We now hit the point where Stanley Kubrick, Methodical Auteur, turns into Stanley Kubrick, The Hermit Artist. Four years, almost to the day, separated the premieres of 1971's A Clockwork Orange and 1975's Barry Lyndon, not quite enough to make it the biggest gap in his career to that point; and given the complexity and scale of the Barry Lyndon shoot, this was not a particularly inexplicable wait. It would be nearly four and a half years till the director would finally release his follow-up, though, and from that point onward, the wait times in between his films approached mythic, comic levels. To put it the simplest way I know how: Kubrick's entire career spanned 48 years, 1951-1999, and in the first half of that span, from Day of the Fight up to Barry Lyndon, the filmmaker made ten features and three shorts. In the final 24 years of his life, he made a grand total of three feature films.

And to inaugurate the new, deathly slow phase of his career, he made what would appear to all outside evidence to be his most openly populist movie since the broad satire of Dr. Strangelove: his 1980 film The Shining was a haunted hotel picture adapted from one of the biggest hit novels by Stephen King, as popular a writer as you could imagine at the turn of the '80s. I don't know how people felt at the time, being as I was unalive and so not yet the horror fan and Kubrick devotee that currently blogs for you, but I imagine it would be akin to learning that Terence Malick had just read this "Hunger Games" thing, and couldn't wait to take a crack at making it into a movie.

Of course, any fears that Kubrick had decided to take it easy were thoroughly unfounded: The Shining is one of the most aggressively opaque films of his entire career. There was even a 2012 documentary, Room 237, given over to several fan theories about just what the almighty fuck was going on, springing from the theory that as fussy and controlling a director as Kubrick must have peppered the film's structure and mise en scène with clues to the "solution". Since Lord knows those clues aren't on the surface of the script he wrote with Diane Johnson. But even without the unabashed crackpots populating that movie, The Shining has long had the aura of being some kind of puzzle box, and that you can somehow make sense of it all and turn into a very straightforward, logical affair, even the random shot of the dog-man blow job.

So the first thing I would like to do is to restore to The Shining its dignity as a genre film. In other words, sometimes a haunted hotel is just a haunted hotel. While it's surely the case that Kubrick was a control freak who liked to explore deep messages with his stories, and it's been well attested that his career is one big series of genre hops - now a war film, now an satire, now a gladiator film, now a space movie, now a costume drama - he wasn't really prone to subverting those genres. Barry Lyndon, on top of it all, is a great period epic; 2001: A Space Odyssey is great science fiction; and The Shining is a great ghost story. Of course it has thematic depth and complexity and speaks troubling and interesting things about the sanctity of the nuclear family; but if it's frequently inexplicable, self-contradicting, and ends with a giant "what the fuck?" mindscrew, I don't know why we need to use subtext to answer those complaints. Not when at the level of surface text, it's about a mentally fragile man being driven insane by malevolent ghosts. If it's confusing, disorienting, and weirdly unresolved, guess what? That's what makes it a fucking good horror movie. The Haunting is all of those things, and nobody ever said it was Robert Wise's attempt to metaphorically apologise for the genocide of Native Americans.

In fact, the film's desire to be, above everything else, the ultimate experience in grueling terror, is clear just in a quick glance at how Kubrick & Johnson assembled the screenplay. There are some key plot differences between The Shining movie and The Shining novel, like the wholesale reinvention of the climax or the movie's wise removal of the living topiary animals that King isn't ever quite able to describe without them sounding faintly silly, but the main difference between the two incarnations of the story is one of tone and focus: the book is almost entirely about how a man trying his very best to overcome his dormant alcoholism and less-dormant rage issues keeps slipping and in the process endangers his family, and that's something that the film quietly removes. Not least by casting Jack Nicholson, in what very well might be the defining role of his entire career, as a barely-contained rageaholic who doesn't have to slide into madness over the course of the movie; he seems to already be most of the way there from the very first time we see him, with that smirking Jack Nicholson stare out of eyes that look like angry little daggers. Nicholson's Jack Torrance isn't fighting his demons; he's fighting to hide his demons. That's a massive change that serves to make the movie much more about violence and danger than it is about fatherhood and addiction.

But the real tell is in recognising that there are, in fact, three different versions of The Shining: it premiered with a 146-minute running time that was shaved down to 144 minutes with a rejiggered, shortened ending before it opened in the United States. And this version was then slashed down to 119 minutes for Europe, and it is this last version, apparently, that Kubrick preferred as the final version of his vision. Like most Americans, I've never seen this European release, though I know exactly what the differences are, and with every new cut, Kubrick was driven by the exact same impulse: take away "character stuff", leaving only the most high-impact version of the film's horrifying arc (he also took out one short sequence of skeletons in a cobwebby room, which was a smart impulse - the scene in question looks so unrelentingly hokey that I don't understand why he ever even filmed it). Everything I'm about to say is about the American cut, which will matter a lot when I start to go on about its pacing and such, so reader beware. And I'll say this much: nothing I know about the European cut leads me to believe that I wouldn't prefer it to the American version, and by quite a lot. Even though, by all means, I already love the American version.

So the film, anyway, is about the Torrances: father Jack is in the process of interviewing for a job at the unbelievably remote Overlook Hotel in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, with the implication being very quietly forwarded that this is because it's the only job he can get at this point. He's left, for the moment, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) behind in Boulder, but they'll be joining him for the work itself: six and a half months as the winter caretakers for the hotel, separated from the rest of humanity by an unforgiving alpine winter. This would already be a trial, except that the Overlook has a history, one elliptically alluded to by the the hotel's head chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), when the takes Danny aside during the family's tour of the building to explain that he and the boy share a secret: a kind of psychic ability that Hallorann calls "shining", and which Danny has rationalised by putting it in the voice of "Tony", a little boy who lives in his mouth and communicates with an uncanny gravelly squeak as Danny wiggles his index finger. This sensitivity makes people like Hallorann and Danny more susceptible to the Overlook's peculiar nature: as a place where many bad things have happened, it has become something of a library of malevolent psychic energy, and Dick is concerned, without having to say it, that Danny might become victim to the hotel's dark appetite.

The real concern is Jack, though, who at some point in the past dislocated Danny's arm in a drunk rage, and hasn't apparently fully reconstructed himself since: he's remained sober, and he's working on a book - it's to have privacy to make these tasks easier that the Overlook job appealed to him in the first place - but he's not happy about it. So as the hotel goes to town freaking out Danny with visions of the last children to overwinter at the place - the twin daughters (Lisa and Louise Burns) of the caretaker from 1970, who flipped out and killed his family with an axe - it's seduction of Jack is subtler and more insidious than throwing a lot of spooky terrors in front of him.

Or, y'know, the short version: a family of three spends the winter in a haunted hotel, and the dad goes nuts. Basically it's all the same: the details in The Shining certainly do have their necessary merits, giving some context and shape and making us feel more for the tormented Torrances, but the best parts of the movie are entirely those which use composition, sound, and camera movement to create a totally visceral experience at a level which largely circumvents storytelling concerns - I have no means of knowing whether Kubrick had seen any Italian horror films from the decade preceding his film, but he basically made their English-language analogue, albeit with a little more attention paid to linearity and explication of what, broadly, is happening. Still, we're basically in Suspiria territory: gorgeous style and completely nonsensical content that is more, rather than less frightening because it feels so hard to parse in everyday, real-world terms.

I would be hard-pressed to say whether the visuals or the soundtrack end up being the most important part of the whole; certainly, I think the soundtrack gets less attention and love than it deserves, because it's fucking spectacular. I'm not just referring to the music, though as was increasingly typical for Kubrick post-2001: A Space Odyssey, the music is sublimely used. In particular, something I had never noticed before, which is that all of the really good scare moments, the ones that are enough even the make hardened ol' horror cynic Tim Brayton cringe a little, and feel all the hairs on his neck do a dance, and a small dribble of pee starts to think about evacuating his body - especially the girls in the hall, and the stack of papers next to the typewriter - these moments are all accompanied by a moment where the music crescendos to a shrieking, high-pitched peak that slices right through your head and into your skeleton. It's not just scary, it's forcing itself to be scary by audibly tormenting and fucking with the viewer.

But there are other sound effects I had in mind, not least of which is the noise of Danny's big wheel on carpet and wood flooring, an alternate ripping, clattering sound and muffled hum, repeated just often enough to really start to get mesmerising, fucking with the viewer at least as much as the piercing score does.

But The Shining is well-known as a film of its visuals. Where A Clockwork Orange is the film Kubrick made after he discovered zoom lenses, and Barry Lyndon is the film he made with super-fast lenses and natural lighting, so is The Shining his movie about Steadicam, and for all that we must necessarily credit Kubrick and photographer John Alcott for their work in lighting the Overlook to look so bleary and unnatural (it is as much a staged, artificial world as Barry Lyndon is a resolutely, even radically tangible and physical realistic one), I think that neither of those men deserve as much credit as does Garrett Brown, the film's Steadicam operator and inventor of the device in the first place, whose work was so indispensable that he was even given his very own card during the end credits. The device was fairly new yet when the film was shot, and this is its best possible coming-out: it is to Steadicam as The Wizard of Oz is to color and Avatar is to 3-D, the film that comes along early (but not first) in a technology's existence to say, "here's this new toy that's awesome to play with, and by the way, it will never be used this well again no matter how hard you try". The slithery, fluid Steadicam tracks through the halls and rooms of the Overlook are deservedly the stuff of legend, giving the camera a relentless, hunting feeling whose strange and alien glassiness - even almost 40 years after it debuted, there's still something shockingly smooth about a really good Steadicam shot - feels as otherworldly and inscrutable as any of the nightmares it depicts throughout the movie.

Of course, Kubrick being Kubrick, Steadicam isn't the only visual craft on display that elevates the film to heights almost totally unknown by horror: there are the usual wide-angle lenses to gently distort space (neither as prevalent nor as prominent as in A Clockwork Orange), and compositions which describe the geography of the interior of the building as a kind of prison, in a fashion reminiscent of Fritz Lang, though I don't otherwise really detect any specific Lang influence anywhere in Kubrick. And the director is particularly alive to the possibilities of editing this time around; not that Kubrick films ever boast sloppy editing (quite the contrary), but there's some really special stuff that he and Ray Lovejoy cooked up this time. That same shot spotting the girls in the hallway, where every cut brings them closer to the camera as the music gets more intense is a great, and obvious example, but what really stood out to me as I watched the film this time was the incredibly aggressive use of dissolves: great long ponderous dissolves, not simply fading scenes into each other but having them significantly overlap, so that the characters seem to still be involved in a dramatic moment as they've almost faded into oblivion. The metaphorical possibilities of applying that to a film about ghosts should be obvious; it's also part of what explains, in the American cut, at least, the unusual pacing of the film - at 144 minutes, it's almost obnoxiously long, and it certainly doesn't move very fast on a scene-by-scene basis, but the flow between scenes and through scenes is so erratic and irregular, and the chronology keeps bunching up and then flattening out, that the movie's very structure and moment are almost ganging up on our sense of clarity and normalcy.

With such a beautiful assemblage of aesthetic elements combining to make things good and unnerving and freaky, The Shining wouldn't need a decent human element at all - again, look at the Italian horror films of the period - but it has a remarkably strong central cast that gives it that element anyway. Indeed, taking solely the three co-leads - and there are good actors in the supporting cast, as well - The Shining has probably the most conventionally great acting in Kubrick's post-Dr. Strangelove career: Nicholson's glaring insanity isn't much for subtlety, true, but the angry, brutal sarcasm and nastiness that he brings to the role is the best thing that could possibly happen: this is not, ultimately, Jack's story, but a story of surviving Jack, of surviving the complete collapse of the nuclear family and fatherly authority into something psychopathic and deranged. And Nicholson's embodiment of that, is so absolutely terrifying and raw that it's no wonder he's spent the remainder of his career more or less in its shadow. Duvall, in the only major role she got outside of a Robert Altman film, seems somehow no less inhuman than her co-star, though in a completely different way: she's all jangled, meek nerves and passivity and trying to reduce herself, a mousy, retiring creation even by Duvall's standards - it is known that Kubrick was a titanic asshole to her, and while that's regrettable, the way it comes out in her performance is so fantastic that I can't really say that I care. And all this fragility and smallness both makes it more horrifying when she shows up on the receiving end of Jack's rage, and more triumphant when she finds the internal fortitude to survive that rage.

Lloyd, though, is easily the stand-out: both because it's inherently impressive when a six-year-old does anything that looks a lot like acting, and because Danny is the most demanding of the film's roles: Jack and Wendy are both, ultimately, variations around a single theme, but Danny has a whole range of emotions and basically two entirely different personalities. When Lloyd busts out the Tony voice, it never stops to be creepy, especially towards the end, when his frenzied screams of "redrum!" in a tortured, animalistic squawk are nearly as terrifying as anything else that happens in the movie. And he does this all while functioning as the film's de facto protagonist, given the way the plot favors him and the camera continuously favors his perspective and height. I'm sure a fine Shining could exist with everything in place but Lloyd; it's only with Lloyd, though, that it becomes basically the best version of itself that could be.

The film's message is simple and bleak: evil exists, has always existed, will always exist, and it's only possible to keep away from it, never to beat it. The cosmic nihilism of this slots in nicely with Kubrick's depiction of cruelty and inhumanity elsewhere in his career, and the things he was best at as a director - methodical framing, lighting, and color; creating self-contained realities operating according to a clear, consistent set of rules; unhurried pacing that encourages the growth of a particular mood - are the things that all the best horror films tend to enjoy. And I am sorry that he only made the one, though of course he only made the one of anything. Still, he was willing to dive into straight-up genre filmmaking, and that's something to be deeply grateful for: many self-conscious Important filmmakers don't like to muddy themselves with disreputable genres and stories. Thankfully, Kubrick had no such restraint: the result is simply one of the best scary movies ever made, one of the best scary movies even imaginable.