Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is a film intricately constructed to optimize the viewer’s sense of dread. The cinematography, editing, sound, and music are all established from the outset to imply foreboding and doom. Kubrick employs numerous innovative filmmaking techniques to convey that the small family is, indeed, not alone in the enormous hotel, but are alone with the enormous hotel. If one pays close enough attention, they will see that the Overlook itself is the omnipresent character whose point of view we take much of the time.
From the very start, the ominous opening score cues us that something is definitely not right. The helicopter shots of the Colorado Mountains coupled with the dark music leads us to believe some other-worldly force is already orchestrating events. Perhaps this can be seen as Kubrick himself, but not long into the film we get the sense other things are at work.
One of the hardest things for any filmmaker to make interesting is a scene of exposition. The Shining has a large amount of important introductory material that needs to be explained before anything scary can really happen. The first scene is of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) having an interview where we get the explanation that the previous caretaker of the hotel, Delbert Grady, slaughtered his family during the long winter overseeing the massive grounds.
The following scene is of Jack’s wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), at home. In it, we learn both of Danny’s “imaginary” friend, Tony, and of his clairvoyance. While talking with Tony, he sees flashes of the horror to come, including the ghostly twins and an elevator full of blood. Then in a subsequent scene, after a doctor comes to check out Danny after he passes out, Wendy tells her Jack has once gotten into a rage and dislocated Danny’s arm, forcing him, eventually, to give up alcohol.
This is a huge amount of information, both for plot purposes and for character development. Kubrick does an interesting thing in all of these scenes which is he shoots them in master, meaning, for the most part, it is a wide shot where all of the characters can be seen at once. Occasionally he’ll cut in for a close up or reaction shot, but generally speaking, these scenes are wide. He also doesn’t move the camera at all during these scenes, which does occur quite a bit later on. Essentially, he makes these scenes as boring to look at as possible which forces us to listen to the expository material as well as contrasts the eeriness that is to quickly follow. The actors also play everything as over-the-top pleasant as possible, even when speaking about awful events, such as Grady killing his family. One expects Jack to say “gee whiz” as he listens. This, too, gives the impression that these are Leave it to Beaver-like Americans, average and unassuming. They are so normal, in fact, that it becomes itself unsettling, even more so knowing the kind of film that we’re watching.
The bulk of the film takes place at the Overlook Hotel and the more time the characters spend there, the less at ease they, and we, are about the place. However, if one truly pays attention to the cinematography, they can see that Kubrick has immediately set up the surroundings as an ever-present and malevolent force. First off, the hotel’s massive rooms take up 90% of the frame with the actors inhabiting only the bottom portion. They are almost always very far from the camera and are given a great deal of headroom in the frame. This lets us know that they are not merely living in the hotel; the Overlook is engulfing them, surrounding them. It speaks to the characters’ utter isolation from the outside world as they are often literally alone with nothing but this enormous, empty building.
The kinds of shots used when in the hotel are also very telling. For the most part, characters walking through the hallways are shown either using a dolly track, or using a steadicam, which at the time was a very new invention. The fact that these shots are always moving, when the earlier scenes are stationary, subtly hints that the hotel, or an entity within it, is present and watching or following them. This can be seen almost immediately when the Torrances arrive.
There is a conversation that takes place between Jack, Wendy, and Mr. Ullman (Barry Nelson) as he tells the couple all about the hotel. They walk around the massive central staircase and make their way into the kitchen. Most films, especially ones employing a steadicam operator, would have followed up close to the action, but Kubrick chooses to film it using a camera on a dolly on the complete opposite side of the room. The camera tracks right to left as the characters walk behind the stairs, turn, then walk toward camera to go into the kitchen.
It’s almost as though the walls of the hotel itself were watching them.
The steadicam is also used to great effect both stylistically and narratively. Anytime Danny is riding his big-wheel tricycle around the massive hallways, the camera is following quite closely behind him, very near the ground. It’s as though the spirits are following the child, almost pushing him towards the terrifying things he will soon discover. In contrast, anytime Jack is walking down the hallways, the steadicam is in front of him moving backward, allowing him to find the various rooms, i.e. the ballroom, where he comes in contact with the spirits. It’s a subtle change, but it implies that Danny is exploring uncharted territory while Jack knows exactly where to go, something that lends itself to the film’s ultimate reveal.
Towards the end of the film, when Jack has finally succumbed to the power of the hotel, we start getting snap zooms on strange and disturbing images. It begins with Danny, in a trance-like state, writing on the door the word “Redrum,” which he then repeats loudly. As his mother tries to calm him, she sees the word in the mirror reflect to read “Murder.” The camera snap-zooms on Wendy’s shocked face and cuts and snap-zooms on the word. Later, as Wendy runs, arms-flailing, through the hotel, she comes across the ghosts, finally showing themselves. Each time she sees a new ghost, the camera snap-zooms inward so the audience gets a good look at the ghastly figures.
Another technique employed to great effect here is the use of hard edits or cuts. Almost always, when Danny gets a vision of something horrifying, it is depicted via a frame or two inserted. The effect is harsh and jarring, which is exactly what it should be. This amount of seemingly disconnected images strung together in sequence tells Danny and the audience exactly what they need to know. Also thrown in are title cards generally saying what day it is. No other context is given for the day, like the month or the actual date, but several times, to show the passing of time in a dreamlike manor, a black card with white lettering will appear proclaiming the day. At one point, a scene prefaced by the card “Tuesday” is followed by one reading “Monday.” This shows us that the passage of days is so utterly meaningless in the isolation of the hotel that it’s impossible to tell what day it is at any given moment. Also, one title reads “4pm,” again without the knowledge of what day or date the 4pm is attached.
Finally, the music in the film is really the “voice” of the Overlook. Like his other films, Kubrick uses mainly existing pieces of classical and contemporary art music, though Wendy Carlos and Rachel Ekland did compose original pieces as well. Each of these music cues is haunting or unsettling in its own right, but coupled with the images, they become like the whale song of this evil building. A specific scene from the middle of the film shows a deranged-looking Jack staring out the window with a big, maniacal grin on his face. This image, which slowly zooms in on him, is accompanied by Gyorgy Ligeti’s eerie tones, which employ hums and whines as well as human vocal sounds.
It is this mixture of the mechanical/industrial and the organic that conveys, with no onscreen action, that Jack and the hotel are beginning to become one. Similar music of Ligeti’s is used during scenes in Kubrick’s earlier 2001: A Space Odyssey to imply the presence of the extraterrestrials.
The climactic final 20 minutes, beginning with the “Redrum” reveal is where the slow, methodical pace of the film up to that point completely gives way to frenetic, grueling horror. From this point forward, at each of the aforementioned snap-zooms, or anytime a slow moment breaks into a burst of movement, the music hits a certain cue. It’s similar to Bernard Hermann’s “shower scene” music in Hitchcock’s Psycho, but here it sounds like grinding metal gears. Again, this noise implies the sound of the hotel’s dark bowels eager to collect a new set of spirits.
The Shining is a great achievement in Stanley Kubrick’s career and, I believe, his last purely “Kubrickian” effort. What makes the film such an achievement is that, aside from small things, there are no “special effects” shots, which is to say all the horror conveyed onscreen is done through camera tricks, sound cues, editing, and actor performance. For someone who won his only Oscar for special effects, Kubrick was completely prepared to use none on a project most would assume would be wrought with them. Using nothing more than the power of his camera and the strength of his vision, Stanley Kubrick was able to make a seemingly benign vacation spot one of the scariest places in movie history.