A good horror film starts with a good writer. Having adapted “The Shining” from arguably one of the best horror writers of all time, Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick (along with co-screenwriter Diane Johnson) created what has long been celebrated as one of the most frightening films of all time. Even the safe scenes hint at the horror to come–I don’t want to go there, Mrs. Torrance (and well you shouldn’t, Tony). How’d you like some ice cream, Doc? (Danny, this is the last happy moment of your life). Hi, Lloyd! (Say goodbye to your last shred of sanity, Jack). This isn’t just a brilliant horror film but a filmmaking masterpiece whose pace, cinematography, sound design, and performances continue to thrill and horrify decades after its inception.
A writer’s worst fear is not being able to write; a mother’s worst fear is not being able to protect her child. Throw in some evil spirits and complete isolation from the rest of the world and you’re left with the ultimate fear factor. Kubrick’s filmmaking exemplifies these themes (evil, isolation, and fear) by drawing out scenes slowly and sneaking up from far away, using color, sound, and motion. The hotel itself is shown many times to be a vast, grand structure among gigantic mountains and snow. Characters are constantly going down halls and coming upon different surprises, most of them unpleasant. Oranges, yellows, and golds vibrate with danger. The simmering teakettle instrumental music mirrors Jack’s own boiling point, the glissandos up and down the scales by strings echo Jack’s psychological ups and downs. The steadi-cam behind the big wheel that Danny pedals through the different hallways shows not only the difference in size between Danny and the hotel, but suggests corners, twists, and dead ends like the hedge maze outside.
Also, they can’t get out.
This film is what it is because they’re isolated. The characters are stuck inside the Overlook Hotel with no one but themselves and the ghosts (The Grady Daughters, The Woman in the Bathtub, Lloyd, Mr. Grady, Various Partying Guests, The Two Masked Men Engaged in implied Fellatio, etc.). That’s scary. What’s even more scary is the way the haunts seem to take such a pleasure in disturbing the characters or bringing more doom down upon them–“Come play with us, Danny!” “Great party!” Not to mention Mr. Grady’s involvement in first persuading Jack to punish Danny and Wendy and later springing Jack from the walk-in pantry so as to facilitate his subsequent antics with the axe, (“Wendy, I’m home!”).
The sounds are horrifying, too: Danny’s big wheel alternating between solid floor and carpet. Jack’s tennis ball thumping against the walls and floors. The sound of the typewriter. Later, the axe slicing into wood. In the hotel, these mostly innocent things all take on ominous properties.
Another thing the film does exceptionally well is foreshadowing. With a troubling story like this, you almost need to drop hints in order to prepare the audience a little. From the very beginning, it’s clear that The Torrances’ end will not be a happy one. All the pieces are there: Mr. Ulman explains to Jack the murderous story of Charles Grady; Jack seems absolutely thrilled. Tony (Danny’s imaginary friend) doesn’t want to go to the hotel and more than once shows Danny images of blood flooding from elevator. There is a history of abuse; Jack injured Danny’s arm while drunk. Wendy casually mentions The Donner Party as the family drives to the hotel, and again, Jack reacts with enthusiasm.
Through his conversation with Overlook Hotel Chef Dick Halloran, Danny discovers there is something bad at the hotel, specifically room 237. In other words, Tony was right to worry. As Wendy fixes lunch one day, a news program alludes to a “missing Aspen woman” who had been missing ten days after a hunting trip with her husband. Did he shoot her or what? Danny tiptoes to his room to get his fire engine and apparently gets a disturbing look inside his father’s mind, prompting him to say, “You’d never hurt mom or me, right?” The blizzard. The phone lines down. The fact that no one else can get to them.
This film is the perfect storm of fear. I will not watch it alone.