If I were to ask you to tell me the name of a horror film, there are a few classics that might come to mind. Psycho, Friday the 13th, Alien, and Nightmare on Elm Street are just a few of the biggest names in the genre. For many, though, “The Shining” is an experience that sits on a pedestal above even these beloved films. So why (as a self-proclaimed film fan) has it taken me this long to watch it?
As soon as the film starts, you can tell it doesn’t play by the same rules as horror flicks today. You are simultaneously elevated and submerged, with a long overhead shot of the Overlook Hotel’s surroundings accompanied by an eerily synthetic soundtrack that combine to create a perfect sense of unease, while all we’ve seen are some mountains.
The film then explains it’s premise with Jack Nicholson’s character in an interview scenario for a hotel caretaker role that will involve five months of complete isolation for him and his family. He is well mannered, friendly, and off-putting all at once, with his non-interest in the news that his predecessor lost his mind and killed his family being particularly worrying.
From here on out, the Overlook Hotel becomes as much of a character as Jack. I got to know the feel of its winding halls and empty rooms as the film churned on, and it’s hard to think of a more iconic location in horror film history.
We time jump over the course of a number of months, and each time we cut back to Jack, you can see another part of him slightly more unhinged. The little looks he gives his wife Wendy when she so much as mentions leaving his work for a minute. The pounding of a tennis ball against the walls of his make-do office as the camera lingers on his empty typewriter. The promise he makes to his son that he would never hurt a hair on his head, pursued by shrieks as he is tormented by dreams of murdering him.
By never leaving the hotel (aside from a couple of minutes of screen-time following Dick as he rushes to the Overlook) the film creates a fantastic sense of claustrophobia. It’s not just Wendy and Danny stuck in the hotel with Jack and whatever presence is driving him mad, you are too.
The fact that the evil presence in the film is never fully explained only adds to this fear of the unknown. Is it because the hotel was built on an American-Indian burial ground? Or because the last caretaker killed his family with an axe? Was Jack the previous caretaker? Why does a vision he has tell him that he was? Is there some kind of presence at all?
All these questions were flying through my head as Jack chased his family throughout the hotel and into a hedge maze until finally, he collapses in the cold, and freezes to death.
The hotel leaves us with one last gift however. A lingering shot of a photograph of Jack hosting a party at the Overlook, dated July 4th 1921, 50 years before he arrived.