‘The Shining’ and the Mocking of David Cronenberg

Over the last few weeks, websites and critics have been offering up their often considered opinions on what was/is the Best Horror Film of All Time. Hey, it was October, and Halloween, after all. For many, it’s William Friedkin’s Satanic powerhouse, The Exorcist, while other have mentioned John Carpenter’s Halloween or any number of George Romero zombie films. And then there is the Kubrick contingent, a growing consensus that the masterful auteur’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining stands as the most terrifying film ever. Granted, there’s also an equally vocal ‘minority’ who believes that sentiment is hogwash (yours truly included), but for the vast majority of VCR raised fans, the story of Jack and Wendy Torrance, the gifted little boy Danny, and the haunted Overlook Hotel represents the pinnacle of onscreen scares.

Again, not everyone thinks this way, but what’s clear about any conversation regarding Kubrick and The Shining is that devotees earn their label and detractors demand rebuff. In the past, when I have mentioned my ‘general dislike’ of the film (I love the director, but find his ‘horror’ film part of his late in life, lesser canon), I get an implied communal scowl that literally registers across the ‘Net. Members of Messageboard Nation, who are responsible for continually banging the drum for The Shining‘s superiority, can’t wait to shoot down even the most well thought out critique of the film. As a rule of thumb, those who do not like Kubrick’s take on the material better not mention King and his claims (they will automatically throw the author’s TV movie remake in your face — touche) or any “out of touch” journalists who before or have since stated their displeasure with the film.

Now, David Cronenberg has felt the sting of such censure. During a discussion in preparation for a showcase of his work at the Toronto International Film Festival, the maker of such horror classics as Scanners, Videodrome and arguably his masterpiece, The Fly, went out of his way to dismiss Kubrick (who will get his own TIFF showcase next year) and argue that the late director didn’t “get” the genre. He then went on to say that The Shining was not “great” and that the legendary filmmaker was more “commercial” in his approach than artistic. The statement sent shockwaves throughout the social media stratum, bringing out the defenders and the ‘haters’ on both sides of the situation. While almost all the vitriol was aimed at Cronenberg, those who choose to support him were equally dismissed “with extreme prejudice.”

Now, such a standoff is nothing new. Heck, you can pick any film that came out in the last 100 years and there will be people on both sides of the fence fighting for respect or the opposite. But in the case of The Shining, there seems to be a bellwether of intolerance that you best not cross less you find yourself face to face with a global fanboy backlash (I am sure I just earned the same by dropping that particular F-bomb). In the case of Cronenberg’s comments, you can feel the rage seething. Some headlines used phrases like “Dared to…” or words like “audacity” and “cluelessness” while some suggested that the Canadian maestro is merely jealous of his peer’s perfectionism and track record. Now, comparing David Cronenberg to Stanley Kubrick is like comparing apples and anthills, but for some, The Shining is untouchable. It’s taboo. It’s like arguing religion or race – you never win.

Of course, this is all the film’s fault, when you think about it. For me, The Shining is an enigma wrapped in a riddle forwarded by people with way too much time on their hands. I enjoy it as a work of art, but not as horror, or terror, or dread, or suspense, or as adaptation. I loved the King book when I was a teenager and couldn’t wait to see the film when it opened. I even won tickets to an advanced screening and was psyched to see what Kubrick would do. My disappointment (at the time) was epic, but over the years, I have put the film in its proper place, low on a list topped by 2001, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and Spartacus. In fact, it falls somewhere between Full Metal Jacket and Barry Lyndon in my book. Again, I know dem’s fightin’ words, but that’s my opinion. That’s all it is, a judgment call.

But for Shining fans and obsessives, there is no dispute. Kubrick’s only foray into fear is a goddamn masterpiece and woe the person who presupposed to know better, or different. The film has even manufactured its own obtuse mythology, thanks to countless revisits on home video, resulting in the intriguing (if laughable) documentary Room 237. For those unfamiliar with the unauthorized overview of the hidden meanings in The Shining, the individuals featured believe Kubrick did everything from apologize for the genocide of Native Americans to admit his own part in the faked Moon landing with his view of the Overlook. Even continuity errors (unheard of in his work) and random production designs have purpose in this proposed expose. In fact, it seems that nothing about The Shining is normal, from who made to why.

Thanks to the aggregate soapbox that is the Internet, such subjectivity has become Gospel. It’s like majority rule on steroids. I would never deny those who love the film their right to do so. It would be like asking me to hate what I think is the best and most important movie within the artform, Kubrick’s own 2001. Recently, I had a chance to talk film with a few people outside the industry and they were confused by this pick. Many find Kubrick’s collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke “dull,” “boring,” and “confusing,” and they have a right to say so. Not every movie speaks to every moviegoer, and The Shining is no exception. I believe many would feel the same way if I argued — which I often do — that Cronenberg’s The Fly is one of the most devastatingly tragic love stories ever filmed. Some just think it’s a bunch of gross F/X and are done with the conversation. Different strokes.

Such stridence in regard to The Shining illustrates the main problem with film fandom today. There is no constructive conversation, only the automatic nay saying of any differing viewpoint. Again, I said Kubrick’s film is very, very good. But when put up against the cultural impact of The Exorcist (many foaming over Cronenberg’s words weren’t even born when I snuck into a 1973 screening at the age of 12) or the genre jumpstart that was Halloween, The Shining is simply a well made movie. It’s only lasting legacy is in the mind of those who continue to champion its “flawless” fear factors. It did not change the cinematic category the way Friedkin did, nor did it usher in an entire decade of terror ala Carpenter. It’s as if, since Kubrick can/could do no wrong behind the lens, there can’t be anything wrong with his take on King. Anyone saying different is a dope, no matter their own celluloid resume.

Still, it’s shocking to watch people practically eviscerate a man whose made more excellent films than failures all because he dares defy a cinematic sacred cow…a heifer that doesn’t really deserve such a hands-off approach. I would argue that Cronenberg’s genre output rivals Kubrick’s single film and that someone who has been a student of the category has every right to argue that one attempt does not an expert in horror make. The web can get all worked up and the blind adulation can continue, but one day, somewhere in the future, many who are mocking Cronenberg might wake up and see he’s right. The Shining is not the scariest movie ever made. It’s not even the scariest made in the ’80s. Now, those statements shouldn’t be cause for consternation. Instead, they should start a constructive conversation that, sadly, not even a seasoned cinematic veteran is entitled to.