The first time I saw The Shining, as a teenager looking for late-night chills on TV, it struck me as surprisingly dull: who in their right mind makes a horror movie that runs for over two hours? The second time, as a student with a cursory knowledge of Kubrick’s other work, I was a little more impressed, at least by its technical brio – but then this was the 115-minute version circulating on DVD, which cut from set-up to pay-off in a way the younger me had been expecting. Now the film has returned to the big screen in its original 144-minute US release cut, the week after the nitpickery of Room 237, a documentary that featured fans so hung up on the film’s details they lost track of the bigger picture.
Something often forgotten in the course of the film’s TV rotation is that this is a big picture. Kubrick evidently didn’t intend his films to be watched on TV or DVD; as their ceaseless Steadicam exploration of space – usually tied to a moving tricycle or a screaming madman – set out, the Overlook Hotel murders were always intended as a major movie construction project, overseen by Kubrick from blueprints by Stephen King. From the moment when the opening helicopter shot stops following Jack Torrance’s car as it winds its way through the mountains and veers off into the wilderness, The Shining is all about deviation: King, famously, was so narked by the results that he rebuilt the Overlook in his own image for TV.
The plot, for first-time visitors, remains the same. Jack Nicholson’s writer drags his family to the isolated Overlook for the winter months so he can start work on his latest tome. While the script parcels out exposition that has passed into cliché through repetition – the Hotel’s on an Indian burial ground, there’s a snowstorm blowing in, the phones stop working – Torrance retreats further into himself, drinking and having conversations with fictional characters, generally oblivious to his loved ones’ welfare. The cat-and-mouse game that follows becomes a strut on which Kubrick can hang his theses on the tyranny of the typewriter, and why it might be healthier for kids to have imaginary friends than it is for grown-ups.
Between the longueurs and auteur pretensions, it remains only patchily effective as straight horror, particularly one emerging in the wake of Halloween. Its gotcha moments – the naked woman in Room 237, the revelation of what Jack’s been typing – are generally outnumbered by arcane puns (Torrance’s “Caretaker” tries to chop his son into bits) and baroque flourishes of art direction. It’s one of the few horror movies to major in interior design: the carpets are more memorable than the killscenes. The Shining dates from a moment when even a highbrow like Kubrick was trying to get in on this once-reviled genre; it stands as the blue-chip alternative to those scuzzy video nasties flooding the market in multiple versions.
The vision is so of a piece that perhaps only Shining obsessives might spot the newly added scenes and moments. This cut feels a mite more generous towards Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance – a casualty of earlier cuts, where she was reduced to shrieking hysteria rather too early – though a post-Exorcist moment with young Danny (Danny Lloyd, in one of the all-time great kid performances) and a doctor holds the film up with a rational, psychological grounding it perhaps didn’t really need. What’s newly spine-tingling is the sense that these scenes were there all along, waiting for a receptive audience. Like the ghosts of the Overlook, they never went away.
(MovieMail, October 2012)
The Shining is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Warner Home Video.