Thirty years of horror: The Shining (1980)

Tom: Well this was an unexpected delight. Unexpected because I haven’t seen The Shining in probably over ten years. Probably more. Not since I was old enough to appreciate it. And a delight not because I think it’s a good movie. I kind of don’t. It’s just as stilted and occasionally overblown (“Here’s Johnny!”) as I remembered. But it was a delight because I had no recollection that The Shining is about what it’s about. I feel like I’ve discovered something thrilling that was there all along, like finding a twenty dollar bill in a pair of jeans you’ve put through the wash.

After the jump, I’m not going to hurt you, Wendy.

Tom: A recent documentary called Room 237 features various people holding forth about the true meaning of The Shining. You’ll witness wild flights of fancy. The Shining is about American Indians, the Holocaust, or the faked moon landing. I’m not buying what the subjects of the documentary are selling, but I appreciate how Kubrick is a deliberate and sometimes inscrutable director who forces people to think, regardless of what they think about. That, to me, is a true mark of genius. Whether he makes good movies is an entirely different discussion.

And so watching The Shining again was a real revelation for me, because I had no recollection that this was a horror movie about domestic abuse. The ghosts of the Overlook Hotel and Danny’s psychic powers are almost incidental. They set the plot in motion, but the story itself is overwhelmingly about a monster who abuses the people closest to him, the people who love him, the people weaker than him.

I know there’s a fairly widespread complaint that the story should be about how the Overlook Hotel drives a normal man mad, and Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top performance runs counter to this, because he’s never normal. He’s mad throughout. He’s Jack Nicholson, so he’s already leering wildly during the job interview. It’s a relatively short trip from there through a locked bathroom door by way of an axe. So therefore the movie is missing the necessary character arc. It doesn’t have the downward spiral you expect. It just has a crazy guy doing what a crazy guy might do.

But that’s only a problem if you believe this is a horror movie about ghosts driving someone crazy. If you instead look at it as a story about a family undone by domestic abuse, it unfolds exactly as it should. The single most horrifying moment in The Shining, for me, was Shelley Duvall explaining to another woman that Danny’s imaginary friend first appeared after Danny’s “injury”. As she relates the story, it’s horrifying on two levels. The first is that we realize our putative protagonist, Jack Torrance, isn’t just a gregarious grinning weirdo. He’s a drunk with anger management issues who dislocated his son’s shoulder and was still drinking as recently as mere months ago. He has lashed out at a five year old, fracturing the boy’s shoulder and his psyche. Now he’s about to be snowed in and isolated with his family for the winter.

But the deeper and more horrifying level is how Wendy Torrance has reconciled herself to it. She has accepted it. She justifies it. She explains it to the other woman with a sad fatalism, a sort of men-will-be-men resignation, like someone who’s been beaten into submission. It’s a canny reflection of real-world victims of abuse. And it’s horrifying in its own way. A monster is just a monster. But there’s a unique terribleness to a mother who doesn’t — or can’t — protect her children from a monster. Is The Shining really that different from Cujo? At the end of Lucky McKee’s brutally subversive horror movie, The Woman, the fate of Angela Bettis as the defeated mother in an abusive relationship always seemed harsh to me. But The Woman is a story about accountability. Wendy Torrance should be thankful she’s only in a Stanley Kubrick movie.

The ultimate horror in The Shining isn’t the ghost stuff, because that’s just supernatural hoo-ha, perhaps a metaphor for alcohol or men unwilling to accept the evolving role of women in the world. Jack’s interactions with the bartender and butler are riveting, partly for how the other actors hold Nicholson’s energy unflinchingly, their gazes locked unblinking, their voices carefully modulated, watching him, letting him doom himself because he’s exactly that weak. That stuff is too mesmerizing to be very scary. The real horror isn’t Danny’s visions. They’re basically editing scares, like Gore Verbinski cutting suddenly to the dead girl in the closet in his Ring remake. The real horror isn’t even the weird twin girls stalking Danny in the abandoned hotel. These days, creepy kids are a dime a dozen, which makes those twins worth barely more than a penny.

Instead, the real horror is Shelley Duvall’s utter helplessness. “I’m just so confused,” she sobs, gripping the bat up high, as much a shield as a weapon. “I need to go back to my room and think.” When the axe breaks through the bathroom door after she’s put Danny out the window, her screams are so affecting, so wrenching, so terrified and defeated, almost existential. There’s a reason that’s an iconic scene and it’s not because Jack Nicholson is chewing the scenery as surely as the axe chews the door. It’s because Shelley Duvall sells it. What an exhausting shoot this movie must have been for her.

Jack Nicholson, on the other hand, is nothing short of terrible. Fascinating, to be sure, but terrible. It’s pretty clear that Kubrick just let him do whatever he wanted. As I watched Nicholson mug and grimace and scowl, I kept thinking how little make-up he needed to play The Joker. I also wondered if any of the other actors in The Shining had a hard time keeping a straight face in their scenes with Nicholson. It must have been like acting with Will Ferrell. There are probably a bunch of great outtakes where everyone just busts out laughing.

So whereas I expected an overblown ghost story that I hadn’t seen in years, I instead got a horrifying story about domestic abuse. About the horror of how weak frustrated angry men lash out at the ones they love, the ones who are weaker and close to them. About how the tradition of other men leads them into this, whether their fathers or ghosts or cultural traditions. The tension in The Shining comes from watching the abuse progress, especially once you learn that it’s already there. Jack Torrance was a monster before you ever met him driving to the Overlook, before he ever went into room 237, maybe even as far back as 1921 (someone explain the ending to me). Every scene plays out as the next step down a line of terrible decisions in which Wendy Torrance doesn’t leave him until she physically can’t leave him because the world has closed them in together.

Chris: Can I just weigh in on a tangent from the start to express my discontent with Room 237 as a documentary? I think there’s a very interesting, very smart, and very fascinating documentary to be made from exploring the symbolism in The Shining, but this sure ain’t it. This is like a documentary crowdsourced from the comments section of Ghost Hunters videos on Youtube.

Tom: I like to think of it as the documentary equivalent of listening to people call Art Bell late at night.

Chris: I’ve actually always kind of picked up on the domestic abuse angle of the film, at least to some extent. My own take is that the hotel is almost like a lazy predator, waiting for a mentally weak person to spend a winter there alone. That person is Jack Torrance. He’s about to go around the bend anyway, and the winter spent at the hotel is simply the catalyst that gets him there. Poor Wendy and Danny are simply collateral damage to his abusive insanity at that point, when he does become the monster.

The scene where Wendy’s describing Danny’s injury to the doctor has always seemed incredibly poignant and sad to me. Shelley Duvall does an amazing job of letting the audience know that she doesn’t believe her own bullshit about what happened to her son. She knows how stupid it sounds even as the words are coming out of her mouth.

That said, I still manage to get regular old scares out of this movie on the simplest of levels even so. Tom’s absolutely right about the more overt supernatural stuff that’s going on being a bit overrated. For all the Grand Guignol effects of the gallons of blood and the flash cuts to the girls (and their bodies) those scenes are what they are, and if you’ve never seen the movie they’ll probably get you.

From my perspective, the two best scares for me in the entire movie have nothing to do with any sort of special effects rigging. The first is beautifully, brilliantly simple, set up from the start. We’ve been warned from the start about room 237, but one day Danny rides his big wheel past it and…well, crap. It’s open. To me, that’s just chilling. It’s the sign that things are really coming apart. It’s a signpost that says “Here’s where the really bad stuff starts.”

The second is the famous “writing” that Jack’s done. Something about the madness of what he’s produced, and the implication that he’s been doing this for what must be months…it’s horrifying. Wendy realizes — and we in the audience get our confirmation — that Jack Torrance has gone crazy long, long before this. It’s such a simple scene, and has likely been spoiled by Simpsons parodies, but it still absolutely gives me shivers.

I keep coming back to the hotel, too. I completely agree with you, Tom, on the abuse angle, but if you look, there are still plenty of breadcrumbs left here by Kubrick that the Overlook itself is a motive force that bubbles that crazy to the surface. Consider the early scene between Mr. Hallorann and Danny. What seems like it should be a fairly cute and adorable set piece where the kindly kitchen manager assuages Danny’s fears about “Tony” and the things his gift might show him goes downhill a lot more than I remember. I’ve always thought of this scene as kind of adorable, but watching it again I was shocked that it basically ends with Hallorann telling Danny that if shit starts going down with Room 237, he’s probably screwed. Hallorann goes unhinged by the time the camera cuts away, and it seems to me like this hotel’s gotten to him, too.

Tom: Kubrick’s direction is certainly iconic. These days, you can’t throw a cat scare onscreen without hitting some horror movie that homages the famous shot of Nicholson leaning his head against the freezer door, shot from below. And those sets. Oh lord, such amazing sets. Even Scatman Crothers’ house in Miami and the interior of the flight he takes to Denver. The sets and colors pop as vividly as they did in Clockwork Orange.

Chris: I watched a bit of the behind the scenes footage that Vivian Kubrick shot on the set, and Jack Nicholson appears to be playing Jack Nicholson at all times here. I can almost see Kubrick thinking that over, and then just saying “Okay big boy, do your thing.” He turns his star loose here to be as crazy as he wants, knowing full well that Jack Nicholson acting like he’s nuts will never approach the director’s own special brand of authentic, creative, crazy obsession. Nicholson clearly goes over the top from first scene onwards, like some homicidal version of Robin Williams doing a Letterman walk-on. Even so — and this is the genius of Stanley Kubrick — this is a film that accommodates that energetic silliness and uses it and feeds off it and turns it into a virtue.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)