Why 'The Shining' is the best psychological horror film ever

Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' Warner Bros.

My girlfriend has a test she applies to new movies: will watching this be something she'll enjoy more than watching The Shining again? Often the answer is no, so over the last few years I've seen The Shining at least...let's say several times. Amazingly, it never gets old.

To say that Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's 1977 novel is a great movie is not a controversial view. Nor is it controversial to say that The Shining is endlessly watchable. There's an entire documentary (Room 237, it's on Netflix) devoted to elaborate theories people have developed about hidden meanings in the film.

The theories are largely ridiculous, but it's not a coincidence that people inclined to search for hidden meanings in popular films have latched onto The Shining. It's thick with detail, and rich with ambiguity. There are things that happen in The Shining — including some major things — that don't happen for any one clear reason. Kubrick creates a world that feels like it extends, in space and in spirit, beyond the borders of the film.

That's a Kubrick specialty, a skill used to great effect in 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut. Both of those could be described as psychological thrillers, but The Shining stands alone as a perfect example of how to execute psychological horror: films that tie real physical violence to real emotional violence that's even more chilling.

To understand how hard that is, watch another psychological horror film that's very good — and then compare it to The Shining. For example, take The Vanishing — the 1988 Dutch original, not the crappy American remake. It's a measured, smart, offhandedly creepy, absorbing film. On Rotten Tomatoes, it's 100% fresh. Still, do you care about these characters as much as you care about Shelley Duvall and her young son in The Shining? No.

What makes The Shining work so well is how adeptly and efficiently Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson draw us into King's narrative of domestic violence. Even as Jack Nicholson is touring the hotel, we're being given hints that there's a deep tension in the couple's relationship. After the family move in, the story simultaneously and insidiously advances on both the supernatural and psychological fronts: we learn more about the family's history just as we're learning more about the hotel's history.

The film is endlessly watchable because you can watch each scene from multiple perspectives: through the son's innocent eyes, through Duvall's willing disbelief, through the haze of Nicholson's weakness and rage. The film's famous final scenes are expertly executed (so to speak), but the real heart of The Shining is the crucial scene where Duvall confronts Nicholson on the stairs, waving a baseball bat. The scene unfolds with excruciating tension because Kubrick and Johnson keep the suspense between Duvall's ears.

In a lesser film, the question would be, can she hit the monster with the bat? In The Shining, the question is, will she hit her husband with the bat? Later, a single knife cut is more stomach-churning than the gallons of blood other movies produce (without even thinking to use the elevators).

The Shining may not be Kubrick's best film — 2001 is to science fiction movies as Bob Dylan is to folk music — but it's his most perfect film, the film where his gifts were most expertly deployed in the service of a story that's a model of what we talk about when we talk about a great psychological horror film. This Halloween season, when you're considering clicking on a lesser flick, consider: will you enjoy it more than you'll enjoy watching The Shining again? Probably not.

Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' Warner Bros.