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Why 'The Shining' Continues to Shine

A documentary pays tribute to Kubrick and parodies film commentary

Room 237

Directed by Rodney Ascher

Where was room 237, and why would you want to avoid it? On the other hand, why might you be drawn to it against all your better instincts and at risk of your sanity? Room 237 is part of a large, deserted hotel that feels slightly old-fashioned, but it’s spacious and clean—it shines like a polished knife—and the views from the picture windows are to die for. Despite its lack of trade, you are entirely provided for. The kitchens and the pantries are stocked with food. The heating works. You could ride a bicycle up and down the long corridors if you wanted to. And though you’re on your own, there is a caretaker and his family. They’ll watch over you.

But you want to know about room 237. Everyone’s interested in that; there have been so many pointed warnings about the room. You don’t really want to go there—yet the more I say that, the more your curiosity builds. Very well. You’ll know the room: it’s not just the number; the door is ajar. Enter quietly and at first you will see nothing. The room appears to be empty. But there’s a warmth more than you’d expect, a steaminess, and a perfumed quality to the air. Why not? A very tall, beautiful woman is taking a bath. She sees you and she gets out of the bath. She is naked and she comes into your arms for the sort of embrace for which you might be asleep and dreaming. You close your eyes and then open them again. The woman has aged fifty years in a blink. Her flesh sags; it is mottled and wrinkled; she is a hag, who starts to laugh at your dream.

And room 237 is only the start of trouble at the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The excuse for raising this subject is a curious and entertaining documentary, Room 237. It is 102 minutes long, directed by Rodney Ascher, and a clever teasing invitation to a film that has teasing among its many qualities, and which has inspired followers to some fanciful interpretations. So the documentary is a tribute to Kubrick and an encouragement to see The Shining again, but it is also a parody of film commentary so convoluted, intricate, and dotty that it becomes one more ghost in the machine of The Shining. The excuse for talking about Room 237 is the opportunity to reflect on this great mystery among films.

Some might say that the mystery begins and ends with the question of why this shameless mock-horror film should be taken seriously. There have always been some people who thought that Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance the caretaker was so far over the top you couldn’t see the top anymore. Was this the regrettable start of Nicholson’s acting with his eyebrows? Others complained that the film wasn’t really frightening in the way you would expect of a horror film, let alone one adapted from a Stephen King novel. King himself held that view. He believed that Kubrick and his screenwriter, the novelist Diane Johnson, had spoiled his book. So he remade the project himself, writing the script for a TV mini-series and watching that the director didn’t get it wrong. Steven Weber played Torrance and Rebecca De Mornay was his wife. It was scary in a conventional way—it felt like Stephen King—but it wasn’t good enough to surpass Kubrick’s film.

That only opens up the question as to what Kubrick had done. There are several starting places: The Shining of 1980 is funny more than it is frightening; it is plain that Kubrick adores Jack Torrance, while understanding that he is as bad, demented, and dangerous as only a blocked writer can be. His good wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), while put upon, horribly alarmed and bewildered—a woman under pressure if ever there was one—is a pain in the neck. But their son, Danny, is a mysterious demon whose ability to shine—to see dead people—is a model for his father. The movie ends with Jack frozen to death, and the wife and Danny scooting off to safety in a snow plow. So everything’s all right? Not at all. We are left with the camera in the Overlook, and as it tracks in on a photograph from 1921, where Jack is a member of a merry party, there is an irresistible sense of loss. We want the film to carry on. We want to be at the Overlook forever. We realize that “Overlook” is not a bad name for a movie house.

That’s the mood in which one may catch the sinister serenity of The Shining. It’s true, a nymph turns into a witch, but fairy tales taught us that trick. You have to admit that the twin girls at the end of the corridor are not exactly cuddly or warm. They may have come from the Diane Arbus photograph of twins, but these two are so pale and chilly and teasing. They are nothing compared to the two men who appear to Jack in moments of stress. I am referring to Lloyd, the barman in the Gold Room at the Overlook. Now Torrance has had a little drinking problem in the past. He is on the wagon now (like the Donner party), and the Gold Room is shut up for the winter. But poor old Jack sits at the bar and closes his eyes, and when he opens them there is the sepulchral figure of Lloyd (Joe Turkel), saying, “What’ll it be?” That’s the secret code to the house: It can be whatever you like—and Jack likes sinister stuff.

Warner Bros.
Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance and Philip Stone as Delbert Grady

Later on in a superb men’s room, which is all red, white, and black, he meets Delbert Grady, who thinks he’s the caretaker. He is played by Philip Stone, who speaks in a way so matter-of-fact and so lethal that you have another clue to the film. Grady is less a figure in a house of horror than a strangely gentle inmate in a house of madness. The most disturbing thing about him is in his talk, and the dainty but slowed way in which he removes a spot from Jack’s clothing. It is just what a caretaker might be expected and hired to do, but it’s slightly off.

Then there is the Overlook itself, a grand resort hotel in the Colorado Rockies built in a 1920s style. The whole thing, inside and out, is a set built at the Elstree studio outside London, for Kubrick was in his lifestyle of not leaving England, not flying but inventing everything close to home. The interior designs were modeled on the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite in California, but here is a further oddity: the Ahwahnee stays open year round, like other hotels in the mountains of the West, because skiing is big business—but the Overlook Hotel in the story closes for the winter. It is equipped with snow plows; there is a road to Denver; the snow is deep and crisp and even. So why is the place closed? Because King and Kubrick arranged it that way, so that the Torrance family should be there alone—or alone until they realized that just a little shining could bring former guests at the hotel to life.

A movie of this scale could have gone to the Rockies, but Kubrick preferred to stay close to home. That made him less vulnerable to studio interference, and the story of how he played Warners along for years to pay for pictures he never described to them is one of the great Kubrick miracles. Building the place made it pristine and beyond realism; the Overlook is not a hotel from life, it is an entranceway into the occult. If you are locked into the horror genre, you can say it is very bad and depraved there, with blood cascading out of the elevators, with guests whose faces are rotting, and with others performing the kind of sexual acts that are taboo in respectable movies but common in life. Above all, the Overlook is a surprise package, a wizard’s cavern, where wonders will unfold. The blood from the elevators is as comic as the abrupt, surreal titles—dating and timing an event. Jack the would-be novelist sitting on a box full of pages covered with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is as hilarious as a non-writer accumulating a book. And the maze where artful Danny contrives to retrace his own steps and leave the axe-bearing Jack as material for a deep freeze is the climax to a child’s mischievous game. In this mood, Jack might smash through the bathroom door with his axe to get at his family with the demented exultation of “Here’s Johnny!”

When I first saw The Shining, I was not a big fan of Kubrick. I enjoyed The Killing and Paths of Glory. I can watch Lolita forever, even though it is a travesty of Nabokov. James Mason as Humbert is a justification for casting as a principle in life. But I was never as impressed by Dr. Strangelove or 2001 or Barry Lyndon as I knew I was supposed to be. I don’t like Eyes Wide Shut. But The Shining struck me immediately as a new kind of film. It arrived just as horror was losing control of tact or taste. The computer’s effects would make mayhem possible and then essential, and cruelty came in like barbarian hordes. That’s why I want to urge the appreciation of The Shining as a comedy—a screwball comedy if you like; for Jack is plainly going mad, the way any filmmaker is likely to go mad as he sinks into his own invented world. It has always seemed to me that, in a modest way, Kubrick had encouraged Jack to look like him, or to think of Marcel Proust crossed with Groucho Marx. Torrance is the most appealing character in a “horror” movie since the Frankenstein monster. Groucho’s mustache has risen to his eyebrows. 

David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic. He is the author, most recently, of The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).