There was no question that Stanley Kubrick needed to follow 1975’s Barry Lyndon with a commercially successful film. There was also no question that he needed to do this rather quickly—at least, quickly as defined by his working methods. His relationship with Warner Bros may not have depended on it, but he did not want that relationship to become strained.
Besides, for his own emotional and intellectual well-being, he wanted to prove he could get his audience back. He succeeded, though the film he made took a while to catch on. When it did, it became the most obsessively examined film of his entire output.
Back in 1966, Kubrick had expressed his desire “to make the world’s scariest movie, involving a series of episodes that would play upon the nightmare fears of the audience.” “Later,” Kubrick’s wife Christiane said, “he decided he was going to make a horror film so scary that he would advertise it by saying, ‘You can get your money back if you can sit all the way through.’ That was the idea—that it would be so frightening, people would absolutely have to leave. Then he grew up and said that was a bad idea.” Katharina recalled her father saying, “I’d really like to make a very scary movie.”
The 1970s, for example, were a perfect decade for horror films—at least films that set out to unnerve and frighten.
To this end, he asked Roger Caras to inquire about acquiring the rights to Ira Levin’s 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby, a story about a woman who, with the collusion of her husband and the strange coven of devil-worshippers living next door, becomes pregnant with Satan’s spawn. “Be calm when you request them,” Kubrick instructed.
Once again, Kubrick’s slow progress would stymie him. Agent Harold Ober advised Caras that Rosemary’s Baby had already been sold and hence wasn’t available for consideration. It had been bought by Kubrick’s friend Roman Polanski, who had just finished his Fearless Vampire Killers—a major disaster—that same year, and was now looking for a property with which to make his first Hollywood film.
Under the guidance of producer Robert Evans, he adapted it and it was released in June 1968, a few months after 2001. It was an extraordinary success. “It was one of the best of the genre,” Kubrick told Michel Ciment, somewhat ruefully. “I liked The Exorcist too,” he added. Warner Bros had sent him, Arthur Penn, and Mike Nichols that script back in 1971, but Kubrick declined because he did not want to work with a producer, which Warner Bros had stipulated. “I only like to develop my own stuff,” he said. He screened the films for weeks at Abbots Mead.
“I’ve always been interested in ESP and the paranormal,” Kubrick admitted. “In addition to the scientific experiments which have been conducted suggesting that we are just short of conclusive proof of its existence, I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of opening a book at the exact page we’re looking for, or thinking of a friend a moment before they ring on the telephone.” He loved to tell the story of one of his pets, which, to him, explained the phenomenon in animal behavior. “I have a long-haired cat, named Polly,” he told Michel Ciment:
[She] regularly gets knots in her coat which I have to comb or scissor out. She hates this, and on dozens of occasions while I have been stroking her and thinking that the knots have got bad enough to do something about them, she has suddenly dived under the bed before I have made the slightest move to get a comb or scissors. I have obviously considered the possibility that she can tell when I plan to use the comb because of some special way I feel the knots when I have decided to comb them, but I’m quite sure that isn’t how she does it.
During the 1970s, following A Clockwork Orange, he continued his search for an appropriate horror vehicle. His decision meant that he would be exploring a genre with a long and varied history. Horror and monster films meant to deliver frights and shocks to their audience began in film’s earliest days. Edison made a fourteen-minute Frankenstein movie in 1910.
But it was German expressionism, with its tormented characters skittering and lurking through a nightmare world of exaggerated shadows and distorted buildings, that configured the horror mise en scène. In 1920, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari presented a lunatic carnival world in which a sleepwalking stalker, under the control of a mad hypnotist, steals sleeping women from their beds, carrying them across a landscape of strange-looking buildings.
Two years later, F.W. Murnau made his vampire movie, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens [Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror]. Expressionism’s darkness crept into the first major American horror films in the 1930s, when Universal started its Frankenstein and Dracula cycle, and these two frightful figures have lasted to the present day.
The HAL 9000 computer in 2001 is a distant relative of Frankenstein’s monster, a golem, a man-made conscious entity that takes on a life of its own and runs amok. In 1973, Brian Aldiss, the writer who would come to figure prominently in Kubrick’s working life, published Frankenstein Unbound, merging the Gothic with science fiction.
In the 1950s, horror and science fiction infiltrated each other’s generic boundaries. The Thing from Another World is essentially about a monster from space; elsewhere, nuclear-bred monsters ravaged the landscape. Dracula, while many films were still made about him, morphed into zombies, and George Romero started a series of films about zombies in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead that seems never to die.
But it was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960 that kicked off the contemporary horror film. Psycho creates a sense of dread, climaxed by deeply felt fright and ending with the inextricable face of madness that has since infiltrated itself into less acutely made slasher films like the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises. Psycho had another dimension. Its nameless horror reaches back as far as the Holocaust and the rationalized irrationality of the slaughter of innocents. Kubrick would pick up on this as an undertone in his own horror film.
Zombie movies play upon fears of post-apocalyptic disaster, viruses, and the inexorable cycle of death and life—albeit life as a virulently destructive force. The slasher films, in which young girls save the community from the monster, reflect second-wave feminism in distorted ways. Horror always plays to fears, deep-seated psychological terrors or frightened responses to the culture at large.
The 1970s, for example, were a perfect decade for horror films—at least films that set out to unnerve and frighten. It was a creepy time in America. The corruption of Richard Nixon and his cronies was coming to light as the decade began, and it led to the resignation of the thirty-seventh president in 1974.
The shudders sent through the body politic were severe and lasted for years. Movies picked up on them. Rosemary’s Baby led the pack in 1968, followed by The Exorcist in 1973, with scary baby films like It’s Alive, The Omen and The Brood following suit. There were strange films like The Wicker Man and torture porn like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Jaws, coming in the middle of the decade, and only peripherally a horror film, nonetheless changed not only the genre but, coincidentally, upset the whole tradition of movie distribution.
With this wind behind him, Kubrick began browsing the horror genre, looking for suitable subject matter to make the scariest movie he could. He perused stories that dealt with the supernatural and the occult. He toyed with the works of Victorian author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, especially Zanoni, about an immortal Rosicrucian brother who falls in love and loses his power, and A Strange Story, a quest story about a man of science who confronts the supernatural and is humbled.
Kubrick also considered Diane Johnson’s 1974 The Shadow Knows, a psychological detective novel dealing with racial issues and urban violence through the deteriorating state of mind of a young woman under stress, who is perhaps, or perhaps not, being stalked. While Kubrick admired the novel, he found it unsuitable for his vision partly because it was written in the first person. But he respected Johnson’s work and would call on her for help.
When, in July 1976, John Calley sent Kubrick galley proofs of Stephen King’s manuscript of The Shining, he had found his source. King was already an enormously popular author, and film-makers discovered that his popularity could be successfully transferred to the screen. Adaptations of King’s novels were becoming a craze. Brian De Palma was first with Carrie in 1976, which became one of the most popular films of the year. Following its success, there was a seemingly endless stream of horror films.
Kubrick found that both King and Warner Bros would be ripe for his own entry into the genre. It was the first King novel he had read, and it sparked an immediate interest. Jack Torrance, an ex-teacher and aspiring writer, accepts a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, set high in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, despite the violence that was part of the hotel’s history and the cabin fever that struck its previous caretakers.
Jack’s wife Wendy and son Danny accompany him to the isolated hotel. Because of his ability to “shine”—his capacity to see events in the past and future—Danny fears the hotel. After several weeks, Jack’s mental state deteriorates and he experiences delusions, including the statuary sculptures of the maze garden coming to life, leading him to seek to kill his family.
Ultimately, Jack’s family is saved as the hotel’s exploding boiler kills him. Manifestly a ghost story, pitting an innocent child against the evil of the hotel, Jack is caught in the middle. Although psychologically damaged by and angry at the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, Stephen King’s Jack is a decent man overcome by supernatural forces rather than his rage and alcoholism. Kubrick had other ideas.
Kubrick began browsing the horror genre, looking for suitable subject matter to make the scariest movie he could.
The Shining was, he explained, “very compulsive reading” and “the plot, ideas and structure were much more imaginative than anything I’ve ever read in the genre.” Here was an instance in which a bestseller would make a “wonderful movie.” While he certainly didn’t consider the novel “a serious literary work,” it did offer him a way into the characters and the setting.
He was particularly taken with the “extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural” that would allow him to elide both in ways that kept the story moving and involved the viewer in the enigma of whether Jack is simply crazy or, as seems particularly evident in the scene in which Grady frees him from the larder, under the influence of the hotel’s strange powers.
The novel would give Kubrick room to try out various perspectives and various moods, permeated by a sense of fear and dread. He was drawn to the “psychological underpinnings” of the novel, said Diane Johnson, who collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay. “A father threatening his child is compelling, it’s an archetypal enactment of unconscious rages. Stephen King isn’t Kafka, but the material of this novel is the rage and fear within families.” She described the film as an “underlying story of a father’s hate for his child and his wife,” adding that “the murderous father is a very, very frightening one.” Working on the script, she recalls that Kubrick:
wanted to know what the King novel was about, in the deepest psychological sense; he wanted to talk about that and to read theoretical works that might shed light on it, particularly works of psychology and especially those of Freud…Family hate seemed quite important. We decided that in the case of The Shining this was a central element. I had the very strong impression that Kubrick was attracted to The Shining because of the father/son thing.
As he had been in Barry Lyndon.
The Shining also suggested a story Kubrick knew and that concerned the supernatural, ESP, and something he called “psychological misdirection.” This was Stephen Crane’s 1898 short piece, “The Blue Hotel,” which had been dramatized in 1956 on the television series Omnibus, the show that Kubrick had worked on in the early 1950s, and filmed by Ján Kadár in 1977. Kubrick explained its appeal to Michel Ciment:
In it you quickly learn that the central character is a paranoid. He gets involved in a poker game, decides someone is cheating him, makes an accusation, starts a fight and gets killed. You think the point of the story is that his death was inevitable because a paranoid poker player would ultimately get involved in a fatal gunfight. But, in the end, you find out that the man he accused was actually cheating him. I think The Shining uses a similar kind of psychological misdirection to forestall the realization that the supernatural events are actually happening.
Crane’s story is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s 1971 cold and snowy western, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, to which The Shining owes a small debt. In the story and both these films, snowbound isolation leads to desperate acts, and in the case of The Shining, to the “psychological misdirection” of Jack’s apparent normality devolving into murderous insanity. In both films, the main characters are frozen in the snow.
From Kubrick: An Odyssey by Robert P. Kolker and Nathan Abrams. Copyright © 2024. Available from Pegasus Books.