of the strategies at work. The trailer is more chilling than frightening, but it is an extraordinary, overwhelming image. Such inexplicably powerful imagery moves, not in fear of things that go bump in the night, but as part of a quest for meaning amidst unpredictable, jagged, everyday evil.