Stanley Kubrick is not generally known as a horror film director. His impact was far broader than solely one genre. How is it then that he made one of the enduring canonical films in the horror genre? It’s been over 30 years and people are still talking about The Shining — still using it in every kind of parody and homage imaginable. Like a Hitchcock or a Spielberg, he’s one of those directors with an eye for what’s thrilling as far cinema is concerned, but perhaps more so Kubrick deals in complexities. Ambiguity is his friend as much as the beautifully shot interiors of The Shining. He builds and constructs the perfect scaffold to work off of, and it’s full of tension and shock value, but it leaves the audience with questions. I watched Nosferatu recently and what I came out of it with was a conviction that it was not your typical horror film — it seems to follow you and haunt your thoughts in a sense. The Shining is a little more like a modern horror with frightening images, and yet it shares that same quality. You cannot help but ruminate over it or think about what you just saw and what it really means. Truth be told, I don’t know what to think about the cryptic ending and, in all honesty, I don’t care too much, although it makes for interesting discussion.
This film found its source in Stephen King’s novel (which I have not read). For the life of me, I had never thought of the significance of the title, but Scatman Crother’s character explains it in the same way that his mama had before him. “Shining” is being able to talk without your mouths. The little boy Danny Torrance has such an ability, and it proves to be the entry point into this film’s conceit. Not only is he able to say things without talking, but he sees things, horrible things, that other’s cannot — rather like The Sixth Sense (1999).
His father Jack (Jack Nicholson) and mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) take him to a Colorado mountain getaway for 5 months of isolation, because it seems like a good deal. After all, Jack wants to get some work done on his book and he could use the unbroken solitude, but of course, there’s an underlying tension that slowly builds as their time alone draws nearer. It’s done through the foreshadowing of cryptic images, violent tales of local folklore, and of course, a score that is constantly ringing in our ears. That’s the best way I can describe it. We know something is up.
So what does Room 237 mean? What about Grady and the bartender who serves Jack his drinks at the bar? They’re just as perplexing as Danny’s ability or the sudden change that seems to come over Jack. There are these perplexing moments that are difficult to account for whether it’s the initial introduction of the Chief (Scatman Crothers) and Danny, who he telepathically communicates with. Then, Jack Nicholson carries such a genial quality, and yet underlining all those Cheshire cat smiles is something deeply troubling.
Amidst the dreams and haunting images that blur the line between fantasy and reality, past and present, there is a strange fascination that develops for The Shining. Almost a morbid fascination, because we know something is wrong, but we keep watching anyway. We want to know what happens and furthermore, Kubrick’s visuals are often mesmerizing, although they remain indoors for the most part. His camera often trailing characters as if they are prey.
He pays his audience the final respect of not giving us everything and not tying up all the loose ends. We are left with images and photos ingrained in our mind’s eyes. Admittedly, Shelley Duvall is not an actress I usually pay great attention to, and certainly, this is Nicholson’s film along with Kubrick. He was made for such a twisted, layered role, that overflows with a certain level of affability and then becomes completely psychotic. It makes him far creepier than any villain clothed in black because Jack Torrance will openly kill you with a sing-song voice. That’s pure evil.