Is It Just Me?... Or is The Shining not scary?

Stanley Kubrick’s much-praised but Razzie-nominated chiller is beautifully shot, eye-catchingly acted (young Danny Lloyd is brilliant) and contains many iconic moments.

Problem is – whoops! – it’s just not scary. “For all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should,” chided source author Stephen King, who could be considered something of an authority on the subject.

Now, King’s not the first writer to feel pissed at a fast-and-loose film adap of his work, but unfortunately The Shining’s neither fast, nor loose – it’s sloooooow and sphincter tight. Yes, there are a couple of decent shocks (the flash-cuts of the murdered twins, the rotting woman in room 237), but they’re spread out over 142 glacial minutes. Only Kubrick could make a film so ponderously paced its short-fused antagonist takes literally hours to not kill his own family, before freezing to death in the process.

That chilliness is an integral part of the problem. King called it “a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little”, and he’s absolutely right. It’s an OCD of a movie, micromanaged to within an inch of its life. When the perfectly choreographed Steadicam shots catch the actors’ faces, you can see themonths of takes in their eyes, giving everything a stiltedness that speaks of cold Elstree soundstages rather than hot, pulsing fear. Terror needs spontaneity. It doesn’t need 80 takes.

Perhaps because of the strained conditions during the year-long shoot, Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall’s performances operate at such a hysterical,Punch-and-Judy pitch that it’s difficult to feel anything but nonplussed. Mad Jack McMad looks ready to start wearing Lloyd’s genitals as jewellery waaaaaybefore they even get to the “evil” Overlook Hotel, and it’s almost impossible to root for Duvall’s Wendy, a scream machine not resourceful enough to operatea baseball bat or open a window properly.

Fear doesn’t always require coherence, but there’s also such a thing as leavingtoo many questions unanswered. Chief among them are “What’s haunting whom and why?” but also “Why is that pig-dog sucking off that man?” and, occasionally, “Who cares?” It’s as if Kubrick considers the mechanics of the ghost story utterly beneath him, but can’t think of anything to put in their place other than visual distractions (hello, reversing carpet!) and half-arsed explanations (wotcha, Indian burial ground!). What makes Jack crazy (or should that be crazier)? Spirits? Alcoholism? Terrible interior design? All of the above? Are the apparitions real? Imaginary? Long-deceased but with convenient door-opening capacities? Only one man knows, and he couldn’t be bothered to share.

As an exercise in icy, eccentric dislocation The Shining works fine, even if dislocation is a pretty low target for a man of Kubrick’s talents. But King has a right to be riled, because as a scare story it’s sorely lacking, refusing to do justice to either noun.

Or is it just me?

Freelance Writer

Matt Glasby is a freelance film and TV journalist. You can find his work on Total Film - in print and online - as well as at publications like the Radio Times, Channel 4, DVD REview, Flicks, GQ, Hotdog, Little White Lies, and SFX, among others. He is also the author of several novels, including The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film and Britpop Cinema: From Trainspotting To This Is England.