By Paul Risker
In the yearly polls which look to proclaim the ten films that will comprise a list of the greatest films in the history of cinema, or at least the greatest as perceived that year, regardless of decade or year, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather consistently feature near the top. These two films have secured themselves a dominating position, casting their shadow across the heritage of film. Questioning Spanish director Isaki Lacuesta on his list of the top ten films he once contributed to a Sight and Sound poll, with a smile he confessed, “These lists in the end are something very silly. Today I’d make another list… It’s like a game; you just list ten titles.”
Inevitably there is silliness to the critical profession, and star ratings, and polls such as these are the peak. They should never be taken too seriously, but that said they can be indicative of the impact of certain named films on the history of the cinematic art form.
The list of the greatest horror films too has one film that dominates this silly game. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is the horror genre’s Citizen Kane and The Godfather; the dominating presence within a heritage of horror.
What bolsters the dominating position each of these films holds is a joint approval from the critical establishment and the public.
In contrast to Coppola’s seminal gangster film, Kubrick’s The Shining is not equally representative of the pinnacle of near perfection within the horror genre, as The Godfather is across genre boundaries.
1980: The Release
The Shining was released in the shadow of the coming of age of the ‘Slasher’ sub-genre. Only two short years earlier, ‘Master of Horror’ John Carpenter’s cult hit Halloween brought not only a commercial viability to the ‘Slasher’ sub-genre, but albeit Pauline Kael’s scathing criticism, an otherwise nod of approval from the wider critical establishment. Released in 1980, the same year as Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, a time when horror films were typically fast-paced, Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name was a patient, slow burn descent into madness, compared to the fast paced stories of psychosis featured in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1985) and Halloween (1978); all of which were well under the two hour mark.
In hindsight, The Shining was released at a particularly interesting time for the horror genre, as well as cinema in a broader sense, an important piece of horror filmmaking when considered alongside Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror Alien (1979), and John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Of equal importance, 1980-1982 saw three films suffer a dismissal, only to be re-assessed years later, all three now considered amongst the finest films of the 1980s: The Shining, and 1982’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing. The Shining’s original dismissal upon reflection appears to be a part of a two year trend of the critical establishment falling behind the forward thinking filmmakers, dismissing films that were later reassessed as seminal films of their respective decade within the sci-fi horror, sci-fi noir and horror genres.
It was a case of pure coincidence that saw the release of the haunted house movie in outer space Alien, followed one year later by the haunted house story, The Shining. In 1979 and 1980 the haunted house film received a makeover, first transposing the haunted house for a mining vessel, and later a hotel closed for winter season. The release of these two films back-to-back mirrored the release of Peeping Tom and Psycho in 1960, which were off the back of 1950s sci-fi horror to present man as monster. The Shining is to Alien what Peeping Tom and Psycho were to their predecessors. Further still, alongside Alien and The Thing, The Shining featured an exploration of isolation, to form a trilogy of films between 1979 and 1982 that were to have at the heart of their narratives the theme of isolation. In their isolated settings, each film would terrorise their respective protagonists, though whilst the two companion pieces adopted an alien threat in the form of a physical monster, The Shining used the supernatural and descent into madness, explored sparingly by Carpenter in The Thing through the heightened paranoia of his protagonists.
Equally, just as the ‘Slasher’ sub-genre, as well as the ‘Giallo’ films of Bava and Argento increased the celebration of violence, imbuing the genre with a guilty pleasure for its eager spectators, deriving from the spectacular bloodletting, The Shining can be viewed as a progressive tale, both as a haunted house movie, and a tale of man victimised by malevolent supernatural forces. This was previously explored in two classics of the genre: The Haunting and The Innocents, the latter of which was adapted from Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, previously adapted into by Benjamin Britten for his opera of the same name. Kubrick’s film updated the haunted house movie from black and white horror to colour, continuing the slow burn simmering suspense contained within these earlier works from which the horror derives. The Shining imbues the haunted house story with a more visceral visual horror, bringing the haunted house movie up to date with the contemporary horror of the late seventies, and early eighties. Kubrick furthers this by inserting a surreal element to his horror, the famous bear sequence, perhaps a pre-cursor to the ‘Lynchian horror’ that lay ahead in the coming decades. In many ways The Shining along with Halloween and Alien update the sub-genres in a more subtle fashion to the European directors Bava and Argento, punctuating the tension with a more controlled subtlety, less bloodletting, more of a physical threat of violence, allowing of course for the occasional more graphic set pieces such as Alien’s chestburster scene.
From Dismissal to Masterpiece
Returning to the notion of the film’s dismissal upon release, there is a common myth regarding its reception. The Shining was in part a success, a worthwhile investment for Warner Bros. The mathematics of the film business states that for a film to make a profit, it must gross more than double its original budget. Compared to Blade Runner and The Thing, two films that were dismissed by the public as well as the critical establishment, The Shining was fortunate enough to discover an audience, most likely deriving from the anticipation that was present to see the adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel. Despite its initial contributions to the genre and the place it occupies in a heritage of horror, combined with its financial success, it fell into the shadow of Halloween and the ‘Slasher’ sub-genre. This may be owed to lack of expectation for Halloween, a low budget and cult phenomenon when compared to the expectation that greeted Kubrick’s horror movie.
Joseph Haydn composed music for his contemporary audience, but every classical composer since, including Mozart and Beethoven were composing for future audiences. Kubrick’s first foray into the horror genre witnessed the auteur finding his present audience, but abandoned by the critical establishment he was forced to wait for them to catch him up. This abandonment along with Stephen King’s initial lukewarm response to the film only served to delay any such immediate acknowledgement of the film as it is believed to be today: a masterpiece of horror cinema.
The immediate metaphor that strikes me whenever I contemplate the irony the passage of time afforded the film, is that The Shining resembles the Phoenix rising from the ashes.
Public opinion, reactions of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese who included The Shining in his list of the scariest horror films, to the critical establishment’s reassessment and continued celebration of the film, perhaps one might say apologetic pandering, has afforded The Shining its dominant position. Now entrenched in this dominant place, it is all in spite of its complicated history, the story of dismissal to masterpiece.
The Psycho Conundrum
If The Shining is, as it is more often than not claimed a horror masterpiece, it is a flawed one; a mix of both failure and success. In this sense it is comparable to the ‘Master of Suspense’s’ foray into the horror genre with Psycho, a tagged on ending with a psychological explanation pertaining to Norman Bates forgiven. This is in spite of exposition being one of the offences critics are more than willing to throw a penalty flag for, and in light of Michael Powell’s mastery at weaving the layers of his psychological horror Peeping Tom, sidestepping such gaping narrative laziness, film criticism is sometimes guilty of looking the other way for certain films and their directors. This has created a scenario in which, whether right or wrong, The Shining remains considered one of horror’s greatest achievements.
The obvious irony of The Shining is just how far removed it is from the frosty days of 1980, when Kubrick was seen to be slumming it in the tawdry genre. Once dismissed it now securely rests, firmly beyond reproach.
This is in spite of its shortcomings, Kubrick’s horror not the near perfect horror film that other films of the genre can claim to be. It raises the question of what this says then about this dominating position, in light of the greatest achievements lack of perfection.
A Heritage of Horror
The horror genre is steeped in a rich heritage, its iconic film not representative of the perfection it rightly deserves. To determine the greatest achievement may be a task that verges on the impossible, but as Chandler described The Great Gatsby as near perfection, one of the finest American novels, should we not be able to call the film that is so often seen as the figurehead of the horror genre, both near perfect, and hence one of the finest horror films? We have created an awkward predicament for ourselves in which this is not possible.
The heritage of horror reaches as far back as to the masterpieces of German Expressionism: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and Faust. The films of Universal Horror following the migration of the horror film to the west coast of America where James Whale became known as the ‘Father of Frankenstein’, and Lugosi and Karloff became horror icons. The monster movies produced have become classics of the genre that terrified audiences for decades. In the 1960s Mario Bava developed the ‘Giallo’ film combining the horror and detective story, further developed by Dario Argento starting with Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Hammer at one time dominated the British horror scene, and the origins of the ‘Slasher’ were spawned from the influences of the psychological thriller, the horror film, and the ‘Giallo.’ More recently Guillermo Del Toro and other Spanish directors have contributed to this heritage, affording us possibly two of the finest horror films of the noughties: The Orphanage and the entry in the Spanish horror anthology 6 Films to Keep You Awake: The Baby’s Room.
If there already wasn’t enough of an irony associated with The Shining, originally lost in the shadow of the tawdry ‘Slasher’ sub-genre, it has escaped to cast an impenetrable shadow over the entirety of the heritage of horror, comprising many classic or modern masterpieces.
The Shining most notably suffers from Nicholson’s troublesome opening performance, compounded by Kubrick’s indulgence and failure to craft The Shining into the kind of film he intended it to be. Either that or the film it was supposed to be, a film of coherence and not ‘Lynchian’ ambiguity.
The Shining features an intriguing history. Just as the Overview Hotel looms larger than life in the film, The Shining is reminiscent of that tired expression: “Art imitating life”, although in this case life imitating art. The labyrinth featured in the film’s conclusion is reminiscent of the film itself, a maze of ambiguity that prevents understanding, amidst a narrative of masterful moments to marvel, punctuated with frustrating creative choices that fail to capture the emotional heart of the source material, notably Jack’s self-sacrifice to save his son.
Perfection and imperfections aside, the film as Seghatchian suggests, appeals to both the “obsessive and mainstream audience.” The claims of The Shining being the greatest horror film, an individual favourite, may in fact be the compromise of ambition over perfection. The Shining’s reputation should be susceptible to thought and discussion, the reputation should be capable of being shattered by a whisper, but ever the seductress, the film seduces us into an unbridled affection in spite of these glaring imperfections.
The Shining is an amalgamation of the defining features of the horror genre. It presents the collision between the worlds of the supernatural and our concept of reality, a brooding and immersive atmosphere where the ‘Overview’ becomes more than just a place of suspense and terror for the Torrance family, Kubrick developing it into a character onto itself. It features the dilemma of perspective, of whose we can trust, features one of the finest cinematic performances of madness. It is confident enough to embrace slow burn horror to maximise the horror of mood and atmosphere punctuated by horror imagery of malevolent but equally humorous spirits, decomposing bodies, ominous children, and the blood of past crimes flooding the present. Too the film creates an atmosphere in which not just shocks are used to punctuate the suspense, but comedy, Kubrick walking a fine line, that if exploited correctly can enhance horror; the two interlinked.
Just as Beethoven understood and hence infused his music with expectation, Kubrick masterfully uses expectation, something of which it is a pre-requisite of any ‘Master of Horror’ to be able to employ, and maximise to full effect. But Kubrick imbues The Shining with any number of metaphorical interpretations that can be derived from the subtext, the subject of the recent documentary Room 237. The Shining is inevitably one of the finest looking horror films, high production values, not made on the fringes, but one of a handful of films such as The Omen with an A-list cast and a generous budget.
To assert that these qualities define The Shining as horror’s greatest achievement is naïve. Ginger Snaps is a modern horror masterpiece structured around a metaphorical subtext. John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London perfectly blends comedy and horror, and in the vein of The Shining it is simultaneously horrific, suspenseful and funny. Landis creates a collision between perceived reality and the bordering supernatural world. Robert Wise’s The Haunting’s subtext asks the question: is it the house or the protagonists who are haunted? The Innocents is equally one of the finest looking horror films, and one of the most rewarding slow burn suspenseful tales of malevolent spirits terrorising innocent souls. Not to mention possibly the finest horror film: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, rife with metaphor, a treat to the eyes and ears, a brilliant early tale of madness and the questions of the trustworthiness of perspective, of morality and of innocence within the social structure. The Shining may comprise more of these elements than any other horror film within a singular narrative, but Robert Weine’s German Expressionistic masterpiece is equal to Kubrick’s attempt at horror, near perfect, and one of the finest horror films ever made. In fact the visual world of Caligari, full of jarring angles to depict fractured psyches is just as rich as The Shining’s Overview Hotel. It should not be so readily assumed that The Shining stands tall above all other horror films, many rivalling its imperfection with near perfection.
The Shining begins with what is alleged a descent into madness, but Nicholson’s opening scenes depict a creepy and unsettling air to his character. What the film actually explores is only the descent into madness to a point, Kubrick and Nicholson miscuing on the opening tone of the film. The film concludes in a haze of ambiguity, a shot of the photograph that brings a lack of clarity and leaves us with unanswered questions. The stumbling block for Kubrick is that he indulges in ambiguity, confusion, within a narrative that is meant to be clearly understood by the point of it’s denouement. The fact it isn’t betrays Kubrick’s intention to achieve something out of his reach, something director David Lynch exploited throughout his cinema in the ensuing decades. Kubrick’s failure is his indulgence. King’s original qualms were fair, constructive criticism of an adaptation that for all its success was undermined by its shortcomings.
The Shining is a film naively loved not in spite of its imperfections, but because of its perfection. It is all too often an unrealised compromise by critics and spectators of ambition over perfection.
Discussing with ‘Master of Horror’ Don Coscarelli Incident Off and On a Mountain Road, he offered his own observation of the perception of horror in the U.S. “I don’t know exactly how it is in the UK, but certainly in the U.S. horror is one step above pornography, the way people treat it.” The great American auteur John Carpenter has asserted that “In England, I`m a horror movie director. In Germany, I`m a filmmaker. In the US, I`m a bum.” The use of the word pornography links Coscarelli and Carpenter. Carpenter once remarked that horror directors are seated one row from the back, the only people seated behind tany further back from them are pornography directors; paraphrasing of course.
The greatest tragedy of The Shining occupying this dominating position is that it is directed by an outsider. Kubrick’s cinema may have incorporated aspects of horror, but he does not belong to the fraternity of the ‘Masters of Horror.’
Kubrick’s contribution at the turn of the 1980s is valuable, enriching horror and cinema in a broader sense with what is both a fine looking film and ambitious horror film that deserves to be applauded. It is a film that despite its imperfections seduces; a film loved in spite of its imperfections. Whilst many applaud its ambition, simplicity as Clive Barker stated is “Genius.” Therefore, as much as I appreciate The Shining, I would rather see the simplistic perfection, or just near perfection over ambitious imperfection.
One of horror’s finest films perhaps; but if it is horror’s singular greatest achievement, it is riddled with a naïve appreciation, an unwillingness to perceive its imperfections. Any number of near perfect classics such as The Orphanage, An American Werewolf in London, Ginger Snaps, Frankenstein, Peeping Tom, The Innocents, Halloween, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and wonderfully creative tales such as The Addiction are overshadowed. These directors are too often perceived to work in a tawdry genre, and they cannot look to one of their own dominate the horror list, instead usurped by an outsider.
It must be a comfort for those who perceive the genre so negatively to have a horror film starring Nicholson, and directed by a great auteur such as Stanley Kubrick. They serve to bring respectability to the genre. It is hard to imagine the BFI contemplating celebrating an Argento film in such a way as they did The Shining, or even Bava’s Bay of Blood. But perhaps that is why horror belongs on the fringes, embraced by a loyal following. We love it because it is viewed with such disdain in the mainstream, never fully accepted or embraced. It is a subversive genre that just compels us to love it all the more. It’s a pity that horror can’t have a film in a dominating position equal to The Godfather; the real tragedy out of all of this.
Paul Risker is the editor of Film Frame, the new website is in progress however he can be found on Twitter here.