‘The Shinning’ Is the Greatest Stanley Kubrick Parody Ever
One way to measure the impact of a filmmaker is how often his movies are referenced in pop culture. And while the competition is stiff — Spielberg? Hitchcock? Scorsese? — it’s possible that no director has cast as large a shadow as Stanley Kubrick. Gucci recently launched a whole campaign built around his movies, and the year’s most acclaimed film, Tár, was written and directed by Todd Field, who co-starred in Eyes Wide Shut and has often talked about the deceased auteur’s impact on his own work. And that’s to say nothing of the countless times that “Also sprach Zarathustra” — the classical music track that opens 2001: A Space Odyssey that goes “Dun … dun …. dun ……. DUN-DUN!” — is used jokingly in TV ads and sitcoms.
Kubrick has been dead for nearly 25 years, but he and his movies still seem so alive.
The Simpsons has often paid homage to Kubrick, but the show’s greatest tribute was during its October 30, 1994 episode — better known as “Treehouse of Horror V” — in which the opening segment was dedicated entirely to one of his films. “The Shinning” isn’t simply one of the all-time best “Treehouse of Horror” segments — it may be the best Kubrick riff ever.
Directed by Jim Reardon and written by Bob Kushell, “The Shinning” is a note-perfect sendup of The Shining, Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic adapted from the Stephen King book. It’s probably not necessary to supply a plot description of The Shining but, briefly: Jack (Jack Nicholson) is a wannabe author who takes his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to a hotel up in the mountains during the offseason — only to slowly go insane because of the seclusion and the paranormal forces around them. “The Shinning” assumes that you know the particulars of the movie, although the segment’s plot stands on its own just fine. Homer takes his family to a rustic lodge owned by Mr. Burns, who cuts off the cable and takes all the beer. (After all, without distractions, Homer will be a better caretaker, right?) As for Smithers’ concerns that that’s why the former caretakers went insane, Mr. Burns blithely responds, “Tell you what: We come back and everyone’s slaughtered, I owe you a Coke.”
Often, Kubrick homages and parodies settle for the most obvious callbacks, aping his famously intense style or duplicating his most indelible images, of which there are so many. But “The Shinning,” which certainly recalls several famous set pieces from the 1980 movie, reeks of the sort of nerdy, obsessive fandom that only diehard Kubrick heads would appreciate. Plus, Reardon and Kushell actually get at something elemental about the Simpsons family in the segment. Most Simpsons episodes are about Homer being an oaf, with Marge the long-suffering wife — as for Bart, well, if this animated sitcom was real, it might resemble The Shining’s bleak portrayal of the abusive relationship between Jack and Danny. Both alcoholic dads really can’t stand their son and want to beat the living crap out of him — except in The Simpsons, it’s played as a joke, not the stuff of horror.
That sneaky subversiveness in “The Shinning,” underlining the rot at the heart of the Simpsons family, is the darkest joke in the segment, but it’s not the only one. Everyone can quote Groundskeeper Willie’s rebuke to Bart when he calls the strange psychic ability he has “the shining” after Willie describes it as “the shinning”: “Shhh! You wanna get sued?” But other bits are subtler — like when Marge knocks out the now-murderous Homer, throwing him in the locked pantry and declaring, “You stay here until you’re no longer insane!” Then, without missing a beat, she turns to the shelves, gleefully snapping back into Mom Mode: “Hmm, chili would be good tonight!” Even if your husband has become a madman, a woman’s duties around the house are never done.
King famously hated Kubrick’s treatment of his bestseller, lamenting that the filmmaker “missed the point” by making Jack unhinged from the start. That’s basically what happens to Homer, too, leading to a pretty terrific joke in which Marge stumbles upon his typewriter. “What he’s typed will be a window into his madness,” she announces helpfully to the audience, mocking a familiar narrative convention. Sure, she discovers he’s only written “Feelin’ fine,” which is a shift from what happens in The Shining, but soon enough she sees what he’s been scrawling on the walls. Truly, “No TV and No Beer Make Homer Go Crazy.”
The “Treehouse of Horror” segments have always flouted the rules of traditional sitcoms. Within those standalone Halloween episodes, the Simpsons and their friends can die, end up in parallel realms or get transformed into horrifying critters. Anything is possible. And while plenty of “Treehouse” scenarios were far bloodier and more graphic than “The Shinning,” the segment let the creative team run wild at a moment when Kubrick parodies — and The Simpsons — were still fresh. Whether it’s the spoof of the film’s opening — Homer keeps forgetting things at home and constantly needs to drive back, although he draws the line at retrieving Grandpa from the gas station — or Mr. Burns’ blasé reaction to an elevator filled with blood, “The Shinning” never resorts to the lazy “Remember this!” referencing that doomed Family Guy. Here was a “Treehouse of Horror” that seemed to understand what was so frightening about Kubrick’s movie, the jokes coming from a place of such reverence. You couldn’t pack so many brainy sight gags, one-liners and homages into such a short segment if you didn’t absolutely love Kubrick’s hyper-intelligent, utterly meticulous approach.
Again, Kubrick references have littered The Simpsons over its 34 seasons. (In the 2014 “Treehouse of Horror XXV,” one of the segments, “A Clockwork Yellow,” was a mashup of the master’s movies.) But none of them was as sharp and funny as “The Shinning,” which remains among the most beloved of “Treehouse” bits. With Halloween around the corner, lots of horror fans will probably be rewatching The Shining, a spooky-season favorite. Obviously, the movie still holds up — but so does the Simpsons parody, for the same reasons. Both are diabolically efficient in their plotting. Both are about our fascination with watching someone unravel. Both are about the fragility of the family unit. But only one contains the immortal line “Can’t murder now. Eating.”
Even Kubrick wasn’t enough of a genius to come up with that.