Will I ever get to the bottom of The Shining? I wonder. I saw it the day it was released in 1980, and again this afternoon for what must be the 40th time. As with every viewing, I scribbled another 20 pages of notes. I noticed things that I’d never spotted before (how did I ever miss the goose-stepping Mickey Mouse on Danny’s sweater), refreshed certain cherished notions (is Wendy a traumatised extension of Shelley Duvall’s chatterbox character from Altman’s 3 Women?) and considered the influence of Eraserhead, which Kubrick deeply admired and screened for cast and crew. Indeed, The Shining is the movie that decanted the horrific blank-gaze deadpan of Lynch’s movie into the mainstream. Upon release, however, it was decried as stately to the point of narcolepsy, unfaithful to Stephen King, and the end of Jack Nicholson as a serious actor.
Well, things change. No horror movie made since has been able to operate outside The Shining’s deep, black, minatory shadow. It is routinely now described, and rightly, as among the greatest of all horror movies. Certainly it is the richest, densest, most lovingly layered and sculpted horror movie ever made, and perhaps Kubrick’s masterpiece.
The proximity of its re-release to the arrival of Rodney Ascher’s superb documentary Room 237 is propitious. The latter, a cornucopia of theories about the movie, should enrich any and every subsequent viewing of The Shining. Putting aside its more batty notions (like the one holding that The Shining constitutes Kubrick’s apology for faking the moon landings), one wonders mainly at the way in which the theorists stick to their particular notions to the exclusion of all others. The Shining starts with purely American references to the cannibalistic Donner Party and the Indian burial ground the Overlook Hotel was built upon, satisfying the claims of one theorist that it’s all about native American extermination and an US imperialism founded on murder and bloodshed. But listen to the music – Penderecki, Ligeti, Bartók – and consider that much of it mourns or memorialises the blood-soaked middle of the European 20th century.
Bloody America? Bloody Europe? Kubrick’s displaced meditation on the Holocaust? Why can’t it be all of them? In the end, the movie rotates around Kubrick’s abiding concern in all his movies: the animal man, seized by a frenzy for death. Before he freezes over in the maze at the end, Jack has taken a full reverse-journey back down the evolutionary table, and the figure he finally most closely resembles, grunting with his axe, is the killer ape in 2001: A Space Odyssey, screaming with bloodlust as he wields his bone-weapon, exulting in having just invented murder. See it again: really, the 40th time’s the charm.
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