Consider for a moment what Stanley Kubrick was able to achieve with The Shining. There are no large-scale special effects used to suggest the existence of the supernatural. He doesn’t utilize jump scares and startling musical cues or have figures suddenly leap into frame. Rather than showing an inhuman entity moving through the corridors of the Overlook Hotel, he uses precise framing to build up suspense, crafting what could be the most unsettling horror movie ever made without relying on sharp teeth, darkness or other spooky tropes to do the work for him.
Unsettling is the right word, because for much of its runtime the audience is never allowed to gain its bearings. Just who or what dwells in room 237? Is the Overlook full of ghosts or is Jack going mad? What does the film’s final enigmatic and haunting photograph mean? These and other oblique occurrences are not just randomly employed to frustrate or confuse. They are meticulously laid out in an almost nondescript fashion, projecting a quietly growing danger and malevolence.
This sinister atmosphere is clearly directed at the film’s three central characters: Danny (Danny Lloyd), the child whose second sight gives us emotional glimpses into the film’s underlying dread, and whose unforced innocence serves as an oasis in the film’s insidious desert; Wendy (Shelley Duvall), the mother whose docile frailty grows to a crescendo, magnifying our unease; and Jack (Jack Nicholson), the caretaker whose madness is impossible to turn away from, his every gesture startlingly fresh in their ability to make us recoil, and whose eyebrows–oh, those menacing eyebrows–are like something out of Kubrick’s wet nightmare.
All three of the Torrances are portrayed unforgettably by their respective performers, who convey the stress of being pushed towards the edge of their sanities. They were thrust there both literally and figuratively by Kubrick, who tortuously extracted their hysteria by providing maddening conditions with each repeated cuts and rewritten lines.
But for all their talent and skill, the film’s most overwhelming character is the Overlook itself, showcasing Kubrick’s absolute mastery of mise en scène. The staging of each lead in every shot intensifies their loneliness and their oppression–there is hardly a scene where Danny, Wendy and Jack aren’t in the middle of the screen, separated from every other living soul. Their bodies roam through empty hallways and rooms, bearing the brunt of open space and clinical lighting.
Rarely has a horror film felt so at home in the light. The hotel is barely mentioned in name or seen in its entirety. Its features are never pushed in our faces, but its sights and sounds reveal an undeniable Presence. Kubrick is the Overlook, toying with the Torrances who are powerless in his presence, just like we are.
It’s curious how a film that started out with its reputation as a ghost story has evolved over the years into a stellar tale of psychological horror. Whether you believe The Shining is about an abusive father’s insanity, or a hotel absorbing its victims into the past, or something else entirely, its mercurial qualities and its refusal to answer itself assure its timelessness.