When Stanley Kubrick announced he was planning on making his first horror movie, people had the right to be afraid. Too often tagged as a cool modernist, the New York–born director (living for many years in England a life that had been somewhat mischaracterized as overly remote and isolated) had in fact been responsible, despite his predilection for clean lines and damning irony, for some of the most heated, visceral images in cinema. Consider Colonel Dax’s impassioned dressing-down of the top brass (after it’s too late to save his men) in Paths of Glory; General Ripper’s dangerous, tobacco-haloed delusional behavior in Dr. Strangelove; HAL’s slow dismemberment in 2001: A Space Odyssey; any of the gut-churning spectatorial discomforts of A Clockwork Orange; the agonizingly protracted duels in Barry Lyndon—take-no-prisoners moments all. A Kubrick film doesn’t just make you feel what you’re watching, it forces you to watch helplessly as the world spins into controlled chaos.
The Shining turned out to be, paradoxically, Kubrick’s most controlled and most chaotic film, an exquisite structure that finally busts apart, as though with an axe. In Stephen King’s pulpy best-seller, the director saw something more than just a tale of a haunting, or a possession, or extrasensory perception, or split personality, or alcoholism, or the dissolution of patriarchy, or the question of what constitutes domestic normalcy—though it’s all of these things. Kubrick noticed in this story of a family isolated in a Colorado resort hotel during the deserted winter months an immense psychological labyrinth, an epic expression of man’s weakness and his incomprehension in the face of his own mortality. It’s a behemoth of a film, a monster in its own right, which bears down on the viewer, in both image and sound (those openings horns from the fifth movement of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” accompanying vertiginous helicopter images of the Colorado mountains instantly set up something grandly surreal).
Read the rest of Michael Koresky’s article on The Shining, which is playing on October 28 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.