Stanley Kubrick produced a masterwork of suspense, escalation and visceral horror in his adaptation of Stephen King’s third novel. So much about The Shining has transcended both the horror genre and broader pop culture, from Jack Nicholson’s crazed delivery of “Here’s Johnny!” and young Danny’s “redrum” refrain to Kubrick’s bevy of accomplished cinematographic techniques. Examining the film from an analytical perspective, even several decades later, brings those elements back into intense focus. Like any truly remarkable piece of art, The Shining continues to keep the audience enthralled with each revisit to the Overlook Hotel.
What makes The Shining so effective is its parallelism. Kubrick loads the film with rhyming action, a barrage of visual motifs and recurring stylistic choices that works their way deep into the viewer’s mind. Kubrick doesn’t waste a single frame and keeps the audience on edge from the first scene. When you watch this movie, its recurring elements stick with you, and you find yourself involuntarily absorbed in its world.
The director introduces us to the story with an intimidating establishing scene. When Jack Torrance (Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) head off to the Overlook, the camera follows their car in sweeping tracking shots. Kubrick, with the help of longtime cinematographer and collaborator, John Alcott, shifts the camera between flat and radical angles, taking in the scenery as their fateful destination draws close.
Jack says he’ll enjoy “five months of peace” at the hotel, assuring his smarmy employers that the gruesome tragedy associated with the Overlook won’t repeat itself on his watch. Herein lies one of the most brilliant accomplishments of the film: ambiguous narrative foreshadowing. Kubrick illustrates the trajectory of the narrative, but individual scenes remain tense and unpredictable.
Although it runs for well over two hours, The Shining moves at an unstoppable pace. Kubrick partitions the film into chapters but never breaks the narrative tension. The camera tracks along with the characters through the Overlook’s labyrinthine interior. Crossfades allow the final expressions on character’s faces to linger strangely at the beginning of subsequent frames.
Kubrick cuts abruptly to disturbing images – a wave of blood crashing down by the elevators, the unyielding stare of twin girls at the end of a hall, those damned patterned carpets – and in so doing rips the film away from quiet, intentionally saccharine pauses in the narrative. When those off-putting images appear in rapid succession, Kubrick creates something truly unsettling.
Kubrick’s use of visual motif combines with the soundtrack to make even the most mundane scenes seem eery and uncomfortable. The ominous score in The Shining is a composite of music from Béla Bartók, Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. Wailing high-pitched strings and deeper, looming tones blend in a chaotic cacophony that maintain the film’s jittery, kinetic feel.
Yet sometimes it’s the dissonance between the score and the images that offers the most frightening effect. Identical wide shots show the hotel growing progressively buried in snow. The camera makes slow and rapid zooms in and out of character’s faces. Bold colors contrast with white in the hotel rooms. These choices keep everything uncanny, dreamlike or more accurately, nightmarish.
Kubrick’s hand is key to pulling the film together, but the centerpiece of The Shining is undoubtedly Nicholson himself. The actor plays Jack Torrance as a man who may well have been insane from the onset. Nicholson maintains a barely restrained rage and delivers his dialog with the sharpness of a man who abhors anyone who would deign to speak to him.
Nicholson is mesmerizing. His performance embodies the film’s progression from tension to horror as his movements slide from stiff to wild and his speech from angry to entirely unhinged. Jack Torrance becomes consumed by an evil presence within the Overlook and it is all captured by Nicholson’s overflowing dramatic energy.
Jack Nicholson disappears behind his character’s deranged mind. The hotel claims Torrance, and Nicholson lets Torrance claim him. The quality of his performance adds immeasurably to the effect of the film; there would be no discussion of The Shining today had a lesser actor been given the part. Modern horror just doesn’t attract the same caliber of actors as it used to. As “horror classics” become a thing of the past, the genre has earned a stigma that keeps most of the best performers away.
There’s something to be said for a film that traumatized you on first viewing but remains maddeningly addictive whenever you return to it. I didn’t understand The Shining when I saw it years ago, and to an extent, I still don’t. But it has captivated and utterly terrified me, and it will continue to haunt all viewers, new and old fans alike, who dare to explore the bounds of their sanity.
This article was published in its original form in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian on October 31, 2013.