Is it possible to possess a great gift but a stunted intelligence? If it is, Stanley Kubrick must be the reigning prototype—he’s a brilliant bozo. The Shining, adapted from Stephen King’s enjoyably trashy horror novel, is astonishingly filmed, each frame as impeccably moulded as a dream of perfection; but as it moves along it gets dumber and dumber. It’s dumb in a way few movies are: while you’re howling at the lines and their delivery, you’re awestruck by the visual design. The Shining is an unholy, unbelievable mix of brilliance and brain damage, a kind of lobotomized work of genius. Kubrick takes the trash material of the book so seriously, giving us optical purity, frame by languorous frame. But the material can’t support that kind of handling—as high art— and we’re denied the few simple pleasures we expect from a scare movie.
Kubrick’s last work was the gorgeous, tiresome Barry Lyndon, a movie to turn the hair grey. Even those who had given up on him still anticipated the application of the glacial, painterly Kubrick style (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange) to the horror genre; the two seemed made for each other. Filmed in secrecy over a three-year period—about the time it took monks to copy manuscripts— The Shining has an ascetic attenuation to it that robs it of life. It’s the work of a recluse who, having been away from the world too long, is unaware of what other people respond to and need from a movie.
The Shining is all about precious blood, not the vulgar, real stuff. Set in the Overlook Hotel, an immense resort in Colorado, Kubrick might as well be back at the chateau in Barry Lyndon. The people who arrive to take care of the isolated resort closed down for the winter—Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their child, Danny (Danny Lloyd)— are gradually swallowed up by its immensity as the camera follows them through endless corridors where sound is thunderously echoed. A previous caretaker had hacked his wife and two little girls to bits with an axe and then killed himself. Danny develops a sixth sense, or “shining”, which enables him to “see” things from the past and into the future: blood gushing out of elevator doors, visions of the little girls. His father, a former boozer, succumbs to his surroundings; as the creepy spaciousness of the hotel seeps into his already troubled mind it triggers a psychosis and the past begins to repeat itself.
The fantasy-psychosis sequences involving Torrance are filmed as though they were million-dollar delirium tremens, taking place in richly appointed ballrooms and bathrooms where he converses with people from the past, figments of his overactive imagination. When The Shining doesn’t look like a shoot for Architectural Digest, it looks like a horror remake of Last Year at Marienbad: troubled figures, dwarfed by their surroundings, taking long constitutionals. The premise of the child’s “shining” never really hooks us because Kubrick takes too much time to suspend our disbelief. The child has a second personality called Tony who speaks through him in a devilish, raspy voice; you’d think Mercedes McCambridge, who dubbed Linda Blair’s voice in The Exorcist, was on the loose again. To drum up what little suspense there is, Kubrick uses loud, reverberating heartbeats emanating from the walls, as well as music that compels attention, his usual forte. This time it’s the anguished tones of Penderecki, Bartok and Ligeti. When the big payoff arrives with Nicholson running amok with an axe after the kid in a snowy garden labyrinth, it’s too late—we’re too tired to care.
What Kubrick has done to his actors might well be irreparable. Nicholson is required to cackle, roll his eyes, and arch his eyebrows with the kind of malevolent glee that parodies his past performances. It’s lawn-sprinkler acting, faces flying all over the place. And when he grabs the axe toward the end, he’s Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God and Lizzie Borden all rolled into one. Duvall is used as an anorexic madonna; it’s a crime to ask anyone to sweat and gape and scream as she does. Only Lloyd and Scatman Crothers, as a black chef who’s hip to what’s happening (some ol’ black magic), don’t leave you helpless with laughter.
At one showing in New York, after people had waited for hours in line, the audience hissed at the end. They laughed, not nervously, but with contempt for being cheated; Kubrick had committed the unpardonable sin—he’d refused to disturb them. He had tried to alchemize schlock into something subtle and nobody was interested. Parts of The Shining are intentionally funny, many of them not. Perhaps Kubrick meant to concoct an hallucinogenic fable about the deterioration of the family. Who knows? God forbid that he should ever make a vampire movie— you really would come out drained.
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