Everyone remembers their first Stephen King experience. Mine was hunkering down in a corner of the basement of an empty house, feverishly turning the pages of The Shining. Even crossing the hall on a toilet break required a major act of nerve when all you could think of was that infernal booming of the roque mallet striking the walls as the misshapen creature approached… “Come out here and take your medicine!”
Back then, everyone agreed it was the scariest book they had ever read. And Stanley Kubrick was making the movie. The teaser trailer depicted a tsunami of red liquid gushing out of an elevator; it looked nothing like blood, but was suitably ominous. It promised to be the scariest film ever made.
Except it wasn’t. The first time we saw The Shining, it was a shattering disappointment. I’d never expected – nor wanted – a film adaptation that slavishly stuck to its source, but Kubrick had left out all the best bits. Where were the hedge animals? The roque mallet? The boiler? “The novel is by no means a serious literary work,” Kubrick told French film critic Michel Ciment, “but the plot is for the most part extremely worked out, and for a film that is often all that really matters.” Yet he and his co-writer, Diane Johnson, cavalierly junked the central dynamic of a parent struggling against his own dark urges and fear of harming those closest to him, and fans of the book were not pleased.
Jack Nicholson, who played Jack Torrance, was a gurning madman who resented his wife and son from the very first frame. Shelley Duvall, as Wendy Torrance, was little more than a hysterical woman in peril. Their son’s imaginary friend Tony was reduced to the talking finger of child actor Danny Lloyd, and the pivotal “REDRUM” moment was accompanied by the sort of musical crash-and-shock-zoom that critics normally despise in films by less adulated directors. Worst of all, following Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) all the way from Florida to Colorado, only to summarily kill him off in the hotel lobby, seemed little more than the film-maker’s “Fuck you!” to fans of the novel, in which the character survived.
In years to come I would begin to appreciate Kubrick’s film for what it was, rather than what it wasn’t. The Steadicam shots of Danny riding his tricycle around the hotel corridors are a masterclass in building tension. After a decade of subtly calibrated performances, Nicholson crossed the line into the hammy-eyebrow-acting that would henceforth be his default approach, but as a portrait of resentful, abusive, entitled masculinity, his Jack Torrance is a terrifying creation, far scarier than the hotel’s supernatural manifestations, and his interactions with the barman and former caretaker are little masterpieces of unease. Duvall discovering the contents of her husband’s manuscript is chilling. And replacing the hedge animals with a maze was probably a smart move, given the technical constraints of the era.
Before the end of the 1980s, I wasn’t the only one to do a 180-degree turn and decide The Shining was a great horror movie after all. Critical antipathy turned to adulation. King scripted a TV mini-series that stuck religiously to the plot of the book – and it fell flat. Kubrick’s version became one of the most-quoted films of all time. Wacko Jacko axing his way through the bathroom door, “Heeere’s Johnny!”, the spooky twins, REDRUM were all referenced endlessly, in everything from Twister to The Simpsons to Spaced and beyond.
To paraphrase David Thomson, great films only partly belong to the director – “they also belong to the minds that interpret them”. And as Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary Room 237 showed, The Shining became a focus for conspiracy theorists who claimed it was really about the genocide of Native Americans, or the Holocaust, or faked moon landings. It wasn’t the film’s fault it was embraced by weirdos, but it felt like the tip of an iceberg. Otherwise normal people seemed as obsessed as Jack Torrance had been with the Overlook. Of course it’s a seething mass of metaphor, but so are other horror movies – that’s part of their appeal. But you could barely post a photo of a corridor on social media without some wag responding with “REDRUM”, or a tricycle-related quip, or “Watch out for the twins!” – as though there were no other corridors in the movies, or indeed in life.
I became fed up with the ubiquity of the film’s tropes, the endless quotation and recycling, and started seeing its flaws again, particularly Kubrick’s contempt for his characters and his cruelty to women (you can see him bullying Duvall in the making-of documentary) and the underlying sense of an A-list director slumming it in a genre he essentially despises. Among King adaptations, Carrie, The Dead Zone and Pet Sematary not only retain their power to scare but also to grip at an emotional level. But the only emotion in The Shining is the “Gotcha!” of a fairground haunted mansion, and those thrills have long since been parsed into extinction. Move along now.
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