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

One Total Film writer argues the case…

In our regular polarising-opinion series, Total Film writer Matt Glasby asks, 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?



    • deelann

      Jul 30th 2014, 13:03

      It's just you. The points you complain about are precisely what makes the film so creepy. The slow evolution of it all, the fact that we are never told why this is happening, or what is or isn't real, all these things help to make the viewer feel as though he himself is going insane. That's kind of the point. It may not be a good adaptation of the book, but as a standalone piece of art it really is creepy, and it lingers with you long after the credits have rolled.

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    • jamesupright

      Jul 30th 2014, 13:47

      Couldn't agree with deelann more. No questions are answered and that's WHY it's so good. AND you've obviously not taken any decent drugs in your life. :) Cheers

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    • jaquesstrap

      Jul 30th 2014, 17:16

      I kind of agree with Matt on this one. I wasn't really frightened by the Shining, and the film gave the audience too much time to assess the danger, which takes away from the uneasy feeling I believe the film was trying to achieve. I can see why people like the Shining, and even why they're scared of it, but it's just not my kind of horror movie.

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    • douchebag1

      Jul 30th 2014, 17:58

      What good is time to assess the danger if you don't know where it's coming from or how to stop it? Terror doesn't need spontaneity. Think of people's fears of nuclear holocaust. They're not scared because it's going to happen right now; they're scared because, given the existence of such weapons, it could happen at any time and they have no control over it. I'm a fan of Stephen King and often respect his opinions on horror, but The Shining is one instance where I firmly disagree with him, and the medicore made-for-TV remake reaffirms why he should probably stick to novels and stories rather than scriptwriting/filmmaking. Kubrick's Shining is terrifying precisely for the atmosphere it creates. This, in fact, is where most haunted house movies find their terror. Can you think of any haunted house movie where the terror is immediate rather than building, slowly creeping in? And as for answering questions: look at what happened with the first Insidious film. The first hour was one of the most terrifying experiences I ever had in the cinema and the explanation in the second half essentially ruins that. I think when it comes to the supernatural, it's best not to explain too much. Look at the Exorcist. Do you ever know why she's possessed, why the devil chose her? Do you even know if it is the devil or some lesser demon? Anyway, if you don't like atmospheric horror, that's fine. There are always plenty of slasher films out there that can provide that roller coaster ride you're looking for, but I think to claim that the Shining is not scary because it takes time for the terror to manifest and develop to a climax, and then doesn't answer the question of where the terror is coming from or why, is to miss the point of what it is in and of itself and that's a ghost story. And as such, it's a remarkable entry in the sub-genre. I'd be interested actually to see you compare it with another entry in the ghost story genre that you believe is scary and explain why you think one works and one doesn't.

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    • devilsfoxes

      Jul 30th 2014, 19:09

      I'm going to agree that The Shining isn't truly scary, so falls short of The Exorcist as a classic but so what? It's a funhouse of weirdness and a Kubrick film through and through with so many rich levels of understanding. It is the Inception of horror films. To me, its pleasures come from the cold, detached POV combined with amazing soundtrack and just brilliant sense of movement and editing. The film feels like it was made by a haunted mind. While the shots may not have been captured spontaneously, often the editing makes up the difference and surprises me at every turn. On a recent viewing, I concluded that the set design, framing and subtext point towards this theme; man striving for perfection/symmetry is a breeding ground of true evil. Compare scenes with Jack in the hotel with Hallorann at home (massively asymmetrical) or scenes of Wendy in the hotel (often her clothes match the room in color, suggested that unlike Jack, she has a subconscious connection with the larger world, adding to his frustration). The visuals tell an incredible morality tale. In a lot of ways, Kings book is more a book masquerading as a horror B-movie and Kubrick's film is a horror film masquerading as high minded literature. There's room for both.

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    • YTWhitemanson

      Jul 31st 2014, 6:54

      one of, maybe, five horrors ever made that are actually decent films. horrors are the bottom of filmmaking, like porns.

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    • monkeybeef

      Aug 3rd 2014, 16:29

      I'm not really a fan of horror but The Shining is a pretty good film. A better example of an awful horror film is The Blair Witch Project, a film which is badly shot, has almost no plot, and has no horror in it! The best part of the whole movie is when the actress has a runny nose. Compare that to The Shining which has creepy twins, elevator full of blood, crazy Jack Nicholson, and an axe!

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    • robartpon

      Aug 5th 2014, 18:18

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    • DeclanMcHugh

      Aug 6th 2014, 11:35

      I do a horror tour in London and, as a bit of fun, have conducted a running vote for 15 years on the scariest horror films ever. 40,000 people from across the world have voted and The Shining is in the top ten. Only last week I confessed to someone on the tour that I do not find the film scary, and the word I used to explain why, is the word 'sterile'. Matt is right, King is right, 'The Shining' is an experience and a hoot, but it is over-rehearsed and over-directed. The setting is icy-cold and genius Kubrick's style is icy-cold too. I would suggest the word 'organic' should also be brought into the discussion. The film is a series of over-constructed, non-organic set-pieces and, I hate to use the word but feel I have to, superficial. It doesn't put deep roots down but stays on the steadycam surface. Compare with the dread engendered by the Exorcist (also in the top ten votes), or the feeling of rollercoaster WTF that the original made-on-a-pittance Texas Chainsaw Massacre provided (also in the top ten). Blood pouring from a lift is an admirable exercise in directorial puzzle-solving, and highly entertaining - but not scary.

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    • jimbachalo

      Sep 18th 2014, 10:15

      Sorry, you're in the minority here. It's also the least superficial of probably any horror film ever made. And as in the best of Kubrick's work, unlike most so called 'horror' schlock, it also has many layers of meaning, like any great work of art should.

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    • peterbrennan

      Sep 22nd 2014, 11:13

      I think there is a case that it is overrated simply because it is a Kubrick film. But the horror of the story is in the isolation of the location, the fear of the unknown and the descent into madness. That atmosphere is definitely achieved in this film in a similar style to Kubrick's work in 2001. So I would agree with the comments that say the article has missed the point.

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