Stanley Kubrick’s horror film The Shining has two good shots in it, and he spoils them both. Before the credits, a helicopter shot follows a speeding car on a mountain road. Suddenly the camera stops tracking the car and flies out over the landscape. Thus we’re told that this isn’t a conventional shot in which the emphasis is on the car. Here the emphasis is on the camera, the watcher, a presence of some sort that can follow the car or not as it chooses. But his good effect has already been marred because in the preceding shot, the first of the film, that helicoptered camera sped over a mountain lake. By the time we get to the car shot, the camera’s independence is already debased into trickery. If the car tracking-and-departure had opened the film, it would have been eerie.
Later there’s a shot of Shelley Duvall snooping around the writing table of her author-husband Jack Nicholson to see what he’s been working on for weeks. The camera is in front of the table, low, and her head comes into view over the top of the typewriter. It’s not only a new angle on a commonplace action, it heightens the sense of illicit peering. But this feeling of scared intrusion into her husband’s madness —the evidence is in the machine and in finished pages —is blown away when Kubrick shoots Nicholson’s discovery of her intrusion with Nicholson in the foreground, watching her in the background. Because we see him seeing her, we’re not scared when he speaks. If the camera had been on Duvall and her husband’s voice had cut in, Kubrick would have peaked the suspense that the opening shot of the sequence had begun.
Nothing else in the picture’s cinematics is good enough even to be spoiled. This fact is the biggest among the many disappointments. At Kubrick’s most torpidly inbred in the past, the inbreeding has at least consisted of bravura visual work. In The Shining there’s nothing but strain, most of it platitudinous. A lot of furious traveling shots, following people down corridors, telegraphing the fact that surprises await them around the corner—though sometimes there’s no surprise and the traveling is a telegram undelivered. A lot of fast zooms to and out from something purportedly frightening, though this is the most common and mechanical of dodges. And once Kubrick uses it stupidly. We have seen a man murdered, we know he’s dead, but when someone else discovers him, Kubrick zooms to and out from the body, which is no news to us, when he ought to have played the discoverer’s face. Kubrick doesn’t have much sense of shock —what is new to us at the moment and how to handle it. It’s a sense that Hitchcock, whatever his other failings, had tuned to a fine edge, the shooting and editing of surprise. Kubrick hasn’t a clue.
The impreciseness of the filming reflects the random thrill-grabbing of the script. It comes from a best seller by Stephen King, adapted by Kubrick and Diane Johnson. I haven’t read the novel and don’t know whether the TV banality of the dialogue —or the ritual sprinkling of gratuitous profanity —is King’s or K-and-J’s. It’s about a writer, with a wife and small son, who gets the job of caretaker at an immense Rocky Mountain summer hotel that’s closed down for the long winter. (The hotel reminded me of the great lodge at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The basic situation reminded me of Seven Keys to Baldpate.) Ten years earlier a man in the same job had gone crazy during the long snowbound isolation, had murdered his wife and two little daughters and himself. When we hear this story at the start (“I think you can appreciate that I had to tell you this,” says the manager to Nicholson but really to us), any surprise in the film is pretty well smothered right off. But that information isn’t planted any more lumpishly than: the huge hedgerow maze on the hotel grounds; the large, well-bolted food locker; the racks of butcher knives on the kitchen wall; the forbidden Room 237; or the fact that Nicholson’s little son has an imaginary pal who speaks to him in a different voice that comes out of the boy’s own mouth.
All of this —the laborious filmmaking and story structure and dialogue—might be endured, might even be surmounted, if the script made some ground rules for itself and followed them. One of the reasons why The Exorcist scared me was that it defined its territory and governance and stuck to them: the power of Phenomenon X or Y did not vary from scene to scene. The worst, least effective way to make a horror film —or fantasy or science fiction —is just to slap on effects as they occur to you. If the writers seize anything that may scare, without internally consistent sense, we know we’re being held up for random punches, which is tedious.
The Shining is a grab bag of spook stuff, with no rhyme or reason of its own. For instance, it’s carefully set up at the start as the story of a hotel haunted by the ghosts of a prior caretaker and family. Then who is the beautiful young woman in the bathtub? Who is the old woman she turns into? Who are the skeletons in the cobwebbed ballroom? If a ghost could let Nicholson out of a well-locked room, why couldn’t the same ghost have opened two much thinner, simply locked doors that he has to chop his way through with an axe? If, as his wife discovers, he has typed several hundred pages of drivel, when did he go crazy? If he was crazy when he arrived —which he would need to have been because that insane typing must have begun many weeks before —then what’s the point of the story? And there’s a closing touch, a close-up of a photograph that’s been hanging on the wall all the while (a reminder of the end of Polanski’s Repulsion), which is supposed to give us a final chill but which is only a last desperate grab at frisson that makes further hash of the story.
There’s one more lack, a fundamental one, in the script. The Exorcist gave reasons, in its own terms, for its evil. The Shining has nothing but “motiveless malignity.” (Thank you, Coleridge.) The one vague theme is facile: death is awful, the dead are jealous of the living and want to kill them. That’s the basis of most summer-camp bunkhouse ghost stories, and it’s pretty feeble by now.
Kubrick scents this, I think, or else he wouldn’t sweat so much. From the outset, under the shots of the gorgeous mountain scenery and the bland scenes in offices and homes, music howls and screeches on the sound track. All I could think was that, if Nicholson and family could hear the music that was accompanying their talk, they wouldn’t go up to the hotel. Flow hammy that use of music is. But then virtually every device in The Shining is the multi-million-dollar enlargement of the vocabulary of creaky old B horror films.
The one good performance is from the boy, Danny Lloyd. Kubrick’s best accomplishment in the film is his work with the child. He had less luck with Shelley Duvall, who is scrawnier than Marisa Berenson of Kubrick’s last film Barry Lyndon and not much more of an actress. Admittedly, Duvall has to spend a lot of her time in that ineluctable cliche of horror films—staring at the camera wide-eyed and open-mouthed in fright. Still, Kubrick’s casting and use of her is a reminder that, excepting Lolita, he hasn’t had much interest in women or skill in handling them. In Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, women have been male appurtenances and adjuncts.
The disgrace among the actors is Jack Nicholson, just because he is so gifted. His eyebrow-arching, mouthy work here makes the late Bela Lugosi look conservative.
As for Kubrick himself, there’s little left even to deplore. Since Dr. Strangelove, his work has seemed to me an abandonment of true cinematic imagination for preening photography, for hermetic exercises in the deployment of space and light, but I could manage to see why some serious people thought otherwise. Now, to choose to do The Shining at this stage of his career is not the exaltation of a genre, it’s a confession of vacuity. One proof of this is that he has done it badly. The film’s imaginative and syntactical shortcomings —many more than I’ve cited —are not academic: Kubrick hasn’t flunked an abstract exam. He has flunked the elemental test for a horror film: The Shining doesn’t scare. The only pang in it is that it’s another step in Kubrick’s descent.
The New Republic, June 14, 1980