Book Review: The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film, Edited by Danel Olson

A deep dive into every aspect of The Shining combines academic analysis, technical explanations and fun facts for fanboys.
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For a director whose output totaled only about a baker’s dozen of feature films, Stanley Kubrick embraced a remarkably wide range of genres during his nearly half-century career. There was a heist movie (The Killing); war movies (Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket); a big-budget swords-and-sandals epic (Spartacus); highbrow literary adaptations (Lolita and Barry Lyndon); the blackest of black comedies/satires (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb); foundational sci-fi (2001: A Space Odyssey); and Eyes Wide Shut, a YGIAGAM (Your Guess Is As Good As Mine). 

Then there’s his scary/funny take on the horror genre, 1980’s The Shining, which is the exhaustively explored subject of a new Centipede Press book edited by Danel Olson. There are essays ranging from academic exegeses to behind-the-scenes reveals, interviews with Kubrick, co-screenwriter Diane Johnson, and actors running from the film’s stars (Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers) to minor characters with only one or two lines. (The joke for film aficionados is that Kubrick’s legendary perfectionism and penchant for 50, 60, or 70 takes per shot meant that even these single-scene players were on set for weeks and weeks at a time.) 

Fortunately, The Shining contains such rich veins of meaning that it can support most of this detailed analysis. If the book seemed a bit wearing after a while, remember that I was reading its 750 pages as a reviewer (i.e. cover to cover) rather than how almost anyone else will - as a reference book put together by very informed fans, meant to be dipped into and to carry readers wherever their interests and obsessions lie. 

It’s all there, including the book’s author Stephen King’s disdain for the movie; he felt Kubrick had turned it into a story of Jack’s psychological dissolution and the fracturing of the family rather than the tale of a horrifically haunted hotel and its predatory ghosts. There’s the movie as a metaphor for Native Americans’ revenge on the white man’s genocide (the Overlook Hotel was built on an Indian burial ground), as well as disdain for the conspiracy theorists who believe the whole movie is Kubrick’s roundabout way of apologizing for helping to fake the 1969 moon landing (the hand-knit sweater worn by Danny has an “Apollo 11” pattern, the hotel’s rugs look like launch pads, etc.). 

An interview with Kubrick himself (who died in 1999) shows his deep understanding of how horror works on the screen versus on the page. He told Michael Ciment, “In fantasy you want things to have the appearance of being as realistic as possible. People should behave in the mundane way they normally do. You have to be especially careful about this in the scenes which deal with the bizarre or fantastic details of the story."

There’s also information about the amazing warren of interconnected, realistically lit sets and the contributions of the craftsmen and crew to create the hyper-realistic illusion that we’re watching events taking place in a very real hotel. There’s lots (and lots) more, including terrific photos, script pages and notes, contemporary and more recent posters for the film, and discussions of technical innovations like the extended use of the Steadicam (all those shots in the hedge maze and following just behind little Danny as he rides through the hotel corridors on his Big Wheel). 

Through it all, Kubrick’s attention to detail - his hard-earned knowledge that no visual or aural clue is unimportant, particularly with a movie as sparsely populated and sparingly dialogued as this one - comes through in nearly every essay and recollection. 

It’s interesting to me to dive this deep into The Shining, because thanks to an after-school job as a movie theater usher when it was in its original release, I’ve seen it many, many times. (I will leave it to readers to gauge the impact this has had on my long-term mental health.) The perspective of 35 years means I think Jack Nicholson’s scary/funny performance is still remarkable, but I see the point of those who say that if you’re going to do a story about a guy going crazy, you might want to start with someone whose demeanor doesn’t signal “cuckoo!” from nearly the first frame. 

And Shelley Duvall, whose knife-edge hysteria was partly the product of those many many takes, seems even more impressive now than she did at the time, as does Danny Lloyd, only five years old at the time of the filming. Disappointingly, there’s no contemporary interview with Lloyd. This would have been welcome, as would an index. 

It’s also interesting to read about New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael’s initial negative review of the film, and her pointing out that the ax murder of Hallorann (Crothers) might be a symptom of Hollywood movies’ unfortunate tendency to kill off the token minority (so that the white characters can be frightened but will ultimately survive) - rather like the red-shirted security guards who bite it before the first commercial so that Captain Kirk can violate the prime directive with our sympathy later on. In the book, Hallorann gets to play the hero, helping get the mother and son to safety, and Wendy is less of an abused doormat. 

I think Kael is wrong; Halloran’s killing is shocking but not gratuitous, and it makes Danny, and his ESP/premonition gift of the Shining, more central. He outwits Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, who gets lost and ultimately frozen in the hedge maze, a metaphor for his surrendering to the evil juju of the hotel. Jack is last seen in the center of a black-and-white photo showing a July 4th party that took place in 1921. He was always the caretaker, he just went away for a while. 

If you’ve been away from The Shining for a while, as I have, this book will be a pleasant dive back into the ominous world of the Overlook Hotel. You’ll want to stay forever…and ever…and ever. And remember: All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.

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