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Why Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ Wasn’t as Scary as Its Marketing Campaign

In this excerpt from "Murder and the Movies," David Thomson dissects Kubrick's audacious adaptation of Stephen King's horror masterwork.

Jack Nicholson is Jack Torrance in “The Shining.”

Warner Bros.

In his latest book about Hollywood, “Murder and the Movies,” prolific film author David Thomson examines the ways master filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick lure audiences into their twisted murders and sinister plotting. The book’s second chapter, “Red Rum,” focuses on Kubrick’s 1980 classic “The Shining.” Our excerpt (slightly edited for length) is below. 

I’m starting with “The Shining” (1980), the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of Stephen King, because of its pioneering balance of horror and satire, and its lethal-dainty script by Diane Johnson. So the Torrance family goes off to the Overlook Hotel in the bracing but desolate heights of Colorado. Life seems perfect there — everything the idiot mastermind Jack Torrance ever wanted. He will be caretaker for the off-season winter — time to write the novel he’s always promised himself, time to defeat the blank pages. He can work alone in a vast room. His wife Wendy will go with him — she seems to have nothing else to do in life except be with a man to whom she is patently unsuited. Unless the point of their being at the Overlook is for Jack to despise her to a point of contemplating…

And Danny, their son, must go with them, too. Age six in the movie, he is an unusual boy: so intuitively smart or insightful — perhaps it’s proper to hold him out of school for a winter, riding his plastic tricycle and Steadicam down the endless corridors of the Overlook, going from carpet to wood and back to carpet again. (The stylishness lets us know the hotel is haunted before ghosts gather.) Danny is needed there at the hotel because he shines, which means he can pick up on the secret foreboding in a place. This odd acumen has taught the boy to be afraid. Though Jack is supposed to be there to write a novel, it’s Danny who half understands that the Overlook already has its story, a dormant fiction, full of dread, that may be awakened by careless caretakers.

Things go less than easily at the splendid hotel. Its story nags at the house, like the wind in the Rockies. The hotel is empty, but unnerving spirits linger with an odor of the past, or decay. They’re trouble for the Torrances, but conspiratorial for us. We rather want the house to be haunted. Why else have we come to a horror film? Aren’t we like Jack, daring the grisly tableaux of the hotel to frighten us?

Dad is acting strange and slipping back into his old depression; ghostly twin girls appear to Danny at the end of a corridor (like Alices in wonderland as seen by Diane Arbus); Jack finds a golden, empty bar, and when he closes his eyes and opens them again the gold has turned to liquor with a demon barman asking him, “What’ll it be?” The Overlook refuses to be empty. We feel nervous about this, but we are helpless voyeurs at the hotel. In a kind of trance, Danny writes REDRUM on the wall and Wendy reads it in the mirror. Did Danny write this as himself, or is some presence using him to send a warning, in the form of a crossword clue? That’s the odd charm of a film that mocks its own menace; and it’s the unique sardonic tone of Stanley Kubrick. From the outset, we know, it’s a picture about him, and about us waiting for blood and nastiness. The Overlook hints at horror yet does it as a tease.

If you think of this in terms of Jack Torrance, and if you consider his life beyond the confines of his movie…well, that’s when you might weigh the rare saltiness of Jack Nicholson (our Jack Torrance), his depressed cunning, his sly mischief, his fraudulent normalcy, his smothered desire, and that way he walks. Walking in a movie is acting, of course, as much as talking or thinking; to stroll, to lurch, to hesitate, can be a mysterious, enchanting symbiosis of two Jacks, as one competes with the other. At the outset, some viewers felt that Nicholson was overacting: as if Jack Torrance should be real or ordinary. It’s taken time to teach us that his posturing is that of someone who feels a ghost —  the caretaker, Grady — wriggling into his soul and his drab clothes. Torrance has quiet fits all the time, especially when he’s trying to be real and “agreeable.”

Actors sometimes feel a character is taking them over, and that’s not just creative wishful thinking, or a professional boast. It’s something the audience wants to hear and imagine — like Daniel Day-Lewis making himself paralytic and speechless on the set of “My Left Foot” so that he had to be carried here and there in his wheelchair. And won his first Oscar for that brilliant helplessness!

Shelley Duvall in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

Warner Bros.

Don’t actors make this kind of sacrifice for us? Didn’t Vivien Leigh take herself into actual mania while playing the deranged Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”? Wasn’t that commitment admirable — even if a doctor (or a husband) might have discouraged it? In fact, her husband, Laurence Olivier, actually directed her as Blanche on stage in London in 1949. Was that close to the situation of “Gaslight,” where a husband tries to suggest to his wife that she may be going mad?

The possibility of murder can whisper to the parties in settled marriages. It’s like the delicate balance in watching a movie, and wondering what these enchanting yet risky people might do next. Jack Torrance from the start is a smothered charisma, the wry impulse of that relaxed but explosive Jack Nicholson, waiting to break out. From the first time I saw “The Shining” I felt uncomfortably at home with Jack. That clammy intimacy warned me to walk out on the film, to escape into the fresh air and the light. But I stayed.

Nor would the appeal of an empty Overlook be lost on any author. I enjoy deserts and an air of hollow authority — such as Jack Torrance might feel in his desolate place. And I have had a share of disappointment and depression — no need to grow morose with that confession. But authors crave solitude, and fame; they’re quite or quietly mad — it’s a good thing their creative energy is fixed on characters, and not real people.

Not that I would yield to violence, though I did once dislocate a young son’s shoulder — it was an accident, one of those silly things, done in play, and a subject for enormous regret, and later teasing. It wasn’t “interpersonal violence.” Still, murder can occur suddenly and impulsively between people who are or have been in love. Which of us has lived long without feeling the surge of rage or despair growing out of disappointed affection and trapped commitment? It’s natural, isn’t it, as everyday as fuming, “Oh, I could kill you!” occasionally?

So when I saw one Jack as another, in 1980, I sighed as if to say, “Oh yes, I know this fellow — and I can tell this sinister film is going to turn out a comedy!” I recognized something I had been waiting for, a film enamored with the perilous irresponsibility that comes in watching films: that ultimate predicament — and thus, whatever the horror, it has to be ironic. Because pretending we’re seeing the real thing, while sitting apart from it, is a wellspring of black humor. In the same way, Jack Torrance gets to the hotel and slowly intuits that the place knows him — he is home.

You aren’t a murderer, are you? You don’t have to answer that question, not even in your own privacy. I did try to Google how many people reading any particular book are likely to have committed a murder, but the celebrated system wasn’t helpful.

"The Shining"

“The Shining”

Screen Grab

That number is going to be so small it wouldn’t really be useful, yet I suspect murderers do read books. They are inclined to be thoughtful, and detached. Murder often involves premeditation, and then the aftermath of that, which could be anything from remorse to delight, from guilt to exultation. Murder is one of those possibilities in life — like making love, or dying — over which most of us are going to ponder, night after night. And pondering is akin to reading (or writing). It is close to the devising of a storyline in which an author may realize, suddenly, “Oh, I see it now, I have to kill this character — just to move the story on.” And that author is probably a cheery, good-natured soul, excited at breaking through a writer’s block, even as he or she considers how to manage the death. It was Nabokov, with one eye on his mirror perhaps, who said, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

Warner Brothers tried to tell us in 1980 that “The Shining” was going to be a very frightening experience. What else could they have done? But the film is no such thing — not for viewers accustomed to that scary genre and its sudden swoops of fearful music. For all the persiflage of “You’ll be too scared to stay at the Overlook,” we longed to be there. It would be one thing in life to be alone in that echoing hotel with a wounded Jack Torrance coming after us, axe in hand. But on screen his maimed spider prowl slipped into wicked fun.

In fact, some hardcore horror enthusiasts were irritated that the scariness of “The Shining” wasn’t quite delivered. Stephen King himself was disappointed. In advance, in trailers, we had seen those elevator doors with a slow waterfall of blood collapsing into view. But that highlight didn’t really exist in the film, and big bad wolf Jack Torrance only actually murders one person — he puts the axe deep in Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who has come back to the Overlook to help the Torrance family. That is the only killing in the entire film! These days there’d be three or four dozen murders, done with a relish no one would have imagined possible in 1980.

So veterans like ourselves could be amused at the cheek of “The Shining” in pretending to be scary. You see, Jack is just an actor becoming a monster — that’s what he tells himself. It’s true, he can’t write his novel; he’s a bad husband and a questionable father; and still a hopeless dreamer — so we’re talking ordinary American life.

The crucial scenes where Torrance meets Lloyd the barman (Joe Turkel) and Grady the waiter (Philip Stone) have a meticulous rapture as they dwell on the process of transference in all fictions. Those scenes are so tenderly written and so fondly acted that we revel in Jack being eased down his own dark hole. He’s getting to be Jack, the Hyde who won’t.

While we feel the threat to Danny, we don’t worry that much over Wendy — I’m sorry, I have to say this: Shelley Duvall has had her moments on screen. But imagine if Wendy was Julia Roberts or Reese Witherspoon — braver women, more competent or sturdy. That becomes a different film in which we would feel bound to protect the threatened woman. But it’s crucial in Kubrick, I fear, that Wendy seems pathetic or perfunctory. The director did consider a happy coda with Wendy and Danny safe in Denver, saying, “Phew!” But he dumped it to concentrate on Torrance.

Jack ends badly, if you want to see it that way: he doesn’t write his novel; he has lost wife and son; he is frozen stiff in the maze. He’s dead — but only for 1980. Much good that will do him at the Overlook, with its knack for bringing back the dead. By its code of existence, Jack has been drawn into the thrall of the great hotel built on a burial ground. He is the natural successor to Delbert Grady, the caretaker who ran amok in 1921 and murdered his own wife and child. So Jack is home and in his element — that’s how the film closes on the exultant still photograph of him from July 4, 1921, another frozen moment. Happy birthday, everyone.

Wendy and Danny escape. But Kubrick wants them out of the way. It’s Jack he’s interested in, and now at last Jack is in a stealthy residence that is staring at us. A true sequel to “The Shining” could begin in an abandoned hotel, with some bright and eager family stopping at the door— they’re lost, they took a wrong turning — and then the subtle anxiety and the withdrawn camera placement lets us realize Jack is watching them, and waiting. He is a ghost by now, or fully immersed in death — perhaps he whispers “Rosebud” to draw them in.

Alone with a blank page, the author needs just one word to set him off.

Excerpted from “Murder and the Movies,” copyright © 2020 by David Thomson. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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